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Does Free Sell?

Women_and_moneyIf your name is Suze Orman and Oprah Winfrey helps you promote, the answer is "yes", free does indeed sell.  As David Rothman points out in this PW article, Orman's Women & Money title is doing phenomenally well since the limited-time free e-version was announced last week (it's currently #4 for all books on Amazon).

Skeptics will point out that the reason this one-year old title is enjoying a resurgence has to do with Winfrey and not the free e-book.  While it's hard to separate the two factors (Winfrey/free e-book) I strongly believe one without the other wouldn't have produced the same results.  But since most of us will never benefit from an Oprah Winfrey PR blitz we should probably figure out how to leverage free content instead.

My gut tells me most books would benefit from content giveaways like this and that the paying customer upside would far outweigh all the freeloader cannibalization downside.  That's why I'm so intrigued with the model Smashwords is proposing for their e-content business; free sampling of up to 99% of the book's contents means the financial risk for the reader is almost zero (unless that last 1% is really disappointing!).



Agreed that it had to boost sales, or at least I don't think it cannibalized 1 million book sales. I think it allowed her to reach new readers who, like me, had never considered buying an Orman book and are now more inclined to buy a book (I'll still pass; I'm not a fan of her style). Also, it increases the odds that someone will pay to see Orman speak when she's on tour or buy a book from her backlist, so any lost revenue by the author (if not the publisher) is offset elsewhere.

What was interesting to me about this arrangement was the limited time window. Most free book experiments, like Cory Doctrow and Seth Godin, thus far have made the book freely available permanently. I think the narrow time window boosted the downloads. A lot of top blogs, like Lifehacker and Get Rich Slowly, linked to the book download page, too, which increased the sampling. And I think the audience for a book like Orman's is less likely to be savvy about accessing file-sharing networks, so those who missed out are forced to buy the book. I wouldn't try this approach for an IT book.

So lessons:
1. A free book can help sales, but you need a platform (a media appearance or other blogs) to help people find out about it.

2. It helps to have multiple revenue streams (speaking tours, wide backlist) to offset any lost book sales.

3. A limited time window increases the desirability of downloading. And unless the book appeals to a tech-savvy or young crowd, you most likely won't have to worry about widespread file-sharing after the promotion ends.

Lucas Wilk

I didn't download the ebook (that's what happens when you don't watch Oprah), but it sounds to me like it was a perfect opportunity to embed ads for services/products related to the book's topic. In fact, one could charge a premium rate since the reader is actually requesting this content and going out of her way to get it (not that it's hard to do, but it sure beats unsolicited spam or other forms of untargeted marketing that most people ignore). Furthermore, the potential advertiser could include direct hyperlinks promoting exclusive offers to the ebook readers. The possibilities are endless, and it's great to see that someone as mainstream as Oprah is experimenting with new models of content distribution on such a large scale. The fact that one million people downloaded this ebook hints that the technology is surely moving from the tech-only circles toward higher points on the demand curve. It also disproves the recent quote from Steve Jobs that no one in (North) America is interested in reading books, particularly those books that appear in the digital format.


While it's not apples-to-apples with books, the pay-what-you-want model for Radiohead's latest e-CD (in which I'm sure many many fans chose to pay nothing) didn't seem to diminish sales of the hard-copy CD when it came out. It's a really intriguing concept to offer a retail product for free electronically, side-by-side with the physical product, and I'm sure it's one we'll be seeing a lot more of in the next year.

Joe Wikert

Hi Cindy. Yes, I've seen the Radiohead project cited alongside this Suze Orman one. There are definitely some strong similarities. There's also been a lot of chatter lately about how to build around "free", making your core product free (or almost free) and finding ways to monetize complementary products/services that surround it.

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