An American Editor

May 31, 2011

On Books: Changing Buying Habits

As readers of this blog know, every so often I do a piece titled On Today’s Bookshelf in which I list a sampling of my recent hardcover and ebook acquisitions and preorders. In working on a yet-to-be-published On Today’s Bookshelf, I realized that I am stockpiling ebooks, growing my TBR (To Be Read) pile, and doing so largely by “purchasing” free ebooks — that is, ebooks that either the author has set the price at free or the author has issued a limited-time coupon that reduces the price to free. If I had to guess at a percentage, I would say that between 80% and 85% of all my ebooks fall into the free category.

I think this does not bode well for the financial future of either authors or publishers. I don’t imagine I am unique in acquiring free ebooks.

As of this writing, I have 86 unread ebooks waiting to be loaded onto my Sony 950 and 220 unread ebooks already loaded on the 950 (I delete ebooks from the 950 once I have read them). Since I received my first ereader 3.5 years ago, the Sony 505 that my wife now uses, I have “purchased” 934 ebooks, of which I have either read or tried to read 628.

I realize that many of the free ebooks are poor imitations of literature, but a significant portion are at least good (a rating of 3 or 4 stars) and a significant number — that is, significant within the schemata of the ebooks — are excellent (a rating of 5 or 5+ stars). If I had to apply a percentage to the number of ebooks I have “purchased” that are 3 stars or better (using, of course, my rating system which I outlined in On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)), I would guesstimate that 40% to 50% meet that standard.

So why does this not bode well for authors and publishers? Because as the number of ebooks I “purchase” at the free price grows, the less I need to consider actually spending money on an ebook. This is not to say that I won’t spend any money on ebooks; rather that I will spend money on many fewer ebooks than I otherwise would. At Smashwords, which is a prime source of ebooks for me, my wishlist has 38 ebooks on it, some of which have been there for many months. I do add to that list, but I have made no move to spend money on any of the listed books because I have yet to deplete my trove of free ebooks.

I have “purchased” more than 125 ebooks at Smashwords, but most of them had a final price of free. During ebook week in March alone, I “purchased” 105 ebooks at Smashwords, all of them having a final price of free.

Smashwords is not the only place these free ebooks can be found. There are numerous sources, including at the better-known ebooksellers GoogleBooks, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, and lesser-known ebooksellers and sources like Baen, ManyBooks, MobileRead, and Feedbooks.

It strikes me that free is rapidly becoming the new price point. One cannot even argue that the free books aren’t written by known, bestseller authors, because a goodly number of them are written by such authors, particularly in the romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres (and their subgenres like historical romance, military science fiction).

With 306 waiting-to-be-read ebooks, I have at least a year’s worth of reading currently available to me. Yet that is somewhat misleading because that year never seems to get shorter — I am constantly adding to and subtracting from that TBR pile as new ebooks are made available to “purchase” for free. True, I won’t get the newest Martha Grimes or David Weber novel for free, but that’s the tradeoff.

The economics of ebooks become baffling if one doesn’t spend money on ebook purchases. The amortization of the reading device across the free ebooks makes sense; after all, it is pretty hard to go wrong spending $150-$200, even $300, on the device when you can read thousands of ebooks for free on it. Where the economics falter is in authors and publishers earning money.

I suspect that a significant part of my focusing on “purchasing” free ebooks is that publishers and many indie authors are setting unrealistically high prices for their ebooks. Whether the prices are justifiable in true economic sense doesn’t really matter; they aren’t justifiable to the reader. A reader who gets burned once spending $14.99 on a poorly written, poorly formatted, or nonproofread ebook, especially when they are nonreturnable, is unlikely to be willing to spend $14.99 again in hopes that the next purchase won’t be a repeat sucker purchase. Instead, such a reader is likely to move down the price chain.

As increasing numbers of ebookers move down the price chain, the average selling price of ebooks also moves down the price chain, and will eventually reach the free marker. The closer that average gets to free, the more difficult it will be for authors and publishers to earn a living. (Yes, there will always be a few authors and publishers who are able to earn excellent incomes at lower rates, but we need to look at the macro picture, not the micro picture.)

As other ebookers have pointed out in articles they have written, buying habits are changing. They are changing for a lot of reasons and ebookers are not universally focused on “purchasing” free ebooks, but regardless of the reason why their buying habits are changing, the trend is clear that the changes are not for the economic betterment of authors and publishers.

In my specific case, where I used to spend $5,000 or more a year on purchasing books, I am now spending less than $2,000 — even though I am “purchasing” more books than ever before. The poor quality of ebooks has made me more cautious about purchasing pbooks. Previously, I would simply purchase a pbook that interested me because how well written and edited it was was already cast in stone — it just wasn’t going to get better than it already was. However, ebooks have changed that. I now scrutinize pbooks before buying because ebooks have made me more aware of poor writing and editing and less willing to spend money on such books — whether p or e. However, the closer the purchase price gets to zero, the more tolerant I am.

The freedom to publish anything and the failure of authors and many publishers to invest in quality for ebooks has resulted in making purchasers wary across the board. I “purchase” more books than ever, but spend less money doing so. What is needed by authors and publishers is for that to change so that the more I purchase, the more money I spend. If I were a gambler, I’d bet against that change occurring any time soon. If self-publishing authors and traditional publishers don’t soon start offering the correct balance of quality and pricing, they may well lose readers to free permanently.

3 Comments »

  1. This doesn’t make for happy reading for an aspiring author… However, I do suspect you are right. Frankly, right now I feel like shaking the publishing industry very firmly by the shoulders. They are all behaving as if the sudden rise in the ebook phenomenon has come out of a clear blue sky – whereas the writing was on the wall 5 years ago, if anyone cared to look.

    It was always only waiting for the release of a technically capable ereader. It seems to me that half the industry have decided that it simply wasn’t happening and carried on regardless – while the other half have responded by panicky half measures (such as skinning authors by making a grab for erights and backlists). They should have all had a solid strategy for this eventuality – and they haven’t!

    Like

    Comment by sjhigbee — May 31, 2011 @ 6:22 am | Reply

  2. While reading your comments, I couldn’t help thinking of Charlotte Iserbyt’s “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America”. It is now a free – E Book. My son read “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto. We compared notes, because the subject matter was similar. Perhaps this cheapening of the quality of writing and perhaps subject matter in ebooks is a result of the deliberate dumbing down of the masses as discribed by Gatto and Iserbyt.

    http://www.deliberatedumbingdown.com/

    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/

    Like

    Comment by Grumblepa — May 31, 2011 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

  3. Yep, yep, yep…

    Like SJ, I saw the writing on the wall years ago. I never understood why many in the publishing industry were so dismissive of digital technology and it’s potential. Maybe that’s because I’ve been an avid ebook reader for more than a decade. Back then, my average spend was around $8/title; now it’s closer to $2/title.

    Like

    Comment by Vicki — May 31, 2011 @ 4:19 pm | Reply


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