open content

Aggregating Research on Sustainability

As many of you know, my empirical work at BYU has focused largely on issues of sustainability. I’ve blogged some of it before, but to wrap it up in one spot, here is a recap of what we’ve been up to.

Justin Johansen and I did some interesting work on OCW sustainability, examining what happens when opportunities to enroll in for-credit courses are integrated into OCW. The results – over 2.5% of OCW visitors became paying for-credit customers of BYU Independent Study, generating enough revenue to more than pay for the cost of opening access to the courses. An article version of the dissertation, with a few months more data, is forthcoming in Educational Technology Research and Development.

John Hilton and I asked the question “What happens to printed book sales if digital versions are given away for free?” We then tracked 41 books for which we could identify the date when the free digital versions of the books were made available to determine whether the release of the free version affected print sales. This work appeared in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, and is described more extensively (with a link to the full text) at The results – three of the four categories of books had increased sales after the free books were distributed (and we think we know what happened with the fourth).

Next, John Hilton and I recently interviewed 10 authors (who were mostly academics) that have made their works available for free and got their take on the implications of sharing their books online. This article also includes a case study that measures sales of a book for the year before and after it was made available for free. An overview of the article, as well as a link to the full text, can be found at: The results – no authors perceived a drop in sales and most reported that giving away their ebook increased their reach / audience. This article appeared in Tech Trends.

Finally (for now), in a follow-up study that strengthened some weaknesses in the original, John Hilton completed his dissertation which also focused on giving away e-books. This study measured sales of 8 titles for 10 weeks before and after they were made available for free. Historical sales (from the year previous) as well as comparison books (that were not made available for free) are also examined. The study also includes download data for the books. An overview, as well as a link to the complete dissertation, can be found at: The results – A 0.65 correlation between downloads and sales, meaning that books that were downloaded more often were also purchased in print more often.

John and I are currently working on an article based on the dissertation and a follow-up study suggested in the dissertation. We’re also looking for a medium to large size publisher who would be willing to do a replication of the dissertation research (with improvements for lessons learned, of course) at a larger scale. If you know of someone who might be game, let us know.


Sales Impact of Free eBooks Dissertation Published

Dr. John Hilton, who until just recently was a doctoral student of mine, has written a great dissertation on the impact giving away free ebooks has on sales of printed books. The findings may surprise you. Here’s a repost of the description from his blog:

I’ve posted on my dissertation before. The full version is now available here. Here’s a little summary of what the dissertation is all about.


Deseret Book placed eight books online for free download. All of these were “backlist” titles. This study tracked what happened as a result of those books being available.


The books were placed online September 9, 2009. This study compares sales of these books the ten weeks before they were available for free with the ten weeks after.


During the ten weeks of the study the books were downloaded 102,556 times. Collectively, the books sold 68 more copies in the ten weeks they were online for free versus the ten previous weeks. This was an increase in sales of 26%. Over the same period of time in 2008, sales of these same books decreased by 38%. Furthermore, a study of comparison titles that were not put online for free found that sales of comparison books decreased both in 2008 and 2009, as illustrated below.

Featured Books Comparison Books
2009 26% -16%
2008 -38% -6%

Thus the increase in sales of the eight featured books in 2009 seems attributable to their being available for free.

Other interesting findings include the following: Visits to the online product pages of the free books increased 1,085% during the study. Some weeks, hits to represented almost 3% of total traffic to (note: the books are still available, but now require registration. They did not during the experimental period of the dissertation). During the ten weeks of the study more people entered through than any other page (except the home page). All this happened with very little advertising. Though the impact of this additional web traffic was not quantified, it seems that the value of increasing awareness of could be significant.

There was a moderately strong correlation (r=.65) between downloads and Internet print sales (the more books that were downloaded, the more books were purchased online). Thus if more books had been available and downloaded the number of additional books sold would likely have increased.

Another interesting point is that the authors of the books made available seemed very pleased with the additional exposure their books received. One of the eight books studied was out of print. This book was downloaded 14,914 times and its product page received 834 hits. This may indicate a lingering interest in out-of-print books, and may validate a “long tail” approach to book sales.


One limitation of the present study is the relatively small number of books studied, and that the sales of these books were relatively small. The study could also have been strengthened if it were of a longer duration.

One area that remains to be researched is the perspective of the authors whose books were downloaded. In informal conversations with the authors whose books were used in this study, they expressed positive feelings about their work being disseminated more widely. It may be that authors, particularly those with books that are not currently selling well, would desire the increased exposure to the work that free digital downloads might bring.

Although this study provides some interesting results, there are many other questions to be considered. One question that might arise is, “What would have happened if the e-books had been for sale for 99 cents each?” If 10% of the people who downloaded the books for free would have paid 99 cents for the e-books, that would have provided a nice profit for Deseret Book. While it is possible that some people would have paid 99 cents for the e-books, it seems likely that people would have been less inclined to e-mail friends and blog about a “99-cent” offer than a “free” offer.” Future studies are needed to determine how many downloads would occur if they were very inexpensive instead of free.

Another aspect that should be considered is how much the popularity of electronic book devices (such as the Kindle or iPad) will change people’s proclivities to read digital books. Perhaps most important, if publishers made all or most of their books available for free digital consumption, would that have an overall negative effect on sales? In other words, in the present study the seven books saw increased sales, likely due to the special attention they received from being downloaded 102,556 times. If all books were available for free online would they see this same sales benefit? Obviously not.

So, much more to think about and explore! Hopefully this dissertation will be a part of an ongoing conversation. They said nobody ever reads dissertations … prove them wrong … go read it!

open content

The OCWC Value Proposition

In response to yesterday’s post, OCWC President Steve Carson left a link in the comment section to the organization’s 2010-2011 strategic plan. Reading through the plan provided a number of insights, but let me focus on two here and you can read the rest of the document for yourself.

First, the OCWC budget for 2010 is $1,000,000.

Second, the document includes a section called “Value Proposition to Members,” which includes the following explanation:

OCW Consortium currently offers educational institutions the following benefits:

OCWC membership…
• Provides an opportunity to fully participate in an international movement to increase access to education and knowledge, and to attract potential students to member institutions.
• Helps OCW proponents at member institutions in making a case for OpenCourseWare investment to university decision makers, funders and faculty
• Brings down the cost of creating and maintaining an OCW site
• Helps people all over the world learn about and find member institutions’ OCW websites courses
• Provides an opportunity to fully participate in the development of, and gain early knowledge of, toolkit innovations
• Provides the ability to participate in, and gain economies of scale in, the collaborative development of OCW Software
• Provides favorable publicity about member institutions’ role in the OCW movement and in the OCWC
• Provides a facilitated opportunity to learn best practices from other member institutions
• Provides first access to strategic alliances and collaborations with other member institutions
• Reduces the cost of participation in OCWC conferences for members

OCWC membership could…
• Support the generation of research funding at member institutions
• Support the rational management of course-related intellectual property at member institutions
• Attract funding for Open Courseware-related projects at member institutions with OCW sites
• Provide OCW-related technical infrastructure and support to member institutions

So now, with an overview of the value proposition, you can decide for yourself how good a value the OCWC is to the open education movement for $1,000,000 / year.

P.S. OCWC – please add this “Why You Should Join” list on your website where interested people can find it!