Did Tor’s free ebooks affect sales?

A few months ago Tobias Buckell noticed a trend in his book sales that most midlist novelists don’t typically see. His book Crystal Rain, which had been released in mass market paperback a year before, experienced a sudden spike in sales, more than doubling from the previous week. Perhaps even more noticeable was the jump in sales of the sequel to that novel, Ragamuffin, which saw an even more dramatic increase.

This was unusual because most titles by midlist authors are sold within the first few months of the release date; after that they drift quickly into obscurity as newer books are given shelf space in book stores, often times pushing the older novels out of the store completely.

When Buckell opened a Bookscan account to track his sales he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement barring him from giving any specific numbers, but in a phone interview he asserted that the sales bump was significant enough not to have been a fluke.

But what caused this sudden increase? Because of all the myriad factors that drive product buys it’s incredibly hard to pinpoint specific triggers, but it just so happened that the jump occurred right after Crystal Rain‘s publisher, Tor Books, had released a free ebook version of the novel online.

Tor began putting out free ebook titles earlier this year to pump up subscriptions to its email newsletter. It will use that newsletter to promote a new science fiction “super site” it’s reportedly launching on July 20 to coincide with the date Americans landed on the moon. Rather than posting the books at a specific URL where people can go to download them, only those who have joined the newsletter list are given access to the titles.

Buckell told me he was asked to participate in the ebook giveaway by Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who approached him about it at an SF convention.

“Patrick and I were at Boskone and Patrick was buying me a drink and asking if I’d be interested in having the book in one of the giveaways to get my name out in front of lots and lots of people,” he said. “I had the paperback of Ragamuffin about to come out soon, and I figured it was a good idea to get my name out there — it couldn’t hurt. I love the idea of giving the first book in a series away. It was an easy ‘yes’ for me. So I checked with my agent to make sure he had no objection. Theoretically Tor owns the electronic rights to it, so they can do whatever they want. But Patrick did check with me and pretty much everyone else was on board with the idea.”

crystal rain cover

The theory that free ebooks released online will boost print sales is not a new one. Information radicals like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross have been releasing their books under Creative Commons licenses — which allow readers to freely pass around the texts without fear of copyright infringement — for years, but it’s only recently that most major publishers have dipped their toes into the pool (though incidentally many of Doctorow’s books have been published by Tor).

Authors who go this route believe that the ebooks act as a form of advertising, arguing that the negative effects on sales from people reading it for free are offset by the word-of-mouth campaigns those same people will initiate. These Creative Commons evangelists also tend to point out that most readers don’t like long texts on a screen, a fact that may cause them to buy the print copy once they’ve sampled enough of the story online.

“I don’t know what the perfect storm of promotion is in terms of trying to reach people,” Buckell said. “I definitely think that the biggest threat facing authors is obscurity. I work in the niche field of science fiction, which is being overshadowed by fantasy right now. I love it, it’s my field of choice, but having done a survey a few years back where I compared the average [book] advances for science fiction and fantasy, I knew the fact that I chose to work in science fiction meant that I’d have probably halved my average advance and readership. Things like this mean getting the word out that I exist can be a major hurdle. Anything that gives me eyeballs is a good thing right now.”

But SF novelist John Scalzi was cautious when talking about his own experience releasing his book Old Man’s War as a free Tor download, noting that it’s incredibly difficult to scientifically correlate any marketing methods to actual sales.

“‘Scientifically’?” he wrote to me in an email. “Probably not, unless you somehow managed to control (or at least account for and factor in) every incident of someone discussing your work and or going down a decision path to acquire the work, which is probably more work than it’s worth. But I don’t think that ‘scientifically’ is the standard required here; I think ‘heuristically’ is probably better. If you consistently see a rise in sales of an author’s work after the release of a free e-book, then heuristically you have a good idea it’s beneficial.”

In his case, Scalzi watched sales of his book shoot up by 20 percent. But what’s even more interesting is that the sequel to Old Man’s War saw an increase of over 30 percent. Both he and Buckell benefited more from sales of books later in their series.

Not all Tor authors I spoke to saw such impressive numbers, however. Like the others, Daniel Abraham was approached by an editor to see if he’d be willing to give away his fantasy novel A Shadow In Summer. The novel is the first in a four-book series — the second was released last year — and its ebook format hit the web in April.

In a phone conversation yesterday Abraham said that he didn’t see any significant increases in Bookscan sales for either A Shadow In Summer or its sequel. Instead, the numbers stayed relatively the same. But he stressed the fact that he didn’t see a drop off in buys either and argued that regardless of sales figures the release still benefited his career.

“It would be in my interest to have more people read my stuff, whether they pay for it or not,” he said. “If I had the choice of having five people buy a hardback and getting the money for that, or 20 people buying a paperback and getting the same amount of royalties, I’d go with the paperback. If I had the choice of getting no money but have four times as many people read the book and talk about it to their friends, then I’m fine with that. The chance to build a relationship with the reader is more important than having an immediate sale.”

Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden didn’t respond to my interview request for this article, but back in February he told me that there were no plans to continue releasing the ebooks after the publisher’s new site launch.

“The free digital books are exactly what we say they are: an inducement to get people to pre-register as users and allow us to send them emailed progress reports,” he said. “The book-length freebies are a temporary program slated to run from now until when we launch. Although the site will be ‘giving away’ a lot of content indeed, all of its content, as we don’t anticipate any part of it being DRMed or paywalled the core of the site will not be built around a program of free novel giveaways. That said, we reserve the right to give away free digital books any time we think it’s a good idea to do so. (With the cooperation and consent of their authors, naturally.)”

Every Tor author I spoke to for this article said they hoped the publisher would continue offering the ebooks even after the new site debut. When I asked them whether they would be willing to offer another book of theirs to the giveaway list there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation with their answers.

“I totally would,” Buckell said. “I really think the biggest threat right now is obscurity. Even in my own town — I live in a town of 5,000 people — there are still people who will come up to me and ask if my second book came out, or if I was still writing … I ran into one of my readers at a convention not too long ago at a room party. They asked me when the second book is coming out, and I said ‘oh, it’s been out for quite awhile.’ And later that night they bought a copy. Even people who want to buy my books can miss that three-month window where it’s on the shelf and not even realize it has come out. So there’s such a battle against obscurity and anything that lets me throw myself at the wall to see what sticks is a positive thing right now.”