Do Free Downloads Sell Books?
This, of course, is the question that many authors want the answer to (and also blog-reader Tim, in a comment to my last post). If you believe the Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi school, the answer is clearly yes; others remain skeptical. Publishers range from scared to enthusiastic.
For me, this is an ongoing experiment. The first part was a no-brainer: the first three Chaos Chronicles books were out of print, so it was unquestionably better to get them in front of readers and get them interested in the series. For that part of the experiment, the results are an unqualified—but also unquantified—success. There have been about 15,000 downloads of those books from my own site, with more from feedbooks, manybooks, mobileread, and now the Baen Free Library. Many people have written me, saying they tried my work for the first time with those freebies and liked what they found. Some of them said it prompted them to go out and buy a copy of Sunborn in hardcover. Hurray!
But wait just a minute. How many extra copies of Sunborn did it sell? Three? Three hundred? How many sales did I lose because I put it up for free in PDF? Truth: I don't know. In the first place, it's not like I actually get detailed information about sales; this remains one of the dark sides of publishing, the dearth of actual data coming back to the writer. (Sure, eventually I'll see totals on a royalty sheet. But that can take years.) Just as important, though, is a question that no one can answer: how many would I have sold without the free downloads. The series was out of the public eye for years. I was out of the public eye for years. I have no doubt the sales picture could have been grim. As it is, from what I'm told, Sunborn is selling at least as well as its predecessor in the stores, Eternity's End. (BSG is a side trip, and doesn't really count.)
So what do the publishers make of all this? Well, Tor and Baen both seem to embrace the notion of giving books away as a means to selling more. Tor has had free download promotions from time to time, and Baen has their ongoing free library. On the other hand, I recently had an email exchange with a fellow writer whose new book is on the Nebula preliminary ballot. His publisher was reluctant to let him send out an electronic reading copy or to put a PDF up even on the members only SFWA site, for fear I guess of piracy. This, to me, makes no sense. If a book is published, chances are it'll be up on the darknet regardless. Better to get people reading it and talking about it.
Tim mentioned the music and film industries as examples of reluctance. The thing is, they're coming around. Amazon offers free MP3 music downloads. Itunes has a free song of the week. The networks put their TV shows up on the web for free. (That's how I'm catching up on Chuck, which I missed in favor of Sarah Connor Chronicles, back when they were on at the same time. And that's even how I'm seeing Battlestar Galactica—on Free On Demand!) And web comics—free. What that may imply for a business model for earning an income from writing is a much bigger question—a topic for another post, maybe.
Bottom line for me: I can't guarantee that my books will sell better because I'm offering them for free download. The truth is, I may never know. But I don't think I'm hurting sales, and right now, the enemy with the name Obscurity written on its back is a far bigger threat to me than the chance that some people are reading my books for free.
And wasn't the hope that people would read my books the reason I wrote them in the first place?
"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success—but only if you persist." —Isaac Asimov