Google Unbound: Free online books will spur sales

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NEW YORK - Giving away electronic books online is the way to sell more books overall. That was the consensus at the Google Unbound conference of top book publishers and invited authors Jan. 18 at the New York Public Library.
Google recently raised eyebrows with its Google Books project, a plan to scan all public domain books for an online public archive. The Unbound conference focused on the marketing potential of offering free books online and the benefits of the online channel to target the segmented industry that makes up book publishing.
"Giving away free electronic versions of a book is the smart way to distribute content," said Chris Andersen, editor in chief at Wired Magazine and author of "The Long Tail." "The Web site for Wired doesn't cannibalize the magazine, it just distributes the message to a potentially infinite amount of people at no cost. It doesn't take away from sales because the whole experience of reading long articles with glossy paper and good design is different than reading a blog."
Citing statistics from Nielsen, he said that 172,000 book titles were published in 2005 yet only 6 percent of those titles sold more than 5,000 copies. With this in mind, he said that publishers should focus marketing efforts on tapping into many segmented markets of readership.
Mr. Andersen suggested that giving away books would raise visibility and that such visibility would boost book sales, as he did with "The Long Tail" through the Wired.com blog. Having a consumer read a free book that he downloaded on the Internet is worth the value of sales generated by word of mouth marketing when that reader recommends the book to friends, he said.
Seth Godin, author of "Small Is the New Big," echoed Mr. Andersen's sentiment, calling books the souvenir of the idea. He gave away 2 million copies of his book on his Web site yet remains in the top five on Amazon.com. He attributed this to the power of word of mouth.
"If an advertiser spreads the word through the grapevine, consumers will spread the message to their friends," Mr. Godin said. "It's like handing the megaphone to people and letting them talk for the product."
He also suggested that download-to-own publishing is an up-and-coming channel that saves publishers the cost of production and distribution, and that this should be reflected in price. He used Bill Clinton's memoirs as an example of a title that while running for $30 in print, should run for $3 in the download version because the profits are still there and the cost of production is zero.
Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and co-editor of technology blog Boing Boing, used creative commons licensing to spread the word about his books. He allows copies to be distributed online by readers for free.
So far, 750,000 books have been downloaded for free, but he said that sales are still good because of word of mouth marketing. He also has used channels like podcasting and blogging to create demand for his stories.
"Electronic books are social, and social activity around a book is a key way to selling books," he said.
Mr. Doctorow took the creative commons licensing option even further in developing nations, where he said that anyone could download or use his book in any way. He figured that by getting his name out there, he would be marketing himself to emerging nations. When students from these nations come to the West to work and study, he already would have their attention. Thus, when they make enough money, they'll buy his books.
The user's power will dictate the publishing industry's future, according to David Warlock, chairman at Electronic Publishing Services Ltd.
He said today's publishing world consists of three segments - printed works, print on demand and inventive entertainment - in which authors create personas through multimedia channels, all of which are marketed by search, by social communities on- and offline and by continuous workflow. Publishers should be able to leverage these channels to create books that engage users.
"We're not living in discrete product worlds or distributed worlds," he said. "We're in a world where users can connect things otherwise unconnected."

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