Free E-Books Sell Books

If the electronics industry has anything to do with it 2010 will be the year that the e-book finally gets off the ground.  They’ve been kicking around for years – I remember reading stuff from Peanut Press on my Palm III back in the ’90s.  Anyway, this isn’t going to be about e-books and their rise, but rather about a study into free e-books carried out by Jeff Hilton and David Wiley at Brigham Young University in the USA.  In summary, they found that giving away free e-books resulted in higher sales of the printed copy.

The study involved 41 books in four different categories and the sales figures were assessed over an eight week period. In three out of the four categories, sales increased where a free e-book version was made available.

Category 1 – non-fiction +4%
Category 2 – fiction (sci-fi) +26%

Category 3 – Random House fiction (sci-fi) +9%
Category 4 – Tor fiction (sci-fi) -24%

It’s not clear whether the titles chosen because they would generally appeal to digerati, who would presumably be the most likely to read e-books, or whether the titles were self-selected by being free.  Most of the books were PDFs but a few came in other formats.

Overall, sales of print books in three categories rose but in the fourth category, Tor sci-fi, there was a significant fall.  This fall in sales is likely to do with the method of distribution.  Each free e-book was only available for one week before the next one became available and the results were also skewed by one particular title which contributed to 65% of the fall on its own.

The authors suggest a number of reasons why free e-books may lead to increases in print book sales but admit that it’s difficult to giving a convincing explanation. One might simply be the publicity around the free giveaway.  It’s much easier to say why publishers give away free e-books.  Tor wanted publicity for a new web site and Random House gave away free the first book of a series, presumably to entice readers into buying the subsequent novels.

However, perhaps the comment that gives the most food for thought is simply that e-books are searchable.  Not in the context of a single e-book on your e-book reader, but rather when on the web and indexed by a search engine, it makes low volume books more easily discoverable.  This will translate into sales of the book that would simply not occur because the purchaser is unaware of the title in the first place.  This should be sufficient in itself to encourage publishers to get digital copies on-line.

The full paper is The Short Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales.