Publisher experiments with free online books
Tuesday February 12, 2008
Two competing visions of the future went head-to-head online yesterday as HarperCollins and Random House launched contrasting new experiments in book distribution on the same day.
Building on a scheme launched in 2006 which allows users to flick through extracts of the books they publish, HarperCollins is releasing complete texts from a small selection of authors for periods of a month to test how free access affects sales.
The chief executive of HarperCollins Worldwide, Jane Friedman, was keen to stress the flexibility of the publisher’s systems.
“The advantage of our digital warehouse is that we can securely, quickly and easily change what content is available,” she said, “whether it is to meet an author’s request, to preview a title before it is on sale, or to promote backlist books. And we believe it’s the role of the publisher to develop tools to easily allow authors to promote their work to their communities online.”
With Neil Gaiman and Paolo Coelho lined up to be among the first clutch of six titles, it seems as if the publisher is only beginning to catch up with their authors’ enthusiasm for free distribution. Coelho, who has promoted free copies of his own work online since 2000, has signed up for HarperCollins to provide an entire book for download every month for one year.
“I believe that online reading helps increase book sales,” the author said. “I am very pleased that HarperCollins is able to make my titles available online for my fans to read.”
Neil Gaiman, who offers readers free stories on his website and has been running a promotional blog for seven years, is convinced that tasters are “enormously useful”. He’s running an online vote for readers to determine which of his titles will be given away – a poll currently led by his mythical American fantasy, American Gods.
Whatever the result of the poll, the author is not expecting a straightforward match between the numbers of free downloads and added sales.
“It’s much more about gaining an audience than about some one-to-one correlation,” he said. “It’s a question of how do you find new writers.” People often come to new authors in a library, on a friend’s bookshelves, or by a personal recommendation, he explained. It “doesn’t always begin with a financial transaction. I very much doubt that I discovered a single one of my favourite authors by buying a book.”
Meanwhile Random House is pursuing a different model, launching a pilot project to offer individual slices of books for a small fee. Six chapters and an epilogue of a business title by brothers Chip and Dan Heath are available at $2.99 (£1.50) each.
Users will receive a link for downloading the chapters of their choice via email, which the company claims is impossible to share electronically.
“This is a pilot project to gauge whether there is a demand or not,” said Random House’s Carol Schneider. “We’re really doing it as a kind of an experiment.”
It’s an experiment that runs counter to internet users’ expectations of getting something for nothing and to Random House’s enthusiastic promotion of free clips from their library of audio books. With no plans to extend the scheme into other non-fiction or short fiction titles, and no download figures yet available it’s impossible to judge whether Random House’s cautious strategy will prove effective, but Gaiman is convinced that publishers who are bold will be rewarded.
“The problem is not people who read books for nothing,” he said, “it’s people not reading books at all. You’re fighting the fact that people don’t read recreationally [any more]. Anything that can help has got to be a good thing.”
You can see the poll on Neil’s website by clicking here
So we can look forward to a free copy of American Gods sometime soon, which is good for us as we are discussing it in a few months with the Book Group! I will post more when there are more details.