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Nelson gives away digital content to help ‘free format’ Print Email
Written by Staff   
Tuesday, 31 March 2009 08:53 AM America/New_York
Audio and e-book offers are applauded, but raise some concerns about author royalties

Thomas Nelson is giving consumers free audio and electronic editions of some of its books in a move that has been welcomed for promoting digital publishing.

altThe NelsonFree program that lets purchasers of print copies download listening and e-versions at no extra cost will initially be limited to titles from its Business and Culture division, but could be extended to other categories if successful.

altNelsonFree launched last month with the release of Scott McKain’s Collapse of Distinction and Michael Franzese’s I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse, retailing for $24.99 and $22.99, respectively. The program is being promoted on the covers with a red logo. Ten other Nelson titles will be made available in the program before the end of the year.

“The book is, in a sense, trapped by its format,” said Joel Miller, publisher of Nelson’s Business and Culture division. The consumer, too, was “locked into choosing one format over another or shelling out scarce funds for the same book in different wrappers,” he added.

The NelsonFree initiative has been welcomed by other leaders in the industry, though some expressed concern about the impact on authors if the practice was adopted widely.

Zondervan President Moe Girkins applauded the Nelson program. “I think it’s great,” she said. “We are all trying to figure out the whole digital world, and the more we explore and try things, the better off we are all going to be.”

Her company would not be following suit, though, focusing instead on its Symtio program launched last fall, she added. Twenty other publishers have so far contracted to join the program, which lets stores sell gift cards giving online access to downloads of audio editions of specific books.

By the end of March, more than 1,000 titles were due to be available on Symtio, with nearly 400 stores offering the purchases. In addition, the company was working on developing iPhone applications for some of its content, Girkins said.

She was glad that NelsonFree was not on a broad scale “because I would not want people to start considering digital content as free content,” Girkins added. More content in the future would be published digitally but not in print, so it was important to protect authors, she told Christian Retailing.

Book agent Chip MacGregor expressed similar reservations. Though supportive of giving away books to help build readership, which NelsonFree might encourage, he said losing two potential income streams could see authors being further “squeezed” on royalties. “Everybody wants things for free in this market,” he said. “But I work with authors who are trying to make a living with words, so I need to figure out how the authors I represent will get paid a reasonable wage.”

At Baker Publishing Group, publisher Dwight Baker said the company was “steadily moving into facilitating digital formats,” but did not provide content for free. “Our company has an obligation to our authors to generate royalty income from all unique uses of their fine works.”

Dan Balow, publisher for Oasis Audio, which currently licenses more than 100 Nelson books including titles by popular novelist Ted Dekker, said the NelsonFree initiative was creative, perhaps best-suited “for titles where the audio will probably not sell enough to make money anyway.”

NelsonFree follows and broadens a path first taken by Crossway Books & Bibles, which since 2005 has given consumers who buy books at the company’s Web site access to a free PDF download of the title. Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Geoff Dennis said the initiative had seen a 60% increase in direct-to-consumer sales on some titles.

Crossway’s program does not include audio as few of its titles were in listening editions, he said. Meanwhile, around a third of the 180,000 people who purchased Crossway’s new ESV (English Standard Version) Study Bible since its launch last fall had signed up for the online edition offered free, Dennis said—many more than had been expected.

Miller said NelsonFree would initially be available at general market outlets, where the business titles were more widely available, but he expected them to be on sale in Christian stores too. The authors participating in the program were excited that their books were “voices in the expanding conversation about what publishing in a digital age looks like.”