Giveaways That Pay Off

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Jeffrey Tucker of the Mises Institute has some interesting observations on why giving away books doesn't necessarily mean you can't sell them–or even sell more of them than before. An excerpt:

The current publisher would not allow the text [of Ludwig von Mises' book Omnipotent Government] to be put online through the Mises Institute. Many of Mises's books have been online and, as a result, were being referred to and quoted and discussed (and purchased) as never before. But not Omnipotent Government. It was not getting the attention it deserved, and, indeed, faced the prospect of forever living in the shadows of those books that are online.

After three years of letters, emails, and phone calls, we finally persuaded the publisher to let us go ahead, but we could only do so on the condition that we compensate the publisher in advance for all the lost sales they were sure that they would absorb. Their attitude is somewhat understandable. They figured: why would anyone buy the book now that it is being given away for free? They demanded an upfront payment. And so we paid, essentially leasing the book from the publisher. And, after lots of formatting and proofing work, we put it online here.

What happened was precisely the reverse of what the publisher expected. Instead of lost sales, the sales of the book shot up. In the few weeks since the text went online, more copies of this book left our warehouse than during the whole of the last decade. Omnipotent Government is now a top seller in the Mises.org catalog. The publisher obtained not only the leasing fee from our offices but suddenly enjoyed a flood of new orders for the book from us.

NEXT: Heavy Petting

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  1. So is the publisher now paying the Institute a nice marketing fee on every extra book sold?

  2. “And so we paid, essentially leasing the book from the publisher.”

    You’d have been smarter if you actually leased the book.

  3. I am one of those purchasers. While an online book is great for the moment, it does not compare to the portability, stability, ease of maintenance, ease of access, and longevity of a printed book. The only books that won’t be bought because of online availability are those crappy books people fume about having bought unknowingly.

    The Mises Institute should get a commission for these sales.

  4. This one is actually pretty simple to explain. Most people prefer to have an actual copy of something to read rather than reading from a browser. Smaller newspaper articles and blogs notwithstanding. Comprehension and retention are far different with paper than with a web page. Try it sometime. Go to http://www.gutenberg.net/index.shtml and try reading Moby Dick or something and see how long you stick with it. Sure, you can download the image as a text file and then print it later to read, but unless you have a commercial quality printer and enough paper this turns into a process of futility.

  5. Would be interesting to see if the phenomena is reproducible – are there any other books that might have the same press status. I find it interesting that there is discussion on “campaign” finance reform, but not finance reform in general. Good to see Reason elevating debate.

  6. Baen, the science fiction publisher has a website with many free books online: http://www.baen.com/library/

    After reading a couple of books online, I have gone back and purchased some of the featured authors.

  7. Baen, the science fiction publisher has a website with many free books online: http://www.baen.com/library/

    After reading a couple of books online, I have gone back and purchased some of the featured authors.

  8. Giving away free copies is an old publishing trick, especially for small run titles like academic text. It generates buzz that drives sales.

    The current willingness of people to buy hardcopy books instead of reading them online is largely a technological limitation of current display technology. Prototype technology already exist that can reproduce both the appearance and feel of traditional books. When this becomes widespread, people will start pirating books and other print media just like they currently pirate music. At that point, the ability of free digital versions to drive hardcopy sales will collapse.

    The real question is whether authors and publisher get to choose to release some their works for free or whether technology will remove that control from them.

  9. We will not give you our books free, as our margins on ebooks start at 51% and go much higher should you buy two at once.

    We will not print them either, because that has the costs associated with them, yes?

    We will become the most succesful ebook seller in our second six months (having reached the top 10 in our first six months, and fine, yes, it is THAT sort of material, but 25% of the ebook market is, as you say, one-handed reading… at least we are the literate and humorous about it).

    We will not invest our profits in a night club.

    Thank you.

    Maurice.

  10. Not to digress even further, but Shannon Love makes an argument I’ve heard before – the reason people overwhelmingly prefer books to ebooks is technology – once we get an ebook that looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck, we won’t need any more ducks, so to speak. Books are an inherently anachronistic medium, which is a large part of their appeal to the masses. There’s a reason there are for more antiquarian booksellers than vendors of used betamax copies of The Big Chill. Not to mention that there are things I will do with a paper book that I’d never do with a piece of technology, no matter how well it simulates a hunk of bound processed wood pulp and ink, like read it beside the pool (or other locations involving water and/or the elimination thereof) or standing on a subway. It may well be the case that with improved display, storage and battery technology, enough people will adopt electronic books that “piracy” of free online books intended to drive hard copy sales will be a real issue, but I wouldn’t count on it any time soon.

  11. Oz:

    Not to mention that there are things I will do with a paper book that I’d never do with a piece of technology, no matter how well it simulates a hunk of bound processed wood pulp and ink, like read it beside the pool (or other locations involving water and/or the elimination thereof) or standing on a subway.

    We have heard this before, yes. But we would tell you that for works such as not ours, the reading of the book on the PDA while waiting in line at the grocery, outside the Anne Taylor, yes, where one’s wife shops, or, indeed, by the metro, is how a great much of the ebook reading happens.

    And after all, you can carry the entire Shadow Collection on your Palm, free of the charges, yes, and free to download, with enough of the battery even to support a wait in the line while attending to passport or taxation matters.

  12. Ox,
    One of my friends (actually, his lab) is working on ePaper. It looks like a sheet of paper (of various sizes) and the goal is to have the text have the resolution of real paper, while at the same time you can fold it up like a newspaper or sheet of normal old paper. It would have a wireless linkup w/ your computer and enough storage to hold a book, eventually more. This would be the “killer app” that might fatally wound the book. Think of it as the iPod for bibliophiles.

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