With Kindle, the Best Sellers Don’t Need to Sell, NYT article.
More than half of the “best-selling” e-books on the Kindle, Amazon.com’s e-reader, are available at no charge.
Some publishers are giving away free Kindle books in the hopes of creating interest for the author or for later book in a series. Other publishers consider this to be self-cannibalism and harmful to the industry.
Somebody said "free is not a business model".
Playing the devil's advocate here, I'll say: that's true. "Free" is a word. You need a a lot more specifics to make a business model. For example, you need to specify what and how much you are giving away for free, and what if any path there is from that free sample to the customer buying something.
It's obvious that if you give everything away, then you'll go under fast. On the other hand, I don't expect to hear anybody arguing against the free copies which are sent out to respected reviewers. One great review is invaluable.
There's also the issue of what does it cost you to give away samples. If it's physical books, then it would cost a fortune to give away tens of thousands. If it's ebooks, then that cost is a few dollars. And if that does generate sales, then it might be worth it.
Then it might hang on: how good is the product? Or more accurately: how many people like the product and how badly do they want it? If nobody likes a book, it probably does not matter how much you give away for free. But if they want the next hit as badly as heroin addicts after the first free sample, then you're in clover.
We don't know about writing yet, but in some industries, the free-samples models has worked, for example in the shareware industry. And was it McAfee who was the first to give away the software for free, and then charge for upgrades? He's a billionaire now.
I think the jury will still be out for a while on whether the digital age is good or bad for artists/writers who want to be professionals. On the one hand, the barriers to getting published has been drastically lowered. On the other hand, the barriers to getting published has been drastically lowered also for your competition! And if it turns out that way too many of them are willing to work for free...I dunno.
Update: from the article:
In October, the most recent month for which she has statistics, Ms. Brashear said Samhain offered free digital versions of “Giving Chase,” a romance novel by Lauren Dane, leading to 26,897 downloads.
But paid purchases of some of Ms. Dane’s other novels jumped exponentially. Her earlier novel “Chased,” which sold 97 copies in September, sold 2,666 digital units in October, and another of her previous books, “Taking Chase,” which sold 119 copies in September, sold 3,279 in the month in which a free download was available.