Publishers Try Bold New Marketing Concept: Free Samples

To any package-goods marketer, offering free samples is usually a slam-dunk: Customers fall in love with the freebie and then turn into paying customers.

But in the downtrodden world of book publishing, the news that Harper Collins will give away free electronic versions of best-sellers, and that Random House will be selling books by the chapter, have raised a few eyebrows.

Yet some experts say that if anything, such innovations are overdue: Just as consumers have come to expect that they can sample music online, they have also become accustomed to browsing through books, whether it's via Amazon's "Search Inside" technology or similar browsing features used by publishers.

The idea of sampling is becoming more and more widespread. In a profile of writer Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff, The Wall Street Journal this week also included a link to one of the short stories included in the collection. (Both HarperCollins and the Journal are owned by News Corp.)

"The strategy of giving content away is getting people to read more and buy more," says Thomas Woll, president of Cross River Publishing Consultants, in Katonah, N.Y. He says the National Academies Press, for example, which publishes scientific books, journals and papers, "gives away most of the books on their list for free, if you want to read them onscreen. And they've found that the more people read onscreen, the more they buy."

HarperCollins' offerings are hard to resist, prominently displayed on the main page of its Web site. Readers can tackle I Dream in Blue, Roger Director's story of life as a diehard Giants fan; Paulo Coelho's The Witch of Portobello, or The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President.

It also offers a fun "Browse Inside on Your iPhone" feature, enabling readers to page through titles by best-selling authors like Michael Korda, Faye Kellerman, Ray Bradbury, and Jack and Suzy Welch, as if they were at a bookstore.

"You can buy pie by the slice," Random House tells customers on its home page. "Why not a book?" The publisher is selling a chapter of Chip & Dan Heath's best-selling Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die for $2.99.

The company says it believes this is "the first time a major trade publisher has offered readers the opportunity to buy digitized sections of a book." Consumers who buy a chapter will receive an e-mail with a link for downloading the purchased file, which it says cannot be shared electronically.

"The book business is relatively flat and has been for a number of years," says Woll. And both companies' experiments are interesting, he says, because typically--for all publishers have talked a good game about competing with Amazon--"they've sold their books at full retail price, and haven't been competitive."

But clearly, Amazon, with its easy-to-use features, browse-this-book technology and most recently, with Kindle, which allows readers to wirelessly download all kinds of content, is the one to beat. "Making an entire book available for free, or selling a book chapter by chapter--these are things Amazon isn't doing," he says.

For now, he says, it's a whole new world. "Even Harvard University is contemplating putting its scholarly research, normally published in small journals, on the Web for free."

Tags: strategy
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