I've been resolutely old school until now when it comes to reading – I'd rather carry around a forest of dead trees than spend any more of my time squinting at a screen – but there's a gathering trend that is giving me second thoughts. As e-readers move towards the mainstream, publishers' increasing interest in web-first publishing could leave luddites waiting up to six months longer than the cool kids to read their favourite author's latest novel.
It's a change that mirrors one I've witnessed at first hand in newspapers. Four or five years ago it would have been unthinkable for most newspapers to give away their stories and pictures on the internet for nothing. That was all newspapers had: content. Nowadays, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch's stable, there are very few newspapers that don't operate a web-first policy. Most local and regional newspapers break news on their websites up to 24 hours before it makes it into the hard copies the vendor shouts about on street corners.
This cultural shift happened almost overnight. One day we kept our content closely guarded for fear our rivals would snap it up; the next we were banging stories on to the web as fast as we could. Readers were deserting newspapers so fast that we all decided there would be nothing to lose in playing the internet at its own game. And now publishers seem to be following the same logic.
Throughout November, The Friday Project is giving away a free ebook version of In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns – a full six months before the book hits the shops in a more traditional format. Why? It's all a question of buzz.
As The Friday Project publisher Scott Pack says, hardback sales of 1,000 copies "can generate good word-of-mouth … 1,000 readers for any book is bloody good these days". But how much more "noise" could he generate if he could find 10,000 readers before the paperback came out, via electronic readers of all stripes? "There's only one way to find out."
Now, authors such as Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho have been giving away electronic editions of their books for years, but ever since Faber decided to release a pay-as-you-like version of Ben Wilson's On Liberty in 2009, publishers such as The Friday Project, Orbit and HarperCollins have been following suit. It has reached the point where, according to the New York Times, more than half of the books on the bestseller chart for Amazon's e-reader the Kindle were made available free of charge.
Perhaps, as Pack implies, the ebook could in these straitened times become the new hardback: an initial release to get the cognoscenti talking up a book ahead of mass-market publication. But publishers need to watch out: once you have given something away for free it can be a shock when you start charging for it. Just take a look at Rupert Murdoch's paywalls, or the disgruntled ebook readers voting with their feet when Amazon bumped up the prices for its Kindle editions. Word of mouth can cut both ways – and it all depends on whether you believe there's no such thing as bad publicity.
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