Selling Books

More than half of the “best-selling” e-books on the Kindle,'s e-reader, are available at no charge. Although some of the titles are digital versions of books in the public domain — like Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice” — many are by authors still trying

to make a living from their work. For example, in January 2010 the No. 1 and 2 spots on Kindle's best-seller list were taken by “Cape Refuge” and “Southern Storm,” both novels by Terri Blackstock, a writer of Christian thrillers. The Kindle price: $0. Until the end of the month, Ms. Blackstock's publisher, Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, is offering readers the opportunity to download the books free to the Kindle or to the Kindle apps on their iPhone or in Windows.

Publishers including Harlequin, Random House and Scholastic are offering free versions of digital books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other e-retailers, as well as on author Web sites, as a way of allowing readers to try out the work of unfamiliar writers. The hope is that customers who like what they read will go on to obtain another title for money.

“Giving people a sample is a great way to hook people and encourage them to buy more,” said Suzanne Murphy, group publisher of Scholastic Trade Publishing, which offered free downloads of “Suite Scarlett,” a young-adult novel by Maureen Johnson, for three weeks in the hopes of building buzz for the next book in the series, “Scarlett Fever,” out in hardcover on Feb. 1. The book went as high as No. 3 on Amazon's Kindle best-seller list.

The digital giveaways come as publishers are panicking about price pressure on e-books in general. Amazon and other on-line retailers have set $9.99 as the putative e-book price for new releases and best sellers, and publishers worry that such pricing ultimately creates expectations among consumers that new books are no longer worth, say, $25 (the average list price of a new hardcover), or even $13 (a standard list price for trade paperbacks).

Some publishers have tried to take control of pricing by delaying the publication of certain e-books for several months after the books are made available in hardcover.

Executives at some houses said that given such actions, offering free content amounts to industry hypocrisy.

“At a time when we are resisting the $9.99 price of e-books,” said David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, the publisher of James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer, “it is illogical to give books away for free.”

Similarly, a spokesman for Penguin Group USA said: “Penguin has not and does not give away books for free. We feel that the value of the book is too important to do that.”

But some publishers regard free digital books as purely promotional, in the same vein as the free galleys they distribute to booksellers and reviewers to create attention and word-of-mouth buzz for an author.

“Most people purchase stuff because somebody has recommended the title,” said Steve Sammons, executive vice president for consumer engagement at Zondervan.

Neither Amazon nor other e-book retailers make any money on these giveaways either. But it is a way of luring customers to their e-reading devices.

Free e-books are also a way of distinguishing a less-well-known author from the marketing juggernauts of the most popular books.

“You have to show people things because there's a lot of competition,” said Ms. Johnson, the author of “Suite Scarlett” and seven other books. “If they go into a store, they are going to see 4,000 books with Robert Pattinson’s face on it,” she added, referring to movie-tie-in versions of Ms. Meyer's “Twilight” series. “Then my book will be buried under them.”

And if a free e-book rises to the top of the Kindle best-seller list — or Barnes & Noble's ranked list of free e-books — it automatically gives an author more visibility.

“When you push to No. 1 of any best-seller list, that in itself seems to beget publicity,” said Brandilyn Collins, who writes suspense novels with Christian themes and whose novels “Exposure” and “Dark Pursuit” were No. 1 and 2 on the Kindle best-seller list earlier this month and remain in the Top 10 (and are still available free).

Most of the giveaways are of older titles by an author, with the idea that reading them will convert new fans who will go on to buy more recently released books. Even if only a small percentage of those who download a free book end up buying another one, “that's all found money,” said Steve Oates, vice president for marketing at Bethany House Publishers, a unit of Baker Publishing Group, whose authors Beverly Lewis and Tracie Peterson had free titles on the Kindle best-seller list this week.

Samhain Publishing, a publisher of romance and erotica, has offered a free e-book title every two weeks for more than a year. Christina Brashear, its publisher, said that the giveaways have led to a noticeable bump in sales.

In October, the most recent month for which she has statistics, Ms. Brashear said Samhain offered free digital versions of “Giving Chase,” a romance novel by Lauren Dane, leading to 26,897 downloads.

But paid purchases of some of Ms. Dane’s other novels jumped exponentially. Her earlier novel “Chased,” which sold 97 copies in September, sold 2,666 digital units in October, and another of her previous books, “Taking Chase,” which sold 119 copies in September, sold 3,279 in the month in which a free download was available.

With e-books still representing about 5 percent of the total book market, data on the effect of digital giveaways is still inconclusive. Brian O’Leary, a principal at Magellan Media Consulting Partners, which advises publishers, said that while it appeared that free downloads led to an up-tick in actual book buying, there was a risk that free reading could eventually “supplant paid reading.”

Indeed, said Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, “free is not a business model.”

Authors are torn between wanting to experiment with new formats and wanting to protect their income. Charlie Huston, the author of the Henry Thompson crime trilogy and a series of books about Joe Pitt, a vampire detective, said that “the part of me that grew up in a union household” still feels as if he were occasionally undermining himself by sanctioning digital giveaways by his publisher, Random House.

But, he said, “I guess my attitude right now is that I can be afraid of what's coming or I can try and aggressively embrace it in some form.”

And in some cases, the free e-books work. Pamela Deron, a 29-year-old administrative assistant in Florida, said she downloaded a free edition of “Already Dead,” the first in the Joe Pitt series, onto her Kindle this month.

“There are so many authors out there that fall into obscurity,” Ms. Deron wrote in an e-mail message. “Simply no one knows of them, and some readers are hesitant buying an author they never heard of. Free books allow you to experience the writer as a whole, not just a small tidbit.”

She added: “Fifty dollars later, I have the entire Joe Pitt series.”

Source: NY Times, February 9, 2010