Free: the new black?

It has been a busy week for the debate about free content. On Monday, Bloggasm profiled the work of John Hilton, a graduate student at Brigham Young University, who has been studying whether promoting paid content with free digital content lifts sales (his preliminary research of several Random House promotions suggests that it does).

On Tuesday, the New York Times featured an article that claimed piracy of digital book content was rising “exponentially”, although there was little evidence provided that the presence of unauthorized digital content cost publishers sales they otherwise would have had.

Also on Tuesday, O’Reilly Media published a research paper that we’ve been working on for about a year. Our study evaluated how sales changed when content was pirated from O’Reilly front-list titles. It also looked at the change in sales for eight titles that Random House promoted using free digital content (the Random House titles profiled in our study were taken from earlier tests than Hilton used for his work).

Hilton’s findings parallel the lift in paid sales we saw in our study, the results of which were summarized in a presentation given at O’Reilly Media’s 2009 Tools of Change conference in February. The research report and the related presentation are careful to note that the sales gains reflect correlation, not causality. More data points – more participants, and more tests – are needed to draw conclusions.

That said, there is enough information in our research (and now in Hilton’s study) to challenge the reflexive claim that “pirated content will kill us all”. There is at least some evidence that free and pirated content is correlated with increases in sales of some trade books. That model may not work for every type of publisher, and the situation may change as digital content readers become more widespread. But at the moment, book content “pirates” operate in a space that seems to help at least as much as it hinders paid sales.

A summary and update of the research effort is on the agenda at BEA. Publishers can come prepared to be gently lobbied: we would like to augment the ongoing research with more experiments that establish the benefits and risks of using pirated and authorized free content distribution to promote paid sales.

Edited (May 16) to add two links: Author Peter Wayner writes a first-hand account of his frustration with finding that the highest-ranked sites featuring his content are offering it for free. His comments underscore the need for continued study and communication about the impact of “free” on paid sales. And a UK study suggests that cracking down on piracy misses an opportunity to essentially tax the activity (not quite sure what I make of that yet, but I wanted to keep the link).

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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