Daily Archives: March 5, 2010

EBooks, Free, The Value Thereof

Boing Boing points to a study done at BYU that shows free eBook versions of book titles correlates to increased short-term sales of the physical version of the title — although not generally in the case of the eBooks released by Tor as part of its Tor.com promotion, in which each title was officially available for one week only. I thought this last part was a little weird, because I know my book sales numbers, and I remember receiving a fairly appreciable bump in my sales after the Tor eBook release of Old Man’s War in February of 2008. So I decided to check out the study, and figured out why their determination was different from my own.

The primary reason seems to be in the study’s methodology. In each case, the study looked at the Bookscan sales of the book eight weeks prior to the release of the free eBook, and then at the Bookscan numbers in the eight weeks after the free eBook release, and noted the difference between the two. This is a generally cromulent strategy, but in my particular case (and I would imagine Brandon Sanderson’s, as his eBook was out a week before mine) there was a factor I suspect should have been noted but was not, and that is that the “eight week prior” window included portions of December 2007, i.e., “the holiday season,” in which week-to-week sales numbers are artificially inflated as people desperately search for material objects to signify their affection/obligation toward other people.

This factor, I suspect, should have been noted, as it would very likely skew the data. I found my likely line in the data table and noted that the raw number drop in sales between the eight week windows was fairly small, and as a percentage was a single digit, which would appear to suggest that absent holiday sales as a factor, the influence of the eBook release might have been larger, and more in line with my own observations regarding the impact of the eBook release on my sale.

I wanted to look at the data another way, so here’s what I did. I threw out the weeks of December 2007, and averaged the weekly Bookscan sales of the mass market paperback of Old Man’s War for the weeks prior to the free eBook release of OMW by Tor. That’s seven weeks of data. I then averaged the sales of the seven weeks after the eBook release, and found on that on average sales were up 2% after the eBook release than prior.

What’s really interesting is what happens when you extend that window a little further, however. For example, in August 2008, Zoe’s Tale came out in hardcover and The Last Colony in paperback, and both boosted sales of the paperbacks of the previous books in the series. So let’s track the OMW paperback sales from the week the eBook came out through the last week of July 2008 (i.e., before those releases would have had an effect). What do we see? An overall 11.6% increase of average weekly sales from the seven weeks of 2008 sales prior to eBook release.

Were there other factors possibly relating to that increase? Sure; for example, in March of 2008 I was nominated for two Hugos, including Best Novel for The Last Colony. That might have had some influence, but I suspect if so it was tangential, since it wasn’t Old Man’s War up for the award. The major significant promotional push of 2008 for Old Man’s War specifically was the free eBook release. My own suspicions are that it was a significant factor in the overall average increase of sales of the book, at least until other releases in the series lifted its sales in their wake.

My point here is not to suggest the study here was done poorly; I think the authors go out of their way to note more and more rigorous data crunching is advisable, and that this is sort of an early swing through the numbers. My point is that when it comes to these free eBooks, quite a lot changes depending on the data set you choose to use to examine them — and this fact is probably one of the reasons everyone’s still in a tizzy about them.

The Big Idea: Teri Hall

Everyone asks questions – but are they asking the right questions? Author Teri Hall is asking herself (and us) this particular question, especially in the context of her debut YA novel The Line, in which certain questions (and whether they’re asked at all) take on a critical importance. Here’s Hall, to explain the questions, and to speculate on why the answers matter.


The Line is a dystopia, set in the near future.  I got the notion for the novel while I was sleeping—yes, that’s right—I had a dream. (Take a moment to groan in disgust if you hate it when writers say that.)

It was just a scene really—a scene where a young girl was sitting in the corner of a room, a room where all the walls were made of glass.  It was night, and there was a rain storm, the kind where the rain is coming down so hard that it cascades down the glass in sheets, and makes everything outside look wavery and vague.  The girl was looking out into the night, trying to see, but the rain and the dark made it impossible. The girl “felt” scared in my dream, but she really wanted to see whatever she thought was out there in the dark.  There was a flash of lightening, and something—I didn’t see what—was illuminated.  The girl gasped, and when she gasped, I sat straight up in bed, shocked into wakefulness.

I thought about that scene for days, because I don’t generally have dreams like that, where nothing is familiar or at least signifies something familiar.  I wondered why that girl was sitting in a glass room alone at night.  I wondered what she saw outside when that lightening struck.  I wondered why she was so afraid.

I wondered what world that was, that I had seen in that dream.  And I started to write about what I thought that a world like that might be like.

That’s how I got the notion for The Line.  But the Big Idea?  Well, the big idea behind The Line is a question.  A few questions, actually.  Here they are:

1) Why are we so afraid of the Other?    (Yep, the Other in the capital letter sense of Other.)

2) What does it truly mean to have courage?  Can that quality ever be relative?

3) Ditto on the quality of integrity.

4) Why does our notion of beauty hinge on the quality of harmlessness?

5) Can people really change?  Do we get a second chance?

I hope the questions I’m asking in The Line are question that people still care about.  I think they are.  I’m especially thrilled when the young folk (I love saying that phrase—it makes me feel all creaky and ancient even though I fancy I’m not, yet) get excited about these sorts of questions.

I had my very first classroom visit the other day, with a class of 7th graders who read ARCs of The Line.  One boy described his favorite scene in the book—a scene where something fairly chilling happens on a public street in a small town, and nobody blinks an eye.  They all just keep on walking, or worse, they watch, with a sort of sick exhilaration.

I asked the class if they could think of any countries where that scene could happen today, in real life.  They answered quickly (very SMART kids), naming countries like North Korea, or China. And they were spot on.  The scene could happen in places like that today.

But I wanted to say to them (I didn’t say it) that the scene could happen here, in The United States.  I wanted to say the scene does happen here.  And that we don’t seem to be noticing.  I wanted to ask them what they thought they would do, if that scene happened in front of them.  I wanted to ask them what they thought their parents might do. I wanted to see if they were aware of differences there, and if so, why those differences might exist.

I’m afraid, most of the time, of the answers to those questions.  I want people to think about those questions, long and hard, and have answers at hand before they need them.  And that’s the Big Idea behind The Line.


The Line: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link).