Get Your Free Books Here

I'm of two minds about this trend reported in today's New York Times. Book publishers, including my own house Macmillan, are giving away free digital copies of certain titles to drum up interest in authors whose book sales could use a boost: 

Publishers including Harlequin, Random House and Scholastic are offering free versions of digital books to AmazonBarnes & Noble and other e-retailers, as well as on author Web sites, as a way of allowing readers to try out the work of unfamiliar writers. The hope is that customers who like what they read will go on to obtain another title for money.

“Giving people a sample is a great way to hook people and encourage them to buy more,” said Suzanne Murphy, group publisher of Scholastic Trade Publishing, which offered free downloads of “Suite Scarlett,” a young-adult novel by Maureen Johnson, for three weeks in the hopes of building buzz for the next book in the series, “Scarlett Fever,” out in hardcover on Feb. 1. The book went as high as No. 3 on Amazon’s Kindle best-seller list.

Apple has been doing something analogous on iTunes for years. It gives away free songs, usually by little-known musicians, in the hope that you'll like what you hear and buy more songs at 99 cents a pop. I know this has worked because my wife has downloaded a bunch of free tunes by artists she had never heard of and then purchased others by those same musicians. And clearly, something like that happened on with "Scarlett Fever."

On the other hand, everyone acknowledges that the book publishing  business is going through a transformative time. A question looms over the industry: Does it tame the digital bronco and figure out how to ride e-books to profitability, or has that horse already left the barn? Some publishing houses are worried that a generation of readers will grow up expecting all books to be free, which is what happened with music after Napster flattened the old record labels: 

“At a time when we are resisting the $9.99 price of e-books,” said David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, the publisher of James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer, “it is illogical to give books away for free.”

Similarly, a spokesman for Penguin Group USA said: “Penguin has not and does not give away books for free. We feel that the value of the book is too important to do that.”

The current situation reminds me of screenwriter William Goldman's axiom about the movie business: "Nobody knows anything."