From what I glean from the trade news, there doesn't seem to be any sustainable negative impact on book sales from giving away free books. Of course, free books aren't free to the person giving them away. I've witnessed varying reactions to giving away my books, and sometimes I think the person would have appreciated it more if they bought the book. So I think the whole concept is individual in nature.
I was looking up something about Ayn Rand and saw a website listed that posted her book, Anthem, free on their site. I found that very disturbing. It wasn't the Ayn Rand Institute site and I didn't go look to see if it was done with permission or not, because I didn't want to increase their web traffic by as much as one visitor.
What bothered me, as best as I can tell at the moment, is that I enjoyed reading Anthem. I found value in it. Ayn's writing style, as with most great writers, is uniquely hers. I thought it was well worth the money to buy it. And in the end, I found posting it free somehow disrespectful of its value, perhaps even devaluing it.
Obviously someone devoting a website to Ayn Rand must be a fan of her or her works. Still I took it as an assault that they had given her art for nothing (and sincerely suspect it wasn't theirs to give). As hard as I try to spin it some other way, and as obviously wrong as I am, sitting here I still have the feeling that in their enthusiasm, they had something of valuable that they didn't respect.
I felt the same thing when I learned Ted de Grazia took his paintings into the Tucson desert and burned them in protest to the inheritance tax his children would have to pay for having them upon his death. The odd thing about such concern for his lost paintings is that I am not a huge de Grazia fan. But I'm not fond of Rembrandt's Night Watch either, so what do I know?
Most writers cannot support themselves by writing fiction. Ayn Rand took seven years to write one of her books. Sure the payoff was worth it. So why did it bother me to see that posting of her book for free? It isn't a rights issue. Perhaps for the same reason I am bothered to see books for a dime at garage sales. As radical as I am about pirating books (or music, or movies), at least the thieves realize there is value to them. (Not a value that is rightfully theirs.)
Even though the US schools are defunding arts programs, performing arts and fine arts, (while the UK is increasing subsidizing to their arts education), I still think we value the art of storytelling. So why did this bother me enough to table my scheduled post and write this one?