Crown released Scott Sigler's new book, Infected, online as a free (no DRM) pdf on March 27th, five days before it would be available in stores. The hitch was that this was limited-time deal: on March 31st, the day before the book went on sale in stores, they would take down the file.
This elicited the following rant from Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow:
Publishers are schizophrenic and often end up acting really dumb in the service of trying to do something smart. Crown is putting Scott's book online for free as a PDF, but they're taking it down after only four days -- presumably just in time to kill whatever momentum the downloads are generating. If you happen upon this blog-post next week when it shows up on Digg, you're out of luck -- no download to use to figure out if you want to buy the book.
Worse still: Crown is only making the download available before the book goes on sale! This is an act of massive goofiness. Here's what this means: the book's promotional download period ends before you can buy the book. If you download this book and love it, you can't walk down to the bookstore and pick up a copy. Sure, you can pre-order it on Amazon, but I know from watching my affiliate link payments here on Boing Boing that ten times as many of you buy books that are on sale when I blog them than buy books that have to be pre-ordered. The Internet exists in an eternal NOW, and expecting someone who downloads a book to hold onto the impulse to buy it for four days is so unrealistic, it makes me suspect that this strategy was conceived of by someone who doesn't actually use the Internet.
Either Crown believes that free downloads sell books or they don't. There's no coherent explanation for a ticking-bomb download like this one; it's like the hesitation marks on the wrists of a half-ass suicide.
So which is it? Does Crown believe that free downloads sell books, or don't they?
I talked to Shawn Nicholls, Crown's Online Marketing Manager, to find out.
The short answer is that Crown does indeed believe that free pdfs will sell more physical books. "We definitely subscribe to the believe that offering something online isn't going to take away from sales," says Nicholls. "The one thing I tried to do when we started this was to make a distinction between free music and free books. A MP3 can be a substitute for a CD, but we're not at the place where a pdf is a substitute for a hard book."
But Crown also believes in the concept of artificial scarcity: "Our goal was to create some buzz. Four days of availability gives a sense of urgency and makes it more of an event," he says. And although Crown did take the book down from its official site, Nicholls said that they wouldn't stop people from mirroring it elsewhere for as long as they want.
Here are the initial results of the experiment:
- The book was downloaded 45,000 times over that four days, compared to just 15,000 times for a previous experiment in free ebooks, The Beautiful Children, which was published by Random House in January. (That pdf was posted after the book was on sale.)
- Over the four days, Infected went to #1 on Amazon's Horror List, and #150 overall in book sales (from being in the two thousands before). It's too early to know what the bookstore sales are like, but on the online sales alone, the experiment looks like a success so far.
- The Infected microsite became Crown's top site.
Nicholls suspects that fewer people were inconvenienced by not being able to buy the books in stores over the free pdf window than Doctorow predicts. "The online audience we were hoping to reach is more prone to buying from web retailers, so for them pre-ordering on Amazon four days before publication isn't that frustrating. It shows up just a few days later than it would have if it were purchased after its on-sale date."
"The way we looked at is that we straddled the line a bit. Giving away the full content of the book at all is a service to the consumer. Cutting it off short was simply us looking at all our long term goals--balancing the marketing buzz of a limited-time event against the virtues of longer availability. However, I can see the logic in Cory's point. It was an experiment, but if we see it as successful, we'd only want to go further, not go back. What we did this time was a calculated trade-off. Next time the conversation might be entirely different."
My take: the important thing is that Crown believes that free digital books can sell more hard copies. Exactly how to do it is a work in progress, but the philosophical hurdle has now been crossed. Now we can expect more and better experiments and less hand-wringing about FREE. Which is quite an advance, any way you look at it.