image Do publishers and writers come out ahead when free e-books go out on the Net—deliberately or as pirated editions?

Will the freebies encourage readers to buy paper editions, or the remainder of a series? Can even unauthorized P2P distribution help publishers?

Such tricky issues were discussed at the recent Tools of Change Conference.

Now, following up on that, publishers and others can sign up to learn when O’Reilly Media releases "A Rough Cut edition of ‘Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales,’" expected in the next several weeks. Alas, the report itself isn’t free because of the considerable research required, and I don’t know what the cost will be, but we hope at least to provide a summary in the TeleBlog. Price info isn’t available right now.

Some related facts here:

  • O’Reilly Media and Random House contributed data for the report. Involved were Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media and Mac Slocum of O’Reilly and Chelsea Vaughn of Random House.
  • As reported in a PPT presentation at TOC, the publishers found that the "P2P ‘threat’ may be overstated," at least as of now, based on the current technical level of typical readers.
  • Random House experimented with "8 titles, 12 formats…in the first half of 2008." Sales of the printed books rose "19.1 percent during promotional period." They were up 6.5 percent "during the promotional and post-promotional period" (combined stat). And the individual titles varied from 155 percent up to 74 percent down.
  • O’Reilly monitored P2P activity and sales stats for the front list in the fourth quarter of 2008, via eight DRMless titles pirated from O’Reilly’s front list. "Average post-seed sales were 6.5 percent higher in the four weeks after. Ranged from 18.2 percent up to 33.1 percent down. Low seed and leech volume. Average first seeds appeared 20 weeks after publication date."
  • More work needs to be done before reaching definite conclusions. Also bear in mind that "correlation isn’t causality."

"We were careful to describe the results as correlated (where correlations existed), but the samples are small enough to avoid drawing conclusions," Brian e-mailed me. "That said, we did not find evidence that free or pirated content hurt print book sales, and what evidence we do have suggests that free or pirated content may contribute to greater awareness and print or digital sales."

Brian is the author of the  report, with other participants acknowledged. It’s now 11,000 words and expected to grow somewhat. "Much of the final version will be an expanded data set to support to drive conclusions," Brian tells me. He "won’t write lots more words if the data can say it plainly."

Update, 11:15 a.m., February 27: Brian further tells us: "The promotion period was typically one week, although in three instances it was a total of three weeks each. The combined promotion and post-promotion period was a minimum of five and a maximum of seven weeks."

Detail:  O’Reilly won’t use your e-mail address from the sign-up for any other purposes.

Image credit: CC-licensed photo from redjar.