Publishers must stop looking at free as a threat to their business, industry experts urge. The cost of creating content remains high, and publishers still fear losing the money invested in the production process. This is a mistake, says founder and CEO of Accent Press, Hazel Cushion. The Wales-based independent publishing house, set up in Cushion’s living-room in 2003, has thrived on content offered for free.
“We decided early on to focus on low production cost e-books, which hardly anyone did then. Our first success story with free was Christina Jones’s Tickled Pink. We acquired and re-jacketed the novel, which was 8 years old, and offered it for free on Kindle.” The chick-lit novel was marketed aggressively in July, the prime time for light holiday reading sales. Accent Press took advantage of Amazon listing free and paid e-book downloads in the same chart, a practise the company has since dropped. “Tickled Pink shot up to number two on the combined downloads list with 17,000 dowloads, then took over Fifty Shades of Grey to become the most downloaded book on Kindle.”
The interest generated around the book with the free downloads campaign helped Accent Press sell 60,000 copies of Tickled Pink, and the buzz carried over to Jones’s backlist with a total of 163,000 sales. The publisher has since successfully built audiences by giving away the first book in a series for free. “Free is also a fantastic tool for creating priceless reader engagement. Instead of charging for merchandise illustrations created for Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St. Mary’s series, we gave them to the readers for free to print on mugs, t-shirts, canvas bags, you name it. This makes readers feel they’re interacting with the product and the community,” Cushion explains.
Free can also work to promote hard copy sales, suggests Adam Swallow, Commissioning Editor for Economics and Finance at Oxford University Press. The pricy production processes have traditionally dampened publishers’ enthusiasm towards free beyond BOGOFF offers. “We would worry that if we give one of our books away for free online, no one would be interested in buying it in hard copy. But people are surprisingly traditional, and many still wanted to also have the hard copy as a reference.” Swallow’s team experimented with offering 18 books for free as open access. In addition to tens of thousands of downloads, the books also sold 300 hard copies, a considerable number for the genre. “What works for free as a download or print copy depends on the title, and you should assess every publication on a case-by-case basis.” Cushion and Swallow spoke in a seminar organised by the Oxford Publishing Society on 16 March.