We do seem to be beginning to take on board the counterintuitive idea that giving the product (or bits of the product) away free of charge can actually stimulate sales. Publishers have always resisted the idea. A book is a closed system: once you have it you don’t need it again. If your greengrocer were to offer you free rutabagas you might find you liked them and rush out to buy more (not, I fear, that I’ve ever been offered free vegetables, though they do often offer free apple slices at farmers’ markets). With a book once you’ve read it you’ve read it, and even though you may lose it or throw it away you won’t need another copy, at least for many years.

Of course in crude terms, when it comes to giving books away, publishers are to some extent constrained by their contracts with authors. Giving too much of the product away might be seen as courting legal problems. In actuality publishers are mostly acting merely as agents for their authors. The author owns the book, and leases the right to publish it to a publisher in return for some sort of payment, usually royalties. This is why giving books or chapters away for free is much more common in the world of self publishing: obviously a self publisher making a possibly risky decision has only one party to consult: themselves. Their ability to change the retail price of their e-books almost on a daily basis may help sales — in the days following a discounted offer lots of people still purchase although the price has gone back up. This by and large is not an option open to a traditional publisher, given the wording in most contracts. If you keep discounting the price to a level below that at which the author is due any royalty, authors and their agents will be after you. It may increase sales, and may help the publisher’s bottom line, but the author has been defrauded unless some special arrangements have been made. One-off side deals like this are expensive, and many publishers will conclude that spending money to conduct that negotiation just in order to give the book away, is not a good way to invest their resources. Thus the idea that free offers might increase overall sales trends to remain largely untested.

Publishers have always budgeted for a proportion of the books they print to end up as freebies: 10% is not unusual. Most of these copies will go to review media, who frustratingly often “lose” the book and need more. Some may go to the buyers for book chains, and to opinion makers who might be hoped to start some buzz, that essential ingredient of success in book marketing. Some of course end up as “office copies” and some are just lost as a result of damage in shipping, being hit by a forklift truck in the warehouse, or being rained on. I once had to cope with a container falling off the ship into the Atlantic.

It’s giving books away to potential customers that has always stuck in the publisher’s throat, even though we rather suspect that doing so might help sales. With the author’s agreement there’s lots that can be done: but this will eventually need to be incorporated into the original contract in order to be affordable. For example, it’s not that unusual to find a chapter from the next book in the series at the end of the installment you are reading. Giving away one chapter can’t damage sales too much (there may be one or two readers who find they hate the book, but they’d probably have figured that out before buying anyway). But of course that chapter can’t be there without the author’s agreement — at the very least it’s got to be written!

Things are beginning to change though. Book Business has an article describing some of the initiatives being taken by trade publishers. At the end of the day I think it all boils down to the split in publishing between trade publishing and the rest of the industry. If you publish a book which might be used in advanced courses in nuclear physics, you can’t increase the total potential sale beyond the number of PhD students in nuclear physics. Giving the book away is never going to increase the audience: “Oh, look. I can get a book for free. I must sign up for a PhD course in nuclear physics!” On the other hand there will always be more people out there who you might entice into getting hooked on Tyrion Lannister’s survival prospects.

Here’s news of a promising UK initiative in this direction. Exact Editions makes books temporarily available free of charge. Carcanet are allowing access to ten of their books via this site