Does Free Sell?

Last week, I wrote a letter to Steve Jobs thanking him--or rather Apple--for rejecting my novel's free iPhone app for having "obscene content," which helped land the book with a traditional publisher. I also talked about how I'd recently re-issued the free app as a lengthy excerpt and posted 150 pages of Knife Music to, a site that's hoping to become the YouTube of documents. Since then some folks have asked me whether giving away the whole book or these extended free samples has helped sell books.

The short answer is yes, though it's difficult to determine exactly how much of an impact it makes. As most everyone seems to agree, books from non-established authors are still largely sold by word-of-mouth, and it's pretty hard to get people talking about your book if they don't know it exists. Every author is different, but if I polled a bunch of us, I'd bet the majority would say that their biggest fear isn't that our books won't sell but that no one will read them. The two concepts would seem intertwined, but in the mind of the author they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As publisher Tim O'Reilly once said, "The enemy of the author is not piracy, but obscurity."

When I put out the free iPhone app of the self-published version of Knife Music, it was averaging 1,000 downloads a week before I had to pull it down after the book was acquired. While the majority of downloads were from the U.S. and Canada, I had people from as far away as Malta e-mailing me to say they loved the book and thank me for releasing it for free.

The beauty of free, of course, is that there's no resistance to purchase. True, getting people to read a book, even if it is free, is harder than getting people to sample music or video, but in a world where most of what people read today is free to consume, you can at least provide a level pricing field.

What's also nice about giving something away is that you can put it out there on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or wherever, and say, "Hey, check this out," without begging anybody to buy anything. A number of people I know started reading the book on the iPhone and thought enough of it to tell me that they couldn't read the whole book on the small screen but were going to buy the dead-tree or Kindle version I had up on Amazon.

I'm lucky that my publisher, The Overlook Press, which is distributed by Penguin, has been willing and even encouraged me to put out free lengthy excerpts of the new version of Knife Music. Overlook is a small press and its marketing budget mainly consists of paying for placement in Barnes & Noble (that my book even qualifies for placement promotion is apparently lucky) and sending out hundreds of galleys to independent bookstore owners who are interested in discovering under-the-radar titles that they can recommend to their customers. Overlook and even larger publishers are depending more on authors who are creative self promoters and to fall into this category, you need try stuff that's offbeat and may even seem marginally crazy.

Arguably, the free or freemium model, as it's often called, works better for somewhat established authors. Plenty of publishers have been experimenting with a giving away one title in a series, hoping readers will get turned on enough to pay for more. It seems to work.

Wired's Chris Anderson wrote a whole book called Free, which I got for free, in which he devotes about 3 pages to free books. He cites the example of Neil Gaiman, the science fiction writer, who gave away American Gods as a digital download for four weeks in 2008. "Not only did American Gods become a best seller," writes Anderson, "but sales of all Gaiman's books in independent bookstores rose by 40 percent over the period the one title was available for free."

If you believe Wikipedia, which has the noble goal of spreading knowledge for free, there's the example of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, who wrote The Alchemist, which has sold over 60 million copies worldwide. According to Fortune, when a fan posted a Russian translation of one of his novels online, "sales of his book jumped from 3,000 to one million in three years, with no additional promotion or publicity from his publishers." Later, without telling his publisher, Coelho posted his own "pirated" e-book on a BitTorrent site and today continues to post free samples with the consent of his publisher. Cory Doctorow is also a big believer in free and gives away all his books online (digitally), which he says has helped build his audience.

As a debut author, giving your book away isn't going to generate the same interest that an establish author's free samples would. That said, it is debut authors who stand to benefit most from having their work made available for free--or at very low prices. After all, it's much easier to get someone to buy an e-book from an unknown writer for $1.99 or $.99 than $9.99 or $12.99--or the $24.99 my hardcover lists for.

Authors like Boyd Morrison, who wrote here on the Huffington Post about selling his self-published novel, The Ark, and couple of other unpublished thrillers in the Kindle Store, was able to benefit from pricing his books low (less than $2) and reaching an audience who was willing to take a chance on buying his "cheap" content based on strong user reviews. But unless you're a self-published author, prices for new books are generally pretty fixed, so you're left to hope your book is good enough to attract some attention and maybe even get a review or two from a major publication (alas, the demise of newspapers has led to fewer and fewer books being reviewed, but that's a whole other story).

As I said at the start, it's hard for me to measure the exact impact of giving away lengthy excerpts of the new version of Knife Music. But I can tell you that in the three weeks it's been up on Scribd, close to 8,000 people have looked at it and some have posted what they're reading to their Facebook and Twitter accounts (Scribd has a big social media component). Only a tiny fraction of those folks will buy the full hardcover or e-book when it comes out shortly. But at least 8,000 people are now aware the book exists. And that's better than none.

Check out Knife Music on Scribd.

Check out the free iPhone/iPad app.