WASHINGTON - Intuitively, it doesn't make sense. A Washington publisher, National Academy Press, posted 1,700 of its current titles on the Internet, thereby letting everyone read books for free, and the next year its sales increased by 17 percent.
What does that saying about no one wanting to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free?
Well, in the case of cyberspace, NAP, primarily an academic publisher, has found that offering to quench the reader's thirst is good business. Most readers don't gulp down the entire book online - after all, reading off a computer screen is hardly a pleasurable experience - but instead sip slowly, skimming certain sections much as they would browse at a bookstore. Once their appetite is whetted, they offer up their credit cards and buy the book. And NAP rings up another sale.
Electronic book publishing is largely an infant business, accounting for an infinitesimal piece of the $20 billion-a-year publishing industry. Publishers may be rushing to sell their books online, but few have embraced the idea of offering the actual goods on their Web sites - a chapter or two, maybe, but not the whole book. They cite a variety of reasons for their resistance, including excessive start-up costs, copyright concerns and the belief that such freebies will hurt sales.
But publishers who have ventured online say those fears are unfounded. Mostly nonprofit operations like NAP and university presses, these publishers say the cost - on average $250,000 to $400,000 a year - is reasonable when the eventual payoff is considered. Copyright issues can be easily navigated - indeed, many authors request the additional exposure. They further praise the new medium as a superb marketing tool that helps titles stand out amid the more than 50,000 books published each year in the United States.
But most important, they say, readers will benefit. "They will never have to worry that a book won't be available," said Scott Lubeck, NAP's former director, who initiated the online project in 1994.
Charged since 1863 with disseminating the works of the National Academy of Sciences, NAP publishes about 200 books each year, primarily on science, technology and health issues. The books are, in fact, policy reports by NAS scholars - for example, National Science Education Standards, which sold 150,000 copies.
Industry experts credit NAP with being at the forefront of the electronic movement; no other publisher comes close to its online volume. "NAP simply gets it," said Calvin Reid, an editor at Publishers Weekly. "Posting books online invariably leads the reader back to print."