David Wiley: Giving Away Academic Books Online Can Actually Help Print Sales

In an economy where sales of everything are down, an increasing number of authors and publishers, especially in academic fields, are distributing their books free on the Internet. This contradicts common sense. After all, at a time when people are buying fewer books, won’t giving away books compound the problem?

Maybe not.

John Hilton (one of my doctoral students) and I have been researching the question of the impact of “free” on academic-book distribution. Here’s some of what we’ve found:

The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago has been digitally distributing free copies of its books, but print sales have not declined. “After the complimentary distribution of 21 titles in 2008 that had for many years only been available in print, sales of these titles increased by 7 percent compared with the previous two years,” institute officials reported on their Web site.

National Academies Press makes its publications freely available online, which has increased people’s ability to find the books, and in turn has increased sales, says Michael Jensen, director of publishing technologies there.

James Boyle, co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University School of Law, has made several of his books available freely online. “Why might free digital availability make sense for parts of the publishing industry?” he wrote recently. “First, most people hate reading a book on a screen, but like finding out if it is worth buying. I am sure I have lost some sales, but my guess is that I have gained more new readers who otherwise would be unaware of my work, and who treat the digital version as a ‘sampler,’ to which they then introduce others.”

Yochai Benkler, a professor of entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard Law School, made his book The Wealth of Networks available free. Open publishing “has probably exposed me to people who otherwise would not have gravitated towards an academic book,” he said.


That’s not to say that all authors or publishers would find the same results if they made digital versions of their publications freely available. But the idea that increased access could equal increased sales seems especially plausible for academic works with narrow markets.

And there are other reasons besides sales numbers to offer free book downloads.

Doing so can increase a book’s impact. After Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, published Free Culture free online in 2004, his fans voluntarily translated it into seven languages, produced an audio version, and converted the text into 16 e-book formats. That remixing vastly expanded the book’s reach.

And some authors feel a moral obligation to freely share their work. Hal Abelson, architect of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare movement and a driving force behind MIT’s recent open-access mandate, has also made much of his academic work freely available. When asked what his motivations were for making his work free, he simply said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Not all authors or publishers will choose the dual path of free online and paid print publishing. But for those who have a sense of moral obligation to disseminate their work as broadly as possible, there is good news. The common-sense notion that providing free digital copies of a work decreases its sales is incorrect in some circumstances. Additional research is needed to understand these circumstances in sufficient, actionable detail. —David Wiley

David Wiley, our July guest blogger, is an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University and an adviser to Flat World Knowledge, an online textbook company.

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