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Free (conomics)

We’ve long, long, long-since argued that giving books away for free online is a great way to market them.

However, not all – in fact very few, possibly close to none – of our clients agrees, despite some great anecdotal evidence from the like of Corey Doctorow, Seth Godin and now, as fate would have it, Paolo Coelho. All of these authors have given away their work for free, in its entirety, and agree that the benfits far outweigh the drawbacks. (For more detailed views on this, see this post on Freeconomics in Publishing in the light of Radiohead)

As we reported last week, [albeit only to RSS readers] Coelho has quietly pirated his own books over the past few years, seeding them on BitTorrent (and other) networks, and this is (in part) being attributed to the books’ success. (The TorrentFreak article suggests that he took matters into his own hands when his publishers refused to heed his desired to give his stuff away for free.)

Well, today, HarperCollins (US) has come out with a press release that might seem to suggest to the first-time reader that Paolo’s generosity (for he is published by HarperCollins in all of their controlling territories) was all a part of their master plan:

A key component of this program is the launch of a year-long promotion of bestselling author Paulo Coelho’s books. Each month an entire book will be available for free. The first book, currently accessible, is The Witch of Portobello.

HC has played PR sleight of hand here – they are giving away Paolo’s books for a month only, and even then, hobbling them to be of lesser use than those Cohelo has himself distributed,

the free electronic editions would be available only for one month, and readers would not be able to download them to laptops or to an electronic reader like Kindle from The print function will also be disabled, but readers will be able to link to retailers like to buy copies of the books.

[Brian Murray, President of HC, quoted in the New York Times]

In other words – they are forcing reads to use the “Read Inside” Flash app on the HarperCollins site (a functionality I find it hard to not free-associate with the word widget).

Personally, I think that’s a bit of old world-thinking. First of all, putting it in the “Read Inside” app is understandable, but the music-industry parallel is that this is equivalent to wrapping it up in some form of DRM. And we know how that played out for the music industry. (My view is also that it’s already free – why not make the most of that and try to win traffic and page impressions to your site on the back of the publicity?)

Secondly – I’m not sure that a Google search for “Free Paolo Cohelo book download” will lead to a link to HarperCollins’ corporate site; I don’t think Google indexes pages inside “Read Inside”, and there’s nothing to suggest that HC is also submitting the books for the Google Books programme – but wouldn’t that be interesting?

As a result, there’s nothing on that Google search that prioritises HC’s pages over the pirated versions. Accordingly, in the long-term, such a search may end up leading to the pirated editions anyway, rather than directing readers to And in losing those searches, HC is losing a chance to monetise interested readers in other ways (adverts, for example, or cross-selling other books, or audio books, events, that kind of thing – nothing too taxing). And losing the chance to get them as customers, in whatever format publishing becomes best at distributing in the future.

And thirdly, it seems like a bit of opportunism rather than the “pushing back the boundaries”. Don’t get me wrong – HC does some interesting stuff online (such as the imminent Authonomy). But announcing that you’ve making some already-free-books free, a couple of weeks after the web exposed them as free, and in a crippled format, for a month-only – it’s not exactly leading edge.

And particularly not when one of your UK authors, who knows about this stuff, (like a lot), and is keen to try to do the same thing himself, has just this past weekend blogged about being told by HC (UK) that there’s no way he can do the same with his book….

I asked my agent (I know, I know) to talk to Harper Collins earlier in the year letting them know I was going to try and boost sales via the blog as a bit of an experiment and asking them if they would be willing to a) let me give away the book online b) let me have copies to give away and/or c) sell me some copies at a discount so I could give them away. They got back to us a while ago and said a) no. b) maybe, a few and c) no answer.

[ From Russell Davies]

(Full disclosure: Russell was in part inspired by Cooking With Booze, which was written by James Bridle, who works at Apt.)

My point? All the evidence we have of this stuff is anecdotal. Seth, Corey – all these guys exist in a niche. If someone were to do it with titles in a level playing field, surely then we’d be able to see the impact of “free” on book sales?

Finally: James just showed me Alex’s post basically agreeing, but saying that reading on screens generally sucks:

This move by Harper Collins will enviably fall flat. Few people will read more than a couple of pages online, out of those (even though you can track the Amazon click-throughs), there is no way to tell if they buy a printed book in a store. The added costs in putting these books onto this proprietary service with barely any financial return will mean only the big hitters with guaranteed traditional sales will get a look-in.

and the BA’s Martin Daniels has pointed out some other flaws with the whole thing, mainly about the Flash-based interface being a far too literal home to the printed page, including blank pages.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future of the book, Publishing, Web.

… and it’s closed. // Free: PDF vs. MP3?

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