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Free online books will lead to book sales: authors at Google Unbound event

NEW YORK – Giving away electronic books online is the way to sell more books was the consensus at the Google Unbound conference of top-level book publishers and invited authors Jan. 18 at the New York Public Library.

Google has recently raised some 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 the book publishing industry.

“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,” he said. “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.”

He cited statistics from Nielsen in which 172,000 book titles were published in 2005, and only 6 percent of these titles sold more than 5,000 copies. With this in mind, he said that publishers should focus marketing efforts in tapping into many segmented markets of readership.

Mr. Andersen suggested that giving away books is a way to gain visibility and that visibility would lead to higher book sales, as he did with his book, “The Long Tail,” through the Wired.com blog. Having a consumer read a free book that he or she 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. Anderson’s sentiment, calling books the souvenir of the idea. He gave away 2 million copies of his book on his Web site, but still remains in the top 5 on Amazon.com. He attributed this to the power of marketing through 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 the 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 the popular technology blog Boing Boing, used creative commons licensing to spread the word about his book. He allowed his books 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 has also used channels like podcasting and blogging to create the demand for his stories.

“Electronic books are social, and social activity around a book is a key way to selling books,” Mr. Doctorow said.

Interestingly, he 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 they liked. He figured that by getting his name out there, he would be marketing himself to emerging nations. So when students from these nations come to the West to work and study, he would already have their attention. Thus when they make enough money, they’ll buy his books.

The key being to create a name, and encourage people to buy books, an act itself not increasingly popular these days.

“People don’t read books,” Mr. Doctorow said. “Books should be first-class citizens online, and book search will help this. Book search should work like Web search and one company should not control it.”

This may be the vision for established writers who are in the business of selling themselves and make large sums of money speaking at conferences and consulting for large companies. But will this work for the publishing industry, which is in the business of selling books?

According to David Warlock, chairman at Electronic Publishing Services Ltd., the power of the user will dictate the future of the publishing industry.

Mr. Warlock said there are three segments in today’s publishing world – printed works, print-on-demand and inventive entertainment – in which authors create personas through multimedia channels, all of which are marketed by search, social communities both on and offline and workflow. Publishers should be able to leverage these channels to create books that users will engage.

“We’re not living in discreet product worlds or distributed worlds,” Mr. Warlock said. “We’re in a world where users can connect things otherwise unconnected.”

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