It’s Time for Book Publishers to Overcome the Fear of Free
Open the iBooks trending searches today and you’ll see that the majority of searches start with the word “Free.” This is a word well beloved by consumers and deeply feared by publishers, who understandably want to protect their authors and investments. Yet for consumers conditioned to expect free online content, any paywall can be viewed with antagonism.
So the question is, how can publishers entice and convert these very value-conscious consumers?
Or maybe the question could be put better: What benefits or assets can publishers and readers exchange for access to free or low-cost books?
One author has garnered thousands of positive reviews on iTunes for his free podcast and reaches an audience more frequently found in Apple Stores than bookstores. Major publishers are pursuing consumers in unorthodox venues like gamer conventions and grocery stores. They’ve decided that trading free and low-cost content for direct access to loyal readers makes sense, and that building relationships with new audiences is a valuable investment.
Let’s look at some examples, and also consider some alternative revenue models.
Random House recently announced a partnership with Instafreebie for free, early, and exclusive access to popular mystery and romance titles.
Readers have always been able to try before they buy by browsing in bookstores, but ebook sampling offers publishers new opportunities for closer contact.
In May, Instafreebie gave readers at the PAX East gamer convention early access to three chapters of Star Wars: Bloodline in exchange for their email addresses. This is a clever way to connect readers and authors, and combat the disintermediation of the publisher in bookselling, cultivating a grateful and engaged fan base whose word of mouth can complement more traditional marketing.
HarperCollins’ UK imprint 4th Estate recently unveiled a new site hosting the free 4th Shorts series. Readers sign up to receive mobile friendly short stories, and the publisher promotes quality writing from its back catalogue, or teases upcoming titles. Lettice Franklin, assistant editor, 4th Estate says, “Publishers often think of short story collections as launch pads for novels. It can however work the other way. People who loved bestselling novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See can very easily (and without any cost) discover these authors’ alternative lives as masters of short-story-writing. Each story acts as a particularly thorough advertisement for an author, as well as a stand-alone delight.”
Readers on the site are prompted to add books to their cart at the end of the short stories, giving the publisher even more direct access to fans.
When bestselling and award-winning author Malcolm Gladwell chose to create a podcast instead of writing a new book, it made waves. And when Apple iBooks decided to sponsor it, Revisionist History gained an additional sheen of prestige while the iBook Store gained a new way to sell Gladwell’s favorite books, a curated collection he promotes during the podcast ads. This is ad-supported premium content, free for the listener. It is also a way of extending a well-known brand-name author, and giving him a digital bully pulpit and adding an emotional energy and urgency to dry-sounding topics like “moral licensing” and “capitalization rates.” Everyone wins here: listeners, other authors, and Gladwell, whose books have risen in rank at Amazon along with the success of the podcast, which has held the #1 or #2 spot on iTunes since launch.
Speaking of Advertising
Many other mediums use ads to generate revenue for products that are free for the consumer: music, video, journalism, etc. But in the book business ads have traditionally been anathema, and are often contractually forbidden.
However, audiobooks, which are already available in many subscriptions, might be a good candidate for experimentation with ads or sponsorships.
David Sedaris’ books, with their granular stand-alone stories would work well under this model, and his inimitable voice is bound to hook new listeners.
Cheap Thrills: James Patterson’s BookShots
Patterson brought the idea of BookShots—short, suspenseful, low-priced books—to the Hachette Book Group. (Full disclosure: I worked for HBG for many years.) Together they worked to reach an audience glutted with entertainment options, placing the books in unconventional venues such as drugstores and grocery stores, as well as bookstores. Michael Pietsch, the CEO of HBG, explains that Patterson’s full-length thrillers are usually composed of three braided storylines. When his books are adapted for movies, the screenwriters unbraid the stories and focus on a single one. BookShots offer just one compelling story, not too long, and less expensive than a bag of popcorn. “It’s the movie inside a book,” says Pietsch. The Trial, a Women’s Murder Club title written by Patterson with Maxine Paetro, debuted at No. 2 on the USA Today Bestseller list. Several other bestselling titles in the series have reached—and may convert—people who aren’t habitual book buyers.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Subscription services, like Amazon Prime, already offer add-on freebies: books, music, movies, and more. These books are not really free, of course, but readers feel like they are getting a deal because of the bundling of content with a “free” shipping service. The ebook and audiobook subscription service Scribd also has a “Scribd Selects” pool (comprised of titles from major and indie publishers) that subscribers can draw upon after using their monthly credits. Jenn Singerman, head of marketing, describes how this curated offering lowers readers’ barriers, “removing the psychological fear and making it OK to try something new.”
This model has been adopted all over the web: sample some content, and then buy or subscribe. Now the Tapas app encourages book reading on the go and conversion via in-app purchases. The first few chapters, sliced into easily consumable segments, are free, but for premium access you need to earn coins or buy more. Chang Kim, the founder of Tapas Media, recognizes the opportunity to reach people who already have mobile-gaming and comic-reading habits, and to create a direct relationship with them. Hachette plans to experiment with this model, adding titles to the platform this fall.
In an age where consumers share valuable personal information (wittingly or not), and exchange browsing data and preferences for “free” access to information, there’s no reason publishers should give away something for nothing. There are so many ways to cultivate a valuable reciprocal relationship—even when it is “priceless.”