An American Editor

September 10, 2012

Are Free eBooks Killing the Market?

Every day I find another traditional publisher is offering free ebooks. Amazon has made a business out of offering free ebooks. And let’s not forget the many indie authors who are offering their ebooks for free.

What is this doing to the market for ebooks?

I admit that I may be atypical in my buying and reading habits, but I do not think so. I have watched my to-be-read (TBR) pile grow dramatically in the past couple of months from fewer than 300 ebooks to more than 1,100 ebooks. If I obtained not another ebook until I read everything in my TBR pile, at my current average rate of reading two to three ebooks per week, I have enough reading material for between 367 and 550 weeks or 7 and 10.5 years.

How has this impacted my buying of ebooks? Greatly! In past years, I bought ebooks regularly. Granted, I was buying mainly indie and low-priced, on-sale traditionally published ebooks, rarely spending more than $6 for an ebook, but I was spending money.

That has all changed. Now I rarely spend any money on an ebook. In the past three months, the only ebook I paid for was Emma Jameson’s Blue Murder, which is her sequel to Ice Blue (which I reviewed in On Books: Ice Blue), at $4.99. Otherwise, all I have done is download free ebooks.

I understand the reason for giving ebooks away for free. How else are authors to attract new readers? This is particularly true when one considers how many ebooks are published each year in the United States alone — more than one million. Some how one has to stand out from the crowd. But with the ever-increasing number of free ebooks, giving away ebooks is less of a way to stand out.

The problem is that too often all of the ebooks in a series (or at least many of the ebooks in a series) or older, standalone titles by an author are given away. All an ebooker need do is wait. Giving away the first book in a series makes a lot of sense to me. If I like the first book, I’ll buy the subsequent books. But when I see that if I have patience I’ll be able to get the subsequent books free, too, then I don’t rush to buy.

The giving away of the free ebooks has brought about another problem: the decline of the must-read author list. I’ve noted before that my must-read author list has signficantly changed over the past few years. In past years, I had a list of more than 20 authors whose books I bought in hardcover as soon as published; today that list is effectively two authors. My must-read ebook author list has grown, but that is a list of indie authors, not traditionally published authors.

Again, the problem is free ebooks. As a consumer, I like free. However, free has so radically altered my book-buying habits — and I suspect the book-buying habits of many readers — that I find it difficult to see a rosy future for publishers, whether traditional or self-publishers. It is because of this that I wonder what lies behind the thinking of publishers who give their ebooks away, especially those who do so in one of Amazon’s programs.

Publishers who participate in Amazon giveaways double hex themselves. First, they undermine their own argument that ebooks are valuable. Second, they antagonize ebookers like me who do not own Kindles or are not Amazon Prime members and thus unable to get those ebooks for free. I have seen so many ebooks available for free on Amazon that are not available to me for free as a Nook or Sony or Kobo owner, that I have simply resolved, with some limited exceptions, not to buy ebooks. Either I’ll get them for free or not at all.

The Amazon giveaways also tempt me to join the “darkside,” that is, if there is a book in which I am interested, to search for it on pirate sites. The publishers, by their action of giving away the ebook on Amazon, are enticing people to pirate by not making their ebooks free at all ebookstores. When publishers degrade the value of ebooks, their message is received by all readers and is acted on by many readers.

This is a no-win situation for everyone. Ultimately, even readers lose because the incentive to write disappears when there is little to no hope of earning any money for the effort. And even if authors continue to write, the quality of the writing will suffer because no one will see the sense in investing their own money in a product they are going to give away.

It is still early in ebook revolution, so no one really knows what eBook World will look like in a decade or two. But it is pretty clear to me that freebie programs like Amazon’s are detrimental to the overall health of the book market. Authors and publishers should rethink the giving away of their ebooks, other than, perhaps, the first book in a series, before they establish in concrete the reader expectation that “if I just wait, I’ll get it for free, so why pay for it now.” If nothing else, the giving away of ebooks is helping to depress the pricing of ebooks and perhaps driving some ebookers to the pirate sites. My own experience as a buyer of ebooks demonstrates this.

I know that ebooksellers like Amazon are reporting rising ebook sales, but the data I want to see are sales numbers without the one-shot blockbusters and the price levels. The current problem with sales data is that we are seeing only the macro information and so do not know what the real effect free ebooks are having on the market. We are also still in the era of growth in the number of ebookers. When that growth stops, we may get a clearer picture. In the meantime, I know that my spending on ebooks has declined from the thousands of dollars to the tens of dollars and is getting close to zero. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this decline in spending.

19 Comments »

  1. […] tutto: Are Free eBooks Killing the Market? Share this:Facebook Questo articolo è stato pubblicato in Idee trovate in giro. Aggiungi ai […]

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    Pingback by L’effetto degli ebook gratuiti sul mercato — September 10, 2012 @ 4:55 am | Reply

  2. I still buy ebooks by authors I’ve enjoyed and several of those authors I first read through a free ebook. My book budget is such that I can’t just buy books on a whim so free ebooks give me the opportunity to read new authors that I might not otherwise find. Once an author is added to my favorites list I delight in supporting them by purchasing both print and ebooks. If only my book budget was larger…

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    Comment by Mare F — September 10, 2012 @ 6:03 am | Reply

    • I agree whole-heartedly with this comment. I wouldn’t have found some of my now favorite authors without freebies.

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      Comment by edwardlorn — September 10, 2012 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  3. How do you see the future of these markets (free ebooks vs paid ebooks) segmenting from one another? Do you think they will always be distributed on the same channels like an Amazon or so forth? To me it seems that this influx of free ebooks is making it harder for good content (whether free of paid ebooks) to float to the surface. Don’t get me wrong, I am a supporter of people sharing their ideas and writings, especially via a distribution channel like ebooks. It really just seems like a spiral situation. There will always need to be free ebooks, especially for new entrants into the ebook/ereader market. I foresee ebook subscription models, like Netflix, happening down the line. Perhaps it won’t happen as soon as some might think… thanks for the blog post!

