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Free and Fleeting

Submitted by Tom Peters on February 11, 2008 - 12:27pm

chained book, yearning to be freeOne of the pressing questions in the current publishing era concerns the effect of offering free online digital versions of books on the sales of the print versions.  Does a free digital version increase print sales, decrease print sales, or have no effect at all?  Only Rupert Murdoch's hairdresser knows for sure. 

The answer to that question probably depends on many other variables, such as:

  • Is it a fiction or nonfiction book?
  • Was the book recently published? 
  • Is the author well-known or relatively obscure?
  • What are the price points for the hardcover, paperback, and audio versions?
  • Is the publisher large or small?
  • How well is the free online version presented?  Is the interface intuitive and powerful?  Can you download, print, and transfer all or portions of the free online version? 

Today HarperCollins began a new marketing experiment to try to gain additional experiential knowledge about this question.  They began offering free online viewing of the complete electronic versions of selected titles. 

You will need to jump through a few hoops to access these free online books.  You must register at the HarperCollins website, including filling out the required data fields for your name, password, and address.  You also need to indicate what types of books you like to read, as well as accept the official rules of the promotional program. 

This morning I registered and wended my way to the full text of The Witch of Portobello, by Paulo Coelho.  You can read the book online (no downloading or printing, however), search through the full text, read and submit reader reviews, and, of course, follow a link to purchase the book. 

Bust of Julius CaesarThe flip side of offering ongoing access to online snippets, which HarperCollins has been doing for some time, is to offer access to the entire text for a limited time, which is the option HarperCollins launched today.  Each full-text digital book will be available only one month. I couldn't find any indicator of when the online ebook I was reading would go away.  Beware the Ides of March, I reckon.

If this new service continues, we can safely assume that HarperCollins found some positive correlation between offering free online access to the complete books for a limited time and increased sales of the selected titles.  I hope, however, HarperCollins shares some of their data and findings.