If you could increase your income by around 20% for doing absolutely nothing... would you do it?
That's more or less what happened to John Scalzi when Tor books released Old Man's War as part of their new free eBook series. In a blog post yesterday, Scalzi reported that sales of his books increased between 9% and 33% - with the highest increase in sales going to the book that was given away for free. He essentially did nothing, and reaped benefits from it.
Well... OK. To be entirely accurate, he did nothing more than he had already done, which was to write an entertaining, engaging, and award-winning science fiction novel. So yeah, that first step was a doozie, and probably has a lot to do with the amount of interest being shown in his free eBook release. Still... a 10%-30% increase just for making an electronic download available? Wow. (For the record, Scalzi's not new to the idea of eBooks - one of his novels, Agent to Stars, has been available as an online book for nine years.)
Now, there's apparently a not insignificant amount of debate in the publishing world as to whether or not unencumbered eBooks are a blessing or a curse. Baen has been operating their Free Library online for a while now, and from various comments I've hard, it seems that it's been profitable for them, primarily in attracting readers to try new authors or new series books. Enough so that it has been a an ongoing project now for almost seven years, despite the fact that author participation int he Baen Free Library is entirely voluntary. In other words, the authors are giving away some of their books online, for free, because it benefits them.
That's apparently why Neil Gaiman is now giving away his bestselling book, American Gods, although for a limited time only. In his own words, "I like giving stuff away. I think it's sensible." When you entice a hundred people who otherwise wouldn't spend time on your works with the offer of a free book, you gain a potential fan.
I would argue that in the past, libraries formed the basis of a involuntary "free giveaway" for books. With the increasing ubiquity of and convenience of the the internet, though, it seems like the local public library is facing some competition from electronic formats. Sure, I could take time and gas to pop down to my local branch to browse through whatever they happen to have on their shelves... or I could peek at Google's books, Amazon's previews, Baen's library and other online sources to see if I can ferret out a new and interesting author or series. Unlike browsing at the library, I can browse the internet any time, any place I have a net connection and a few spare minutes. Is it any wonder that eBooks generate good returns for those who make use of them?
Imagine if you were an author, and you could take a year and spend 8 hours a day, every day, traveling around the world to promote your book to millions of people. You speak to 10,000 people a day, and out of those you speak to, maybe 1% - 100 - decide that they like what they hear, and that they'll plunk down the $7.50 (or whatever) to buy a copy.
Now, imagine you could do that without spending any money for travel expenses, publicists, advertising media, or other expenses. In fact, imagine you could do it not just without spending any money, but without spending any time, either. No time, no money, and in return, you'll pick up around 36,500 sales this year, some percentage of which will become part of your permanent fan base.
If you could increase your income by around 20% for doing absolutely nothing... why in the world wouldn't you do it?