Say you are reading a book you really like and want others to read it too. Maybe you just one certain friend to read it. Maybe you want to try to influence millions of people you do not even know. Or somewhere in between. It should be possible to easily buy restricted or unrestricted book distribution rights.
For example, imagine some wealthy guy with an interest in some policy area, someone who already might now be donating to think tanks like, say, the Manhattan Institute (and I happen to know such people in that specific case). They come across a book that delivers some message (could be about health care, banking reform, immigration, etc) they so enthusiastically agree with that they want to see it reach a much wider audience. It ought to be possible to go to a web interface of an online bookstore or publisher and bid for the right to make the next 10,000 copies of the book free to download. Or bid for the right to make the book freely downloadable for the next 3 days or the next month. Or make it free to download only in one geographic area (e.g. where a measure is on a ballot and you want people to read a relevant book).
Many policy books have very small readerships. They sell hundreds, thousands, or maybe even tens of thousands of copies. Ray Sawhill, who used to cover the publishing industry for years when he worked at Newsweek, tells me large numbers of books end up paying their writers so little that they are written far more for prestige than for money (though many authors writing their first books do not yet know this). Labor for a couple of years and be lucky to make $20k. In fact, the occupation "author" has the lowest income as compared to IQ for a long list of occupations, as Audacious Epigone has recently shown. Lots of smart minds write good books that sell few copies.
After a couple of months on the market many books show little signs of becoming big sellers. So their rights for wide distribution ought to be available for sale. Publishers ought to either publish the prices for wider distribution or they ought to provide a way to submit a request to bid on various forms of distribution rights. Want to make democracy promotion books freely downloadable at Egyptian IP addresses? Want to make a bunch of books about air pollution and health freely downloadable in Beijing or Shanghai? There ought to be a way.
Publishers ought to consider these ideas and, in agreement with authors, suggest to interested parties that certain titles could have rights to free download from Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble purchased for anything from a day to a week to a year or indefinitely. The cool idea about having rights for free distribution available for just a day or week is that blogger and big media fans of an otherwise obscure book would have an incentive to mention that some book they really like is available for free for a limited time only. Get over there today or tomorrow and get this great book before its price goes back up to $12. People would download it without even being sure they'll read it.
It should also be possible to pay to discount a book. Rather than buy full rights one should be able to say "I want to pay half the cost for the next 5000 buyers of title X". The discount on the web page could even announce who the benefactor is and a link to the benefactor's motivations. Again, this could be restricted to a geographic area or by a friends list or other filter. This is something that Amazon and other online book sellers could offer without needing to negotiate with book publishers. The publishers would see the same amount of money.