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Do Free Online Books Make Money?

Does making a book freely available online hurt or enhance the sales of the hardcopy?  Advocates suggest that if you read a bit of the book online you’re more likely to buy the hardcopy if you like it and finish reading it on paper.  You’re also more likely to recommend it to friends who might buy it, too.  Those against think that free only equals more free, and no one is going to buy a book if you get given the whole thing at no cost.  Neil Gaiman and his publisher have been experimenting with this question, and Gaiman’s American Gods has been available for free online for a month (it disappears again in a few days).  So, it’s definitely interesting to see who many people read the book, and how hardcopy sales appear to have been effected. So: the initial stats from Neil Gaiman’s blog:

It’s worth drawing people’s attention to the fact that the free online reading copy of American Gods is now in its last six days online (it ends 31 March 08). I learned this from an email from Harper Collins, which also told me the latest batch of statistics.

For American Gods:

68,000 unique visitors to the book pages of American Gods

3,000,000 book pages viewed in aggregate

And that the weekly book sales of American Gods have apparently gone up by 300%, rather than tumbling into the abyss. (Which is — the rise, not the tumble — what I thought would happen. Or at least, what I devoutly hoped would happen.)

The book is up at This URL, if you’re interested, or want to pass it along to a friend.

While this example isn’t exactly necessarily a template for new authors – Gaiman’s existing reputation as an author and his well-read blog both come into play in looking at the figures (not to mention that American Gods is an excellent read) – the overall figures are definitely encouraging and hopefully we’ll see more experiments like this one in the future (and, yes, I realise this isn’t the first such experiment – hello Cory Doctorow – but it’s still a noteworthy one).

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