Why are we ready to pay for books but not music?

danah boyd is a researcher based at NYU. She researches and writes about cultural aspects of social media use, particularly among young users. You can follow her very interesting blog, here.


Recently, danah published the book ‘It’s complicated’, based on her research on how teenagers use popular social media platforms and the impact that use has on their lives. You can learn more about the book, here.

That’s interesting, but not new, I hear you say. Well, there is something else.

In addition to selling the book through online and offline book sellers, danah has made her book available to download, for free. That is right: you can buy the book, and you can also download it for free. The author explains her rationale as thus:

I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could. (…)

And while many books that are widely sold aren’t widely read, most books that are widely read are widely sold. (…)

My desire to be widely read is why I wanted to make the book freely available from the get go. I get that not everyone can afford to buy the book. I get that it’s not available in certain countries. I get that people want to check it out first. (…)

So, danah is giving her book away in the hope that such action will increase the book’s sales. Is she right?

Well, most likely, yes. In the case of books, there seems to a positive relationship between free downloads and physical sales – for instance, see this study.


Why is that?

One possible factor could be that we sample the product online. Like it. And decide to buy a copy for our own use.

Another factor could be reciprocity. This is the response mechanism whereby we feel compelled to reward a kind action with another – you did something nice for me, I want to do something nice for you. In this case, we appreciate the author’s generosity and want to help her by gifting the book to others or buying a copy for our selves.You can read more about reciprocity, here.

The interesting phenomenon, however, is that there isn’t the same clear positive relationship between downloads and sales in the case of music, or even movies. This certainly rings a bell with me. I have bought books after I borrowed them from a public library, or a colleague. But I can not remember the last time I bought a CD, or a track on iTunes (I have a Spotify subscription). What about you?


The difference in behaviour could be because of how we consume the product – e.g., we hold the book (both the physical form or the e-reader) in order to use it, but not the music. And before Spotify or Youtube, radio already allowed us to consume music without having to own it. In your experience, what else could explain such a radical difference in purchase behaviour vs. free downloads of books and music?

Of, and of course: check danah’s book! Read about her very interesting research, spread the word and consider buying the book.

4 thoughts on “Why are we ready to pay for books but not music?

  1. Very interesting post! I agree with what you say, that it is the tangible and visual part of reading a book that makes people keep buying them. Unlike music, books stimulate multiple senses at once (even the smell of opening a new printed book!). I think this can lead to stronger emotional relationships with books people are prepared to pay for.


    1. Ah, the smell of a book, specially a new one – don’t you love it?!
      Thank you, Mia – the sensory angle is a really good one. I had not thought about that one.


  2. Interesting. I didn’t know about that difference. Personally, I did buy music on cd’s until quite recently (and probably still occasionally will), but now that I have a premium Spotify account, I feel that I can better use that for both mine as the musician’s benefit. I also still buy books. And often, in both cases, because I find them in the store (book shop or media store). I guess this makes me a bit of a dinosaur…


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