Imagine my surprise when I discovered one day that a large portion of my book The Daddy Shift is available through Google Books, which I didn't realize would happen.

Most authors (and publishers) intuitively believe that free digital book content diminishes print sales–but a new study in the Journal of Electronic Publishing suggests that, actually, the opposite may be true. The researchers compared sales data for four different groups of books, ranging from technology-oriented nonfiction to fantasy novels from the publisher Tor. The fascinating results:

Perhaps the most significant finding of this study was the contrasting results received by Tor and the other three groups studied. With one exception, sales of the nonfiction titles increased after a free digital release, and when the sales of the books were combined, sales were up 5%. The majority of the fantasy/science fiction books that were not part of a group release also had increased sales, and as a group their sales increased 26%, largely as a result of “Title 12.” Four of the five Random House books saw sales gains after the free versions were released; in total, combined sales of those five books increased 9%. These three groups were in contrast to our initial hypothesis that book sales would decline. Although we cannot say that the free e-books caused sales to increase, a correlation exists between a free e-book and increased print sales.

The results of the Tor book sales were quite different. Only four of the twenty-four books saw increased sales during the eight weeks after the free version was made available. Two of these books (titles 32 and 41) both had releases of paperback editions that preceded the free book by only a few weeks. Thus for the majority of the “pre” weeks, a paperback version was not available. These newly released paperback versions could easily explain why the “pre” sales of these titles were less than the “post” sales.

The book with the most dramatic pre–post difference (title 40) was released just ten weeks before the free digital version was released. It is possible that what was measured with this title was the natural decline of book sales over time instead of a result of a free version being made available. But even when these three books were excluded from the analysis, combined sales of the remaining 21 books decreased 18%.

Why were the results from Tor so different from the others? This question cannot be answered with certainty. The only thing we know is that Tor’s model of making the books available for one week only and requiring registration in order to download the book was substantially different from the models used to create free versions of the other books we studied. Further research is necessary to determine if the Tor results were related to their model of free book distribution, a natural drop in sales, or if other factors account for the decreased sales.

The present study indicates that there is a moderate correlation between free digital books being made permanently available and short-term print sales increases. However, free digital books did not always equal increased sales. This result may be surprising, both to those who claim that when a free version is available fewer people will pay to purchase copies, as well as those who claim that free access will not harm sales. The results of the present study must be viewed with caution. Although the authors believe that free digital book distribution tends to increase print sales, this is not a universal law. The results we found cannot necessarily be generalized to other books, nor be construed to suggest causation. The timing of a free e-book’s release, the promotion it received and other factors cannot be fully accounted for. Nevertheless, we believe that this data indicates that when free e-books are offered for a relatively long period of time, without requiring registration, print sales will increase.

I like the authors' methods, and I like how cautiously they interpret their results. One thing is for sure: The digital commons is here to stay. 

I suspect that most people use the Google Books version of my book in the same way that I use Google Books: As a searchable reference. I cite or discuss those books, which expands their influence and audience. If I personally want to read a book cover to cover, I check it out of the library or I buy it. 

And I have, in the past, relied on Google Books social media review aggregation to make that purchasing decision. My own book won an average of four out of five stars from seventeen reviewers, with seven giving it five starts and five readers giving it four. Will those excellent reader reviews drive more people to purchase the print edition for themselves? I think it's likely, and I don't think we're going to be able to stop the shareable future.

Discovered via Bloggasm.

Jeremy Adam Smith


Jeremy Adam Smith

Jeremy Adam Smith is the editor who helped launch Shareable.net. He's the author of The Daddy Shift (Beacon Press, June 2009); co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct (W.W. Norton

Things I share: Mainly babysitting with other parents! I also share all the transportation I can, through bikes and buses and trains and carpooling.