Who benefits from free and cheap eBooks? Certainly not the author.

I’ve been wondering more and more these days about what readers really make of the current explosion of free eBooks. If you believe the fad is reaching a peak, think again. There’s a lot yet to come, and it remains to be seen whether the craze will result in a welcome sea-change or inflict permanent damage to an industry that is being forced to reconstruct itself in the modern world of push-button technology.

Surely it can only be a win-win situation for readers. With a growing choice of e-readers at their disposal they can shop online in seconds, pay little or nothing to download their order – and begin reading a whole new generation of authors in a matter of seconds.

But does this era of free books devalue the work of the author? Better still, will it lead to readers being reluctant to spend more than a few dollars on a book on the basis that they can source literally tens of thousands of other titles on offer at minimum expense?

We seem to have developed a new book-selling policy that has five distinctive pricing categories:
Free
0.99
1.99
2.99
Above 2.99

Established authors with large armies of loyal fans can place themselves easily into the upper bracket, knowing their reputation for producing quality work will rightly earn sales from their readers. But what about the new army of less established indie authors? They appear to have little choice but to position themselves somewhere in the other brackets, and at some point have to consider ‘free’ promotions to gain a foot on the ladder.

But why are eBooks offered for free?

The reality for indie authors is that these promotions are the only realistic way of getting themselves noticed on Amazon’s online bookshelves. With more than a half-million fictional titles available for viewing, the chances of potential readers stumbling across an individual author’s work is pretty remote unless the book is placed among Amazon’s top popularity lists.

And the only way to appear on these lists is to produce ‘sales’ – even if these sales are set at zero!

Many authors have publicised the benefits of free promotions. They have found that by generating ‘sales’ they start to appear on the top 100 lists, which in turn gets them noticed by even more potential readers. When they make the switch away from ‘free’ the chances of generating actual sales are increased dramatically.

However, the dilemma of deciding a new price still remains. Does a 0.99 cent book appear to have less quality than a 2.99 book? Will readers risk shelling out too much until they are happy with the author’s work and are prepared to follow him into higher price brackets?

It should be stressed that the price tag on a book has no bearing on its quality. It’s simply a reflection of what the author judges to be his/her best guess at the price that will attract customers.

It should also be remembered that there are more and more short stories and novellas appearing on sites such as Amazon. These should obviously be priced at less than a full-length novel, though it’s not always apparent to the potential reader what category a particular book falls into. Readers should closely examine file size, estimated number of pages, and book descriptions to be certain if they’re buying a 5,000-word short or a 100,000-word feature.

The big winner in this free to low-price market is Amazon. Its ability to showcase a truckload of bargains under one roof is driving readers away from traditional book stores straight into their clutches. It might only be a matter of time before this migration becomes a monopoly!

It seems everybody wins but the poor author. Despite an enormous investment in time-resources and talent they are often left with little to show by way of a meaningful return on the effort they have expended.

My own view is that there should not be free eBooks (with the exception of the old classics etc.) and that a fair price for a full-length novel ought to be no less than 4.99, with novellas and shorts coming in at lower prices.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. The market has taken a turn in the direction of free and cheap eBooks, and nothing it seems will reverse that trend anytime soon.

FOOTNOTE: The photograph used above is by Martin Argles (reproduced from The Guardian).

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12 Responses to Who benefits from free and cheap eBooks? Certainly not the author.

  1. Charissa Dai says:

    As e-book formats emerged and proliferated, some garnered support from major software companies such as Adobe with its PDF format, and others supported by independent and open-source programmers. Different readers followed different formats, most of them specializing in only one format, and thereby fragmenting the e-book market even more. `,

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  2. Julia Rose Grey says:

    Just made a free promotional for three days. Will let you know how it works out. I agree with your thoughts on the promotion and think something else could be done, such as bundling a few books together for a lower price. Is there anyway to influence Amazon in this matter? I think we can email them with a comment but it won’t do any good, unless a lot of us do it. Julia Rose

  3. joemccoubrey says:

    Sandy, thanks for an interesting contribution. I particularly like your final point about reviews and wonder if authors have experienced what you’ve referred to.

