Wired editor Chris Anderson argues that sometimes it pays to give things away. Could that strategy help build an audience and/or a market for university-press books? In November 2009, the University of Chicago Press began offering a free E-book of the Month, allowing readers to request a PDF of a selected title. (The current offering is Mark Monmonier’s Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America.) There are some strings aside from the PDF format; although the files do not expire, the press puts some limits on printing and how much cutting-and-pasting a reader can do. The Chronicle asked Garrett Kiely, the press’s director, about the thinking behind the experiment and how it has gone so far.
Q. Why give away a free e-book every month? Where did the idea come from?
A. Chicago has an E-Books Working Group that meets regularly and discusses all aspects of our e-publishing program. When we launched our Chicago Digital Editions program we wanted to think of ways to increase awareness of a) digital books in general; b) Chicago’s growing digital program and c) the Adobe Digital Editions platform that we are using for the e-books. Since we serve these files through BiblioVault, we wanted come up with ideas to increase our knowledge of how customers interact with our e-books so we could pass this information on to our partner publishers. We had a lot of ideas but the most compelling was the Free E-book of the Month. We figured that this would get us noticed, would get people used to coming to our site for e-books and would also help us trouble-shoot any customer service issues that would arise. The program has been successful on all fronts.
Q. How do you select the books?
A. Our first thought was that we would include older general-interest books that would appeal to a wide audience. We created a list of 30 to 40 of these and figured that this would give us several years of possibilities. We strayed from this list pretty quickly since we also had the idea of using “free” to attract attention to a new book by an author. We started looking ahead on our list to see what new books were coming that would allow this sort of cross-promotion. It turns out that, since we are blessed to have many repeat authors, this presented us with new possibilities. Another thought was that certain months have obvious affiliations and designations so that makes the choice a little easier. The short answer to your question is that the process is evolving!
Q. How many e-books have been downloaded?
A. We have had a total of nine books in the program going back to November 2009. The way this works is that a reader goes to the site, gives us their e-mail address and we serve them an e-mail with a unique link that allows for a single download. To date, we have had around 14,000 requests and we know that a little over half of these (7,300) have subsequently been opened. For me, this failure to open the file that you went to the trouble to request is one of the most eye-opening aspects of the program. It is very consistent that only about half the people who request a book take the next step of opening it. To me, this program shows both the benefits and the problems with “free”: to many people, if it’s free it has very little value and can sometimes be treated as if it has no value.
Q. Which titles have been most popular?
A. In February we were launching a new book [Piracy] by a member of our faculty, Adrian Johns. The book is about the history of the piracy of intellectual property. [Read the Chronicle's profile of Adrian Johns and Piracy.] Our group thought it would be interesting to offer a “one day only” free e-book. We did and we broadcast it on out Twitter and Facebook feeds and we got a huge response. In that day we received 2,440 requests for the free book. After February 1 we offered Johns’s other book for free for the rest of the month and we received another 2000 requests for that book. We repeated this format in May when we offered Mark Monmonier’s No Dig, No Fly, No Go for free for one day and received close to 1,900 requests. We also offered Leo Durocher’s autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, as the April book (for the start of the season) and received over 2,100 requests.
Q. How do the authors feel about it?
A. The authors have been pleased that their books are getting out and being used and they appreciate the additional marketing push for their other books. They understand that this is a time-limited promotion and they have been supportive.
Q. Does making a book freely available have any noticeable effect on sales?
A. It’s hard to judge. We do feel that the book on piracy was given a nice lift since the media coverage of the free book offer was pretty widespread. For some of the older books, there was some small increase in unit sales but this was not our original intention so we aren’t worried about it. We have gathered over 10,000 unique names from more than 30 counties that will help us to market e-books in the future.
Q. Do other publishers do this?
A. I don’t know of other publishers doing this as a program. Twitter and Facebook are filled with the occasional free book offer, but I don’t know of anyone committing to giving away a book a month to as many people as want it.
Q. Do you plan to keep doing it?
A. We do. Going back to your first question of “Why do this?”, we feel that we are continuing to get benefits from this (including an interview in the Chronicle!).—Jennifer Howard