Toronto-based indie publisher ECW Press says ebooks count for about 12% of its sales, higher than many other Canadian publishers have been reporting. So it might seem like a strange time to start giving ebooks away for free, but that’s what ECW plans to do this spring. Readers who buy a print book will be able to get an ebook version for free.

ECW will print instructions in its spring titles for getting an electronic file in PDF or ePub version of the book. It also plans to extend the offer to any book it has an e-book file for – about 450 books so far, says ECW co-publisher David Caron.

Caron says the idea came from conversations in the office about how they themselves sometimes might find it convenient to have an electronic copy of a print book they are reading, when commuting or traveling, for example. They had also observed similar developments in the music and film industries.

Secondly, he said, it was also a response to hearing booksellers’ concerns about showcasing and the movement to ebooks. ECW wanted to “find a way in our own small part to give them some assurance that all of those people who are still buying print books and may want to look at getting ebooks can, by going into their store…. We’re hoping that booksellers will remember that this can be done with an ECW book,” Caron said.

ECW is also hoping to use the promotion to build relationships with readers. A person who bought a print book will be able to send an email to ECW saying ‘I bought this book at this place, I’d like the ebook,’ Caron explains. “And we’re going to send it to them… with a note that says, ‘Glad you like this book, if you’d like information on similar books we’d like to include you on our mailing list about similar books … so that people who like mysteries get a newsletter about our mysteries. They could say ‘don’t send me any more information’ and we’ll respect that, but we have the beginning of a dialog with an interested reader and how valuable is that?”

For that reason, Caron doesn’t seem very concerned about a foolproof security system. “If from one sale, we get a hundred different emails, and they all say ‘I bought this book at this store,’ then we do have the ability to go back and say, ‘We only sold one copy to that store, how did we get a hundred asking for us for the ebook?’ But then in some ways, we would have 100 people contacting us saying ‘I like this kind of book,’ so we’ll have to take a look at the kinds of results we get.”

Will the promotion take a bite out of that 12% of ECW’s book sales? Caron doesn’t think so because he believes that ebook and print markets are mostly distinct.

Author reaction, too, has been positive, Caron says. “We haven’t had any authors who really believes that there are a lot of double-up sales either, so they don’t believe there are any sales or royalties being lost.”

Poet George Murray, whose new collection Whiteout will be published this spring and who ran the popular book website Bookninja for eight years, says this kind of initiative is “long overdue.” He agrees that ebook and print book markets are different, but thinks they may be starting to merge in some instances. “The people who fetishize the book itself, when they get their Kindle for Christmas they get excited and they want to get a few books on it, but they don’t want to give up having those books as decorations in their house…So it’s a natural time to do that. For people who are willing to pay $18.95 for the print artifact, the value add to them is that they can carry it around on their phone or their Kobo or their Kindle.”

ECW is publishing Evan Munday’s YA series The Dead Kid Detective Agency, but Munday is also the publicist for Toronto-based publisher Coach House Books. As an author, Munday says he is really happy about ECW’s ebook-print book bundling. “As someone who works for Coach House I was upset that they beat us to the punch….We’re actually planning to do the same thing,” in February, Munday said.

Maybe the idea is catching on.