My own experience shows that posting parts of works online helps develop interest among readers and create potential new readers. For example, I've given away most of my previously published poetry, because, well, it's not as if I'm getting rich from poetry. Because I did this, a singer-songwriter decided to turn one of the poems into a song, thereby allowing the poem to earn more than it ever could have in print.
I worked for Microsoft as a writer years ago, before electronic publishing was a big deal. My team, the Server Resource Kit, wanted to give away our documentation for free to the Server customers because, well, they're big-dollar customers and supporting them is expensive. The main argument was that we should give them the info they need in advance to save Help-Desk calls later, plus it builds customer satisfaction (you might see this as "reader loyalty" from the fiction-writer's perspective). Microsoft Press, our paper publisher, fought tooth-and-nail against the idea because they made something like $50 million/year from the Resource Kit. Because Server made several $billions/year, Press lost that argument. A memorable exchange: [Server V.P.]: "Fifty million?" He reaches into his pocket and pulls out some coins. "We earn Xbillion a year. Fifty million is pocket change."
And you know what? We sold more printed books after giving them away than before.
Just a couple of anecdotes.
Sure, I fear the coming of electronic publication, because look what's happened to the music industry when music went digital and people started sharing songs with their friends (read: "ripping and giving away free copies"). But a lot of new musicians are now getting recognized because of people stealing and sharing music.
How will things turn out for individual artists when all information finds a way to be free? Will artists be able to make a living doing their work in the near future?
What are your thoughts?