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    Comment by Rebecca Sunshine — September 10, 2012 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  4. So you actually are saying that you used to spend money on books but because evil Amazon allows authors to put books for free, it turned you into a thief who pirates and steals. So it’s all Amazon’s fault. Your logic is baffling.

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    Comment by Lori — September 10, 2012 @ 9:27 am | Reply

    • No, I didn’t say I am pirating ebooks. I said I am only obtaining free ebooks but that I can see that there will be a rise in pirating of ebooks because people will expect ebooks to be free, not $17.99. And the fault is not Amazon’s; authors have to choose to give away their ebooks. However, Amazon’s constant drive to lower prices does contribute to the expectations of readers.

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      Comment by americaneditor — September 10, 2012 @ 10:12 am | Reply

  5. I’ve picked a couple of free ebooks that were the first in a series. If I liked the first one well enough, the plan goes, I’ll buy the rest. And I would. Except that these books were so full of language errors that I couldn’t finish them, let alone consider purchasing the series. It’s a shame, too, because I’ve been able to find good stories, just not good enough to overcome the nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling these books give me.

    On the one hand, if the books hadn’t been free, I might have bought them to try them out (as long as the cost was low enough). The author would have made money. On the other hand, I still would have been dissatisfied and I would have been less likely to take a financial risk, however small, on another ebook from a self-published author.

    Perhaps this is a case of short-term, personal harm for long-term, overall good.

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    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — September 10, 2012 @ 9:42 am | Reply

    • Just so you know, I have picked up several free ebooks that were very well-written and virtually error-free. I agree, however, that there is more chaff than wheat.

      One other note. Do not assume that only indie authors are giving away their ebooks. In fact, many well-established authors do. For example, Warren Adler (author of War of the Roses) was giving away his backlist this summer. Baen (scifi) authors give away a lot of their backlist. And there are many others.

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      Comment by americaneditor — September 10, 2012 @ 10:15 am | Reply

  6. So Amazon has free ebooks and BN and Kobo doesn’t? Get the free reading app. Or remove the DRM if you want to read on your ereader.

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    Comment by Bara Minata (@bminata) — September 10, 2012 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

  7. Hmmm … curiouser and curiouser! I’m based in Australia and own a Kindle. I regularly purchase (and I mean purchase) ebooks from Amazon. The only free ebooks I’m aware of are ones where the content is so old as to be out of copyright. Other than this, I’ve never seen a free ebook on offer from Amazon. I wonder if these free ebooks are only made available to readers in the USA? It doesn’t bother me – I am happy to pay for ebooks, if only to keep authors writing – but it does make me wonder whether there are different rules for different locations.

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    Comment by Karin — September 10, 2012 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

    • Karin, I’m in Australia, too.🙂

      The easiest way to keep track of what free Kindle books are available to Aussies is to follow a site such as http://www.ereaderiq.com/free/ (you will be asked for your region).

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      Comment by Vicki — September 24, 2012 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

      • Thanks Vicki – very interesting! Cheers😉

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        Comment by Karin — September 24, 2012 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

      • G’Day Vicki and Karen – here’s a couple of ideas for you: read my post of Aug. 25th (“Free Kindle Book This Weekend”) on sunshinefactor.wordpress.com. Also, I subscribe to a daily blog for 99 cents a month – It is called “Free Books For Kindle”, and there is a new post every day. (You can find it on Amazon.com) That is how I found a new favorite author of mine, Ken Barr. Hope this helps! 🙂

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        Comment by stellarstanton — September 25, 2012 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  8. […] Are Free eBooks Killing the Market? […]

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    Pingback by The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: September 11, 2012 — September 11, 2012 @ 9:00 am | Reply

  9. […] An American Editor wonders whether free ebooks are killing the ebook market. […]

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    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity after a long week — September 14, 2012 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  10. […] Are Free eBooks Killing the Market? […]

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    Pingback by Geek Media Round-Up: September 12, 2012 – Grasping for the Wind — September 15, 2012 @ 11:18 pm | Reply

  11. As a self-pubbing author and an e-book reader (via iPad) I have several titles for sale between $1.99 and $4.99. I have one title for free, the first in the series. And I got Amazon to price match to the free price point by putting the title at free on iBooks, Kobo, etc.

    Overall I agree with you. I have tons of ebooks on my device, almost all of which were free. The ones I spend money on are by other indie writers who I want to read and review. Thus I’ve opted out of the KDP direct program, and I don’t plan on running my other books for free.

    I love Kobo, but they have no real way to browse free titles. My free book there does little to nothing (I can’t know for sure, because they have no way to track free sales). I have left my first title free at Amazon for 4 months and it has moved thousands of copies. The bummer is that maybe only a few hundred of those have actually read it!

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    Comment by David Mark Brown — September 16, 2012 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  12. As a writer, I too have used Amazon’s KDP program to give away books. As a reader, I too have greatly reduced my book purchases in favor of free downloads. With Amazon’s explosion of free books it is hard to sell my current book although it has been downloaded for free thousands of times. I am tired of the ‘writing’ time I waste on promotion. It has slowed me down on finishing my sequel and it has made me think hard about spending a large amount of money on editing. If Amazon implemented some type of quality control it might curb the situation slightly.

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    Comment by June Collins — November 28, 2012 @ 10:15 am | Reply

  13. […] Leggi tutto: Are Free eBooks Killing the Market? […]

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    Pingback by L’effetto degli ebook gratuiti sul mercato | 40k — February 21, 2014 @ 2:35 pm | Reply


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