academic publishers should make digital copies of their books available online for free

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education

attention academic publishers. a new article by david wiley in the chronicle of higher education‘s ‘wired campus’ section entitled ‘giving away academic books online can actually help print sales‘ makes a lot of sense, and there is data to back it up.

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.

i was particularly struck by a comment by james boyle, co-founder of the center for the study of the public domain at duke university school of law. he explains why it is beneficial for academic publishers to make digital volumes available for free:

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.

this actually makes a lot of sense. a scholar can flood the market with his or her ideas, which increases the visibility of the book and its arguments. those arguments then become a more talked about part of the public and academic debate because of increased familiarity with the subject matter. if the argument withstands scholarly scrutiny, it will become a ‘must have’ volume. because scholars take pride in their libraries (much like popular music listeners *have* to have the new cd of their favorite artists), they will order the book. thus, the free distribution of academic books in a digital form allows readers a preview of a book they might not otherwise have purchased. (and does this strategy sound familiar??)

this won’t necessarily work with popular books, because popular readers aren’t concerned with building up their libraries. but for academics, this is a marketing strategy that makes a lot of sense because it appeals to a scholar’s fundamental desire: the ability to say, ‘i’ve read that. in fact, i have a copy if you want to borrow it.’

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