How publishers helped create a nation of readers by giving away 122 million books

Free book giveaway helps create a nation of readersWhen is FREE the right price?
An Article by Chris Robley


Last week at the end of an Apple product launch event, the band U2 came on stage and played a song. They then surprised the world by announcing that every single iTunes customer (500 million people) already had a copy of the band’s new album in their purchase history, downloadable for free.

The music media went crazy covering the story, but what I found most interesting was that U2′s other albums all got a giant sales bump because of this giveaway. By flooding the market with a new product, they created new demand for their older catalog items too.

This music news reminded me of a story I read in The Atlantic about how American publishers gave away almost 123 million books to soldiers during WWII. Not just pulp fiction and comics — which is what many people assumed the troops would want — but also ‘serious’ contemporary literature, histories, classics, and more. It was both an act of patriotism (giving the GIs books to take their minds off the horrors of war, remind them of home, etc.), and a risky, self-serving maneuver that might potentially create future demand for softcover books.

The program worked well on both counts. Many soldiers would speak of the free books as a kind of lifeline amidst the stress of battle and an aid to healing afterwards. And to the publishing industry’s benefit, those millions of GIs returned home hungry for more books, and books they were happy to pay for this time around. According to The Atlantic, the huge book giveaway created “a nation of readers.” Whereas reading was previously an activity reserved for the affluent, suddenly the general public had an interest in serious books, and the publishing industry went through its biggest boom.

The book giveaway during WWII and the U2 free album announcement are just two examples of how, when smartly employed, FREE can be a powerful price. Have you tried a book giveaway – or any type of giveaway? How did it work? Let me know in the comments below.

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