Creating Free Content to Sell More Content: A Good Idea or Not?

In Digital by Hannah Johnson

mediabistro ebook summit conference

By Hannah Johnson

At the Mediabistro eBook Summit, held yesterday in New York City, book marketing dominated the morning sessions. But nobody was talking about print advertising or book tours. Instead, well-trodden topics like social media, online audience building and reader demographics were discussed in light of the growing e-book sales in the United States.

As an e-book publisher, Brendan Cahill, VP and publisher of Open Road Media, said that Open Road’s relationship with booksellers and distributors is different than that of a traditional publishing company because there are no physical products to sell. This has led Open Road to promote their titles primarily via online marketing techniques instead of via traditional sales channels and relationships.

Open Road creates book trailers and video series for many of their titles. By thinking about who the potential readers are for each book and what kind of extra information those readers might want, Open Road tailors its videos to match. Videos for the fiction titles often feature profiles of the author’s life and writing process. For nonfiction titles, the videos focus on the topic and research in the book.

mediabistro ebook summit

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has also started creating more “behind the scenes” content around its books, says Ryan Chapman, FSG’s Online Marketing Manager. The publisher launched an online literary blog called Work in Progress earlier this year (read PP’s coverage of the launch), with the goal of engaging 25-35 year-old consumers and extending online dialogues about their titles. Writing comes from authors themselves, from editors interviewing authors and pieces from the archives.

A subsequent panel, called “Promotion Strategies for 2010 and Beyond” also talked about online content as a way for authors to get discovered and build fan groups. Nina Lassam of the online writing community Wattpad described how one author created buzz for her forthcoming title by posting a series of stories to Wattpad featuring the characters in her book. These stories were viewed “hundreds of thousands of times” and created a group of fans this author could then market to when her the book was released. Rob McDonald of Scribd also said that many published authors post extra content or works in progress on Scribd to engage fans and give them a look at the writing process.

The belief — which has been around even longer than Chris Anderson’s Free — is that giving content away for free will enable you to sell more content in the future. It appears that we’re just now seeing a consensus around this line of thought.

mediabistro ebook summit lunch

However, there was a lone dissenter on the value of “bonus content” as a way to sell more books. Douglas Rushkoff, author and technology columnist for the Daily Beast (who we profiled earlier this year), warned against the dangers of creating too much content. “Everyone has to make a video of their freaking’ book,” he said, but this extra work distracts publishers and authors from the original content they need to sell.

Rushkoff continued by saying that just because tools exist that enable more people to write, doesn’t mean that everyone is good at writing or that everything should be published. This explosion of content, Rushkoff argued, devalues professionally published books and makes it harder to find great writing.

In his presentation, Rushkoff said he doesn’t like the iPad because its “stay away” interface encourages consumption over creation. However, he declared of the writers and publishers adding “insane crap” to the pool of content just because they want something else to publish: “Let them eat iPad!”

DISCUSS: Does Bonus Content Help Sell Books?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.