Publishers Post 'Sneak Peeks' of New Books Online

As an experiment, HarperCollins has posted complete electronic editions of a few books for free on its Web site, including titles by some of its well known authors. The publisher plans to post a fraction of new titles online before their publishing date as a "sneak peek."

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Book publishing companies haven't exactly been making a fortune lately, and now they're hoping to make more money by giving away stuff for free. People took notice last month when the well-known publishing house HarperCollins announced it would make a small selection of books available online for nothing.

NPR's Lynn Neary checked in to see how the experiment is working.

LYNN NEARY: The publishing industry, like pretty much every other business in this digital age, is trying to figure out how to use the Web to its advantage. So HarperCollins' full access program is not so much about giving away ebooks as it is about finding a new way to sell traditional books.

Brian Murray is president of HarperCollins worldwide. He says the company wants to find the most effective marketing strategy to attract new readers.

Mr. BRIAN MURRAY (HarperCollins): There's been a big debate in the publishing industry over if you give more away will you sell more. And so that has been something we want to measure and understand what consumers are willing to pay for and what they want to read.

NEARY: For starters, HarperCollins posted free electronic editions of five books, a mere fraction of its releases. And you can't download the free ebooks. You have to read them on the HarperCollins Web site.

Murray says some people read the whole book, but most read about 40 to 50 pages online.

Mr. MURRAY: Before, our Web site was primarily a catalog where you could learn about the author and a description of the book. Now you're able to sample that book online. It's like sitting in a superstore and reading a book and flipping the pages. It's a very similar experience, except you can do it at your computer, whether you be at home or on your lunch break at the office.

NEARY: This month Harper Collins is offering Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" for free online and sales of the book have already tripled. Murray says that's because Gaiman promoted the free book offer.

Mr. MURRAY: He puts a challenge out on his blog to his fans and asked them which of my books would you recommend to your friends. And from the minute he ran that contest, we started to see sales increase.

NEARY: A number of writers like M.J. Rose have also given away free copies of their books online. In 1999, Rose published her first novel, "Lip Service." She gave away a thousand copies and sold another 3,000. She says free books online are a little like those samples that perfume companies give away.

Ms. M.J. ROSE (Author): Think of it like Chanel moisturizer. This is no different than Chanel putting a little silver packet inside Vogue magazine that you can rip open and for five days you can use Chanel's new moisturizer that costs $450 in the store.

NEARY: The writers may think it's counterintuitive to offer their books for free in any form. Rose says they have a lot to gain from it.

Ms. ROSE: If a publisher gives away 5,000, 10,000 copies of my book and exposes me to a really wide audience, the next time I have a book that comes out I've got all those new fans. Or what we found out really happens is you give the book away for free, people start reading it, and by page 20 they go, wow, I really like this, I'm going to go buy it.

NEARY: HarperCollins is not the first publisher to give away free ebooks. Harlequin, best known as the publisher of romance novels, has been doing it since 1999. Harlequin has special promotions around free ebooks, which customers can download to their own digital devices. After sampling ebooks, Harlequin's Marla Valich(ph) says they want their customers to buy them.

Ms. MARLA VALICH (Harlequin Publishing): We are the very first publisher to publish 100 percent of our books, front list, in all ebook format. And that is because our female customer has responded incredibly positively.

You know, they never want to be caught in a reading emergency where they don't have enough books with them. It could be like Sunday at 2:00 a.m. in the middle of a snowstorm when they suddenly remember that Debbie Macomber's latest book is out. They can go get it right now and download it.

NEARY: As the publishing industry moves into the digital world, it hopes to avoid some of the problems the music industry faced. But books, they note, are not two minute songs. And they believe readers, who tend to be older, are less likely to share files illegally with their friends.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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