Evidence Based Library and Information Practice (Mar 2011)

Free E-Books May Increase Print Sales: A Study with Mixed Results. A Review of: Hilton, J. III, & Wiley, D. (2010). The short-term influence of free digital versions of books on print sales. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 13(1).

  • Heather R. Williams

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 6, no. 1
pp. 59 – 60


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Objective – To determine whether the availability of free digital versions of books impacts print sales.Design – Quantitative data comparison.Setting – University Instructional Psychology Department.Subjects – A total of 41 books, each with a free digital version and a traditional print version.Methods – This study used Nielson BookScan data to track print book sales during a 16-week period, 8 weeks before a free digital version of the book became available and 8 weeks after the availability of the free digital version. The authors tracked 41 books and organized them into four categories. The first included 7 nonfiction books, the second consisted of 5 science fiction/fantasy books, the third included 5 science fiction/fantasy books released together by Random House, and the fourth group consisted of 24 science fiction/fantasy books released by Tor Books. The books released by Tor Books, unlike the other books in the study, were available by free download only if a person registered for Tor’s newsletter and the downloads were only available for one week. When a free digital book from any of the other three groups was released, it remained available for several weeks, and more often, indefinitely.Main Results – Combined print sales of the nonfiction titles in the first group increased 5% after the release of a free digital copy. The majority of the science fiction/fantasy books in the second group also had an increase in post-free release sales, with a combined increase of 26%. The combined sales of the Random House titles increased by 9% after the release of the free digital versions. However, in stark contrast to the results of the first three groups, the fourth group of Tor books had a combined decrease in print sales of 18%. While the authors were not able to explain this difference with certainty, they point out that the Tor model for releasing the free digital books (making the free books available for only one week and requiring registration in order to download the books) was substantially different from the models used by the other publishers.Conclusion – The study suggests a positive relationship may exist between free digital books and short-term print sales. However, the availability of free digital books did not always lead to increased print sales. The authors acknowledge a number of factors not fully accounted for, including the timing of the free digital release, the promotion it received, and the differences in the size of the audiences for the various books studied. Ultimately, however, the authors believe the data indicates that when free digital books are offered for a period of time longer than a week, without requiring registration, print sales will increase.