For a long time I’ve been hopeful that people would read some of the academic research I’ve been working on. Although I’m new to academia, I’ve heard that one of the dangers of academic publishing is that it’s very possible that nobody will read what you write. Then again, if people will read what you write, chances are they will try to poke holes in it. And that’s not bad — feedback often helps us to refine our thinking–such has recently been the case for me.

“The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales”, which was recently published by The Journal of Electronic Publishing, has received a lot of coverage. Simon Owens wrote a story about it, Boing Boing mentioned it, and Wired featured it as well. Those reports were mostly positive, although some people in the comments brought up important issues about the methodology of the study. This post, coming from Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen was pretty negative. An author whose book sales were part of the study gave his thoughts as well. I wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the feedback that’s been given on the article, all with gratitude for those who took the time to read and think about the article.

Many people gave encouraging words, saying something to the effect of, “It’s nice to see a study that actually attempts to measure a broad swath of books as opposed to just one author sharing his or her experiences.” Thank you!

Here are some of the objections that have been raised, along with my responses.

Objection: Outside events (e.g. additional marketing, book sales, etc.) were not controlled for. This is true. Given that this study featured the work of multiple authors and publishers it was not feasible to try to account for all the variables that could have existed. Our hope was that studying multiple books would mitigate this weakness. Future studies could be strengthened by working more closely with a publisher who could inform us of abnormal events surrounding the book.

Objection: The study only accounted for 70% of book sales. Although this statement is true, I don’t think there is anything that can be done about it. This study used the best tracking system for book sales that is in existence – sadly, no system is in place that tracks 100% of book sales.

Objection: Correlation was claimed but none was present. We should have explicitly stated that we did not find a statistically significant correlation between free e-books and print sales of those books. When we referred to a correlation in the article we were referring to the fact that when the Tor books were excluded, 13 of the 17 books saw increased sales. As a side note, one commentator on the article pointed out that this lack of correlation could be viewed as a finding. The fact that there was no negative correlation may indicate that under current conditions book sales will not collapse if e-versions are made available for free.

Objection: A few of the weeks studied were around the Christmas holidays when sales are normally higher. This could have skewed the results. This is true; however only a few books were affected by this. Excluding those books (which were part of the Tor series) would also have been problematic. But we should have at least mentioned this weakness in the article.

Objection: There was no data on how many times the book was downloaded, and there was no historical data. True. These weaknesses will be remedied in a study to be released shortly. Once again, particularly when it comes to have data on downloads, the participation of publishers is vital.

Objection: There were no comparison books. This objection also highlights the need for publishers to participate in this kind of research. Because we were not intimately acquainted with each of the free books we studied, nor the markets to which they are a part of, we were not in a good position to judge what good “comparison” books will be. The study I’m about to release includes comparison books, but it was difficult to find good comparison books even in a genre with which I am very familiar. Ideally publishers would be partnering on this kind of study so that they (with strong knowledge of the genre) could help select comparison titles.

Objection: If Tor was trying to get emails it was an expensive way to go about it. Not necessarily. In total Tor sales decreased by 5,268 copies. We did not look at dollar figures, but even if one states that Tor lost $2.00 in revenue per book, we are talking about $10,500. If 100,000 books were downloaded (a figure that seems reasonable based on other studies I’ve done) we would be talking about ten cents per contact collected. That seems like pretty cheap marketing to me.

Objection: If everyone made e-books available for free any effect would be greatly diminished. Agreed. As we stated in the article, “As books increasingly become available in digital formats, the effects of free distribution may rapidly change. The explosive growth of Kindle and other e-book formats could dramatically impact how free distribution affects for-profit sales and even alter the relative importance of print sales. As the electronic publishing industry matures it will be increasingly important to research the effects of free distribution of electronic books.”

Objection: This study is interesting, but I’d like to see more studies like it that have a longer duration. Amen!

Once again, I would like to thank those who have shared their insights about this article. My thought processes have been refined, and I’ve made some new friends along the way. I agree that there is much research to be done in this area and hope that this study can be a helpful part of the conversation. Although it had its weaknesses, it is to my knowledge the first of its kind. I hope that future studies will build and improve on it. In fact, if there is one thing that I hope happens as a result of this study, it is that it encourages more people to research and publish about the effects of making free e-books available. One area I think will be particularly interesting to study is this: Outside of the financial implications, what are the educational implications (if any) of making e-books freely available. Onward!