CONTENT - Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future
Cory Doctorow (2008-09-15)

18. Free(konomic) E-books

(Originally published in Locus Magazine, September 2007)

Can giving away free electronic books really sell printed books? I think so. As I explained in my March column (“You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen”), I don't believe that most readers want to read long-form works off a screen, and I don't believe that they will ever want to read long-form works off a screen. As I say in the column, the problem with reading off a screen isn't resolution, eyestrain, or compatibility with reading in the bathtub: it's that computers are seductive, they tempt us to do other things, making concentrating on a long-form work impractical.

Sure, some readers have the cognitive quirk necessary to read full-length works off screens, or are motivated to do so by other circumstances (such as being so broke that they could never hope to buy the printed work). The rational question isn't, “Will giving away free e-books cost me sales?” but rather, “Will giving away free e-books win me more sales than it costs me?”

This is a very hard proposition to evaluate in a quantitative way. Books aren't lattes or cable-knit sweaters: each book sells (or doesn't) due to factors that are unique to that title. It's hard to imagine an empirical, controlled study in which two “equivalent” books are published, and one is also available as a free download, the other not, and the difference calculated as a means of “proving” whether e-books hurt or help sales in the long run.

I've released all of my novels as free downloads simultaneous with their print publication. If I had a time machine, I could re-release them without the free downloads and compare the royalty statements. Lacking such a device, I'm forced to draw conclusions from qualitative, anecdotal evidence, and I've collected plenty of that:

●  Many writers have tried free e-book releases to tie in with the print release of their works. To the best of my knowledge, every writer who's tried this has repeated the experiment with future works, suggesting a high degree of satisfaction with the outcomes

●  A writer friend of mine had his first novel come out at the same time as mine. We write similar material and are often compared to one another by critics and reviewers. My first novel had a free download, his didn't. We compared sales figures and I was doing substantially better than him -- he subsequently convinced his publisher to let him follow suit

●  Baen Books has a pretty good handle on expected sales for new volumes in long-running series; having sold many such series, they have lots of data to use in sales estimates. If Volume N sells X copies, we expect Volume N+1 to sell Y copies. They report that they have seen a measurable uptick in sales following from free e-book releases of previous and current volumes

●  David Blackburn, a Harvard PhD candidate in economics, published a paper in 2004 in which he calculated that, for music, “piracy” results in a net increase in sales for all titles in the 75th percentile and lower; negligible change in sales for the “middle class” of titles between the 75th percentile and the 97th percentile; and a small drag on the “super-rich” in the 97th percentile and higher. Publisher Tim O'Reilly describes this as “piracy's progressive taxation,” apportioning a small wealth-redistribution to the vast majority of works, no net change to the middle, and a small cost on the richest few

●  Speaking of Tim O'Reilly, he has just published a detailed, quantitative study of the effect of free downloads on a single title. O'Reilly Media published Asterisk: The Future of Telephony, in November 2005, simultaneously releasing the book as a free download. By March 2007, they had a pretty detailed picture of the sales-cycle of this book -- and, thanks to industry standard metrics like those provided by Bookscan, they could compare it, apples-to-apples style, against the performance of competing books treating with the same subject. O'Reilly's conclusion: downloads didn't cause a decline in sales, and appears to have resulted in a lift in sales. This is particularly noteworthy because the book in question is a technical reference work, exclusively consumed by computer programmers who are by definition disposed to read off screens. Also, this is a reference work and therefore is more likely to be useful in electronic form, where it can be easily searched

●  In my case, my publishers have gone back to press repeatedly for my books. The print runs for each edition are modest -- I'm a midlist writer in a world with a shrinking midlist -- but publishers print what they think they can sell, and they're outselling their expectations

●  The new opportunities arising from my free downloads are so numerous as to be uncountable -- foreign rights deals, comic book licenses, speaking engagements, article commissions -- I've made more money in these secondary markets than I have in royalties

●  More anecdotes: I've had literally thousands of people approach me by e-mail and at signings and cons to say, “I found your work online for free, got hooked, and started buying it.” By contrast, I've had all of five e-mails from people saying, “Hey, idiot, thanks for the free book, now I don't have to buy the print edition, ha ha!”

Many of us have assumed, a priori, that electronic books substitute for print books. While I don't have controlled, quantitative data to refute the proposition, I do have plenty of experience with this stuff, and all that experience leads me to believe that giving away my books is selling the hell out of them.

More importantly, the free e-book skeptics have no evidence to offer in support of their position -- just hand-waving and dark muttering about a mythological future when book-lovers give up their printed books for electronic book-readers (as opposed to the much more plausible future where book lovers go on buying their fetish objects and carry books around on their electronic devices).

I started giving away e-books after I witnessed the early days of the “bookwarez” scene, wherein fans cut the binding off their favorite books, scanned them, ran them through optical character recognition software, and manually proofread them to eliminate the digitization errors. These fans were easily spending 80 hours to rip their favorite books, and they were only ripping their favorite books, books they loved and wanted to share. (The 80-hour figure comes from my own attempt to do this -- I'm sure that rippers get faster with practice.)

I thought to myself that 80 hours' free promotional effort would be a good thing to have at my disposal when my books entered the market. What if I gave my readers clean, canonical electronic editions of my works, saving them the bother of ripping them, and so freed them up to promote my work to their friends?

After all, it's not like there's any conceivable way to stop people from putting books on scanners if they really want to. Scanners aren't going to get more expensive or slower. The Internet isn't going to get harder to use. Better to confront this challenge head on, turn it into an opportunity, than to rail against the future (I'm a science fiction writer -- tuning into the future is supposed to be my metier).

The timing couldn't have been better. Just as my first novel was being published, a new, high-tech project for promoting sharing of creative works launched: the Creative Commons project (CC). CC offers a set of tools that make it easy to mark works with whatever freedoms the author wants to give away. CC launched in 2003 and today, more than 160,000,000 works have been released under its licenses.

My next column will go into more detail on what CC is, what licenses it offers, and how to use them -- but for now, check them out online at


License: This entire work (with the exception of the introduction by John Perry Barlow) is copyright 2008 by Cory Doctorow and released under the terms of a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license ( Some Rights Reserved.
The introduction is copyright 2008 by John Perry Barlow and released under the terms of a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license ( Some Rights Reserved.

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