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Author Notes Risks and Opportunities in Free Ebooks

O’Reilly author and New York Times columnist David Pogue points the way to an April post from author Steven Poole that offers an interesting look at the arguments and counter-arguments surrounding free digital books.

Last year, Poole ran his own experiment with free PDFs of his book Trigger Happy. The result: it was a "pretty good publicity stunt," but it didn’t yield any notable revenue.

Although I didn’t do it for the money, I was also, of course, interested in testing the idea of giving stuff away and allowing people freely to express their appreciation. So I put a PayPal button below the download. Is this, as some people say, an exciting new internet-age business model for writers and other creative types? Er, not really. The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%.

Despite meager returns, Poole says the current separation between electronic and print books makes the free digital avenue wortwhile:

… the happy truth is that right now, electronic downloads don’t cannibalize printed sales; if anything, they encourage them. In fact, I would gladly give away my newer book, Unspeak, in the same format right now, except that I am contractually obliged to wait until next year to do so.

But — and this is a big but — Poole says if/when digital delivery overtakes print as the dominant delivery mechanism, the upside of free drops precipitously:

Giving away your work in the same format in which you hope to sell it is a dangerous game, if that’s how you hope to make a living.

Poole’s points on both sides of the debate are well put. This is a daunting and exciting time for content creators. It’s an odd period that’s marked by legitmate revenue concerns as well as new opportunities to build a following. Poole’s post does a nice job capturing these dueling perspectives; the entire piece is worth a read.

UPDATE: Mike Masnick at TechDirt has posted a detailed rebuttal to Pogue (and Poole) on the subject:

Just because "give it away and pray" isn’t a workable business model, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t business models that do work. Hopefully, Poole and Pogue will eventually recognize that they’re dismissing the wrong thing. They shouldn’t be complaining about free (or making misleading accusations about those who simply recognize the economic forces at work) — they should be complaining about a failure to put in place a real business model to take advantage of what will be free.

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  • For another rebuttal to Pogue’s piece, see my TidBITS article on the subject.

    I’m less worried about the fact that voluntary payments are a flop (they are, big deal, let’s move on) by the implication that merely making books available in electronic format means that illicit copies will be shared widely. It’s not a given, and I have four years of sales to prove it.