  4. Sandy Nathan says:

    Hello, Joe and all, I’ve been having fun with the free eBooks. Every day, Pixel of Ink trots out a bunch of free titles with brief descriptions. Of course, they’ve done their own selection process in picking their featured books. I down the ones that appeal to me. The key determinants of what I pick (in fact, the ONLY variables shown) are the cover and blurb. I look for an excellent cover and an enticing blurb. Only after I’d been sampling the freebies for a while did the importance of the words of the blurb really hit me. My copy writer calls copy “the most important words in your book.” Those little blurbs are REALLY the most important. They have to entice. I also pay attention to the star ratings of the books and # of reviews. (And I’d better pay attention to the cover and blurb for my own books.)

    I’ve been enjoying my free treasure. Some of them are very good, belying all the conventional wisdom on “you get what you pay for.” I’ve found a few authors whose books I’d buy, authors I would have never know but for the free books. I’m planning on reviewing a couple of recent free reads. If a book is sloppy or amateurish, I dump it within a chapter.

    Does giving one’s books away further an author’s career? That’s the question. I’ve got all of books on Amazon’s KDP plan. Eventually, I’ll have to get out and test the waters. And then see what happens. I’ve heard that authors should prepare themselves of an onslaught of negative reviews after a free day. Readers who have no interest in your book but downloaded it because it was free feel free to take potshots.

    Any experience with that?

    • daleamidei says:

      Absolutely correct, Sandy. That effect is known to the self-publishing community as “the dark side of free,” and it’s not at all unusual.

  5. Patti Larsen says:

    I’m actually seeing a huge benefit–BUT I have sequels to sell at full price. Many sequels. The trick to free is to make sure you have more PAID product available–it’s proving quite lucrative for me. Not only that, I’ve had a number of people fan and email me, thanking me for the first book for free, saying they are now hooked and it’s because they found me for free the first time.

    Like anything else, it’s a tool to be used wisely.

    • joemccoubrey says:

      Patti, I think your point about using the ‘free’ tool wisely is at the heart of survival for authors. Good short-burst promos are extremely useful but beyond that care must be taken.

  6. joemccoubrey says:

    Dale, congratulations on a successful promotion and many thanks for sharing the details. I think you hit home on the point that authors need to differentiate between the need to undertake promotions without devaluing their work. Your experience will help a lot of people to make the right decision.

  7. daleamidei says:

    My recent free promotion took The Anvil of the Craftsman to the No. 1 Free spot on Amazon’s Political Fiction bestsellers list. That happened with the blessings of help from a few features on ebook sites such as Ereader News Today and the diligent efforts of a number of cross-promoting author friends.

    I moved over 4,600 copies in three days, and some authors participating had many more downloads than that. In the current paradigm, titles seem to have two avenues to visibility: free promotion or a massive investment in paid advertising. The immediate results were a seventh and eighth five-star review on Amazon. I hope more are to come as the novel is digested over the course of the summer.

    Giving away the equivalent of one and a half print runs does not sit well with someone who values their work. Samples, however are a part of doing business, and are the seed grain of what can grow into a field of future patrons. I can live with giving away my work—but not often. It means too much to me. As for “selling” it for 99¢ per download? That will simply never happen.

  8. joemccoubrey says:

    Brad, I have to say there are a lot of excellent new books by indie authors who are finding themselves squeezed by curent pricing trends. My fear is that many will be put off by their first-time publishing experience, with the result we will lose a lot of talented people.

  9. Brad Fleming says:

    A pertinent piece Joe, I referred to this subject in a blog a couple of weeks ago. I completely understand any writer’s desire to see his own work in print, but I have to say that a high proportion of the freebies on offer are of dubious quality. There may well be the occasional gem, but they take a deal of finding. It’s also obvious that even established publishers and writers have had to cut their prices – and their cloth accordingly. I feel the ending is not destined to be a happy one for anyone concerned. As the old saying goes – you get what you pay for – and if it costs you nothing …

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