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Steal This Book! – An E-Book Experiment in Building Buzz

Chris Anderson’s Blog, which discusses aspects of his bestselling 2006 book of the same name, recently wrote about an experiment that Random House’s Crown Books imprint tried with a new release. It offered a free download of Infected, by Scott Sigler for a four day period before the actual book went on sale at bookstores. The experiment was generally regarded as a success: the book was downloaded 45000 times during that four day freebie period, propelling it to a rank of 150 in overall book sales on Amazon, from a rank in the 2000s (and #1 on their Horror list).

But the limited download window was the subject of some harsh criticism by author and well known blogger Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing), who ranted:

Crown is only making the download available before the book goes on sale! This is an act of massive goofiness. Here’s what this means: the book’s promotional download period ends before you can buy the book. If you download this book and love it, you can’t walk down to the bookstore and pick up a copy. Sure, you can pre-order it on Amazon, but I know from watching my affiliate link payments here on Boing Boing that ten times as many of you buy books that are on sale when I blog them than buy books that have to be pre-ordered. The Internet exists in an eternal NOW, and expecting someone who downloads a book to hold onto the impulse to buy it for four days is so unrealistic, it makes me suspect that this strategy was conceived of by someone who doesn’t actually use the Internet. Either Crown believes that free downloads sell books or they don’t.

To find out the answer to this question, Anderson talked to Crown’s online marketing manager, Shawn Nicholls:

The short answer is that Crown does indeed believe that free pdfs will sell more physical books. “We definitely subscribe to the believe that offering something online isn’t going to take away from sales,” says Nicholls. “The one thing I tried to do when we started this was to make a distinction between free music and free books. A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we’re not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book.” But Crown also believes in the concept of artificial scarcity: “Our goal was to create some buzz. Four days of availability gives a sense of urgency and makes it more of an event” .

Note an important omission in the above quote. Nicholls notes that a PDF is not a substitute for a hard book. That is probably true, but he neglects to even acknowledge the true e-book version, formatted for a device like the Kindle. Reading a PDF on a laptop, or printing out several hundred pages to carry it around will only appeal to a small number of readers, who would still prefer to carry around a physical book. But the hardcover edition of Infected goes for $16.47 on Amazon, and the Kindle edition of it is available for (surprise) $9.99. I downloaded the PDF version during the free offer period and sent it to my Kindle (so it cost me a dime). It’s hard to know which version is selling better, the hardcover or the Kindle one; currently the hardcover is #1202 in sales, while the Kindle version is ranked #302 in the Kindle store. By either measure, it’s safe to say that the free offer didn’t cut into total sales; if anything, it increased them.

Anderson concludes:

My take: the important thing is that Crown believes that free digital books can sell more hard copies. Exactly how to do it is a work in progress, but the philosophical hurdle has now been crossed. Now we can expect more and better experiments and less hand-wringing about FREE. Which is quite an advance, any way you look at it.

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