Lo those many months ago, we at NUblog bitch-slapped Seth Godin’s risible claims, in effect, that publishing wants to be free. His bright idea, so bright it burned the hairs off his pate (our very own problem, shurely?!), was to give away PDFs of his book and advocate a de Medici–style system of corporate sponsorship of authors.

Well, Eric Flint now offers further evidence that giving away E-books increases dead-tree sales.

Let me begin by posing a simple question. Does anyone have any real evidence that having material available for free online – whether legitimately or through piracy – has actually caused any financial harm to any author? [...]

The first title to go up into the [free-E-book] Library was my own novel, Mother of Demons. That was my first published novel, which came out in print in September of 1997. At the time it went into the Free Library, in the fall of 2000, that novel had sold 9,694 copies, with a sell-through of 54%.

As of today, according to Baen Books – a year and a half after being available for free online to anyone who wants it, no restrictions and no questions asked – Mother of Demons has sold about 18,500 copies and now has a sell-through of 65%. [...]

To be sure, most of that improvement is not due to the Library. It’s simply due, I’m quite sure, to the fact that I’ve become a better-known author in the meantime. Still, it is impossible to argue that the Library has hurt me any. To the contrary, I think there is every reason to believe that the added exposure the Library has given me helped the sales of that book-as well as all of my other books. [...]

To date, my best-selling title (as a solo author) has been my novel 1632. That book came out in hardcover in February 2000, and was reissued in paperback in February 2001. I put it in the Free Library at the same time as it came out in paperback format.

Today, more than a year later, the paperback edition of 1632 has a net sales of about 34,000 copies and has a sell-through of 88%. If being available for free in the Library has hurt me any, with that book, I’d be puzzled to see how. [...]

Nonsense! Between the January–June 2000 reporting period and the period one year later, the sales for that title – which had now been out for two years, remember, long past the time when it should have been selling very much – were suddenly almost 250% higher. (239%, to be precise: 1,904 compared to 795.)

What happened in the interim? Well, obviously I can’t “prove” it, but it seems blindingly obvious to me that it was the fact that An Oblique Approach went into the Library in the fall of 2000 that explains most of that increase. It would certainly be absurd to claim that being available for free somehow hurt the novel’s sales! I can guarantee you that most authors would be delighted to see a two-year-old title suddenly showing a spurt of new sales. [...]

All right.

Stephen King couldn’t make a new serialized E-novel work. (Not enough lower-middle-class people could justify printing the whole thing out on crappy Windows ink-jets. And remember, that is what E-books really amount to print-on-demand, which of course means “you pay for printing.”)

Seth Godin claimed his nonfiction books worked as free downloads. (His audience is early-adopter marketing quislings in full-on Dockers® who tell themselves catchphrases like “build the brand” and “rightsizing” actually mean something. They’re more bullshit than Godin is.)

Eric Flint made midlist and backlist titles work, but his sales and expectations were already modest, i.e., next to nothing. (Certain NUblog entries receive more hits than his claimed increase in sales. And almost nobody reads the NUblog.)

We are willing to concede that free giveaways of E-versions of print books are not always a bad idea. It’s just that they are not a very good idea. They are not good enough of an idea to justify themselves.

Moreover, what do you do if yours is the only credible book on a subject? Or what if your book is technical and somebody wants to hoover in just one chapter to solve their specific technical problem?

Information wants to be free, right? And what’s to stop them from flipping through the dead-tree edition in a bookstore (we all know how important the flip-through experience is) or reading ’er at the library?

Here E-books would seem to recapitulate the album/singles distinction. Why buy a whole album when all you want is the single, which you can’t buy separately anyway?

If you want to give away your book, go for it. And we’re right in Flint’s corner here, since it seems to be working for him, and since he does not make the epochal godinesque leap to call for the complete elimination of publishers paying authors. It’s just that there isn’t much of a percentage in E-books, and some authors will never let their hard labour loose on the slippery slope of frictionless downloads.

A book, quite simply, is not a Web site. One’s valuable, enduring, and important. The other isn’t.

Admittedly, this fails to explain why our numerical output of Web sites exceeds that of books by some 500 to 1.

Posted on 2002-05-01