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.

image by khawkins04

32 thoughts on “Are Free eBooks Killing the Market?

  1. The Kindle lending library is not free as you assert. It costs $79 a year for Amazon Prime. And then the perk is that you are entitled to one checkout *per month*. If you used it only for book checkouts you would be paying $6.58 per title.

    Now if you see bestselling writers selling their ebooks for free and their name isn’t Doctorow. Really let me, I would like to stuff my kindle with quality free ebooks.

    1. I should also have commented regarding Prime. People pay for prime not for ebooks but for other merchandise they get from Amazon. If all they were buying from Amazon was ebooks, it is doubtful they would buy Prime. So it is a bit misleading to suggest that Prime payers are paying $6.58 per ebook.

      1. Indeed.
        Prime is a Loyalty Program.
        Or, like the shopping clubs memberships; a token payment that comes with perks that sweeten the deal just enough to keep shoppers happy.
        Whether it be free shipping, streaming video, or the monthly free reads (you don’t get to keep the book so it’s not really a free book. Rereads count against quota, too.) the perks are little kickbacks to reward Amazon’s best customers and keep them buying their TVs and garden tools at Amazon instead of Sears or Best Buy, not to promote the perks themselves.
        Also lost in the fine print is how much Amazon learns about consumer behavior by tracking usage of those perks. So they will *know* if a Netflix mdel for ebooks is viable, the’ll *know* if setting Prime video free as a standalone product subscription is going to generate enough usage to be worth the effort and they know at what point they have enough content to make it a viable contender to for Netflix.
        Amazon deals in a lot of currencies; cash, yes, but also eyeballs for ads and data for their strategic plans.
        And that is one area where free ebooks have more value to Amazon than for the other vendors or even the authors. Because Amazon holds the authentication servers and whispersync servers, they *know* how many and which of those free ebooks are read through and which are merely sampled.
        And which lead to follow-up sales.
        Where others works by guesswork, Amazon *knows*.
        They just don’t talk about it; it’s all between them and their customers.

      2. It is not misleading at all. If you read what I wrote. I wrote “If you used it **only** for book checkouts” I’m not saying that people commonly do, I’m using this as an example that kindle lending library books ARE NOT FREE. They are not free. It doesn’t matter how you use prime, you are still paying for the service. Even if you don’t read anything in the lending library you are still paying for the privilege of checking out one book per month.

        fjtorres also gets it wrong. So I’m going to say it again. Prime shipping is not free. Prime streaming is not free. Kindle lending library is not free. The extra prime storage in the cloud is not free. None of it is. Just because you only pay a fee once a year doesn’t make these services free. I think the amazon marketing has brainwashed you two so that you honestly think of them as free services. Give me a break!

        The whole article is built on lies and exaggerations. That’s it you wrote a filler article that was built on incorrect premises. With the majority of ebooks being overpriced and the huge legal battle that is just getting started, you write about free books killing the market? How out of touch are you?

    2. “Now if you see bestselling writers selling their ebooks for free and their name isn’t Doctorow. Really let me, I would like to stuff my kindle with quality free ebooks.”

      Homer, Virgil, William Shalespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, …

      All best sellers. All of the highest quality. All available for free.

      1. How could you see them selling ebooks at all if they’re not of the living? I clearly meant current authors. Not talking about public domain which has no impact on sales.

  2. I snatched up a bunch of free ebooks from various indie authors a few months ago, and frankly, most of them were not very good. It’s made me rather wary of free ebooks from indie authors, and more willing to pay for ebooks from traditional publishers. Of course I’m also happy to download for free older books that are no longer under copyright protection.

    1. There are a lot of excellent indie authors who give away their ebooks. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of very bad indie authors. But then that is no different from traditional publishers — some great authors, some bad authors. And much depends on what you like. For example, I do not like horror and so do not consider Dean Koontz or Stephen King to be great authors.

  3. And yet, I’m one who rails against unduly high pricing that started with the agency plan, but in my quest for (non-fiction) books, I have been buying a LOT of books once I find them in Kindle and I can read them at any time. I also buy quite a few paper-books as well.

    Strangely, I’ve not been that tempted by free books. If one is highly recommended by someone I trust I might spend the time. Time has a higher value for me than ‘free’ books I don’t know anything about.

    1. One thing Amazon Free ebooks are changing is that since amazon has open access APIs, they have spawned a whole cottage industry of free-ebook websites that promote the “better” free titles well beyond the Kindle bookstore. There is an entire culture of readers that get a major portion of their reads that way. It’s not mainstream but it exists and it is getting those authors reads and mindshare even if no direct revenue. For career writers that might mean the difference between obscurity and enough recognition to ramp up their writing into a viable business.
      It might not, though. :)
      It’s early and the people in know aren’t talking.
      We’ll just have to wait and see how things shape up for the long haul.

      1. Re: the cottage industries of free-ebook sites? The best are: The Kindle Book Review and Digital Books Today because they require 10 book reviews. Okay, so that standard may be slipping somewhat with the scuttle-butt of “fake reviews” but it’s been my experience that readers do pay attention to reviews. I know I read them, sorting through the sock-puppets and trolls for the genuine insights. And as an author, I also take to the time to thank reviewers who’ve posted nice reviews.

        I do think the author of this blog has a valid point, that many readers either ignore free books or simply wait until the next book comes out for free. To that end, I still do the KDP Free days, but I also pay for promotion for my books. I use the above mentioned sites and All Mystery e-newsletter because it’s genre-specific to mystery and suspenss.

  4. I’m also not much tempted by free. I do have Amazon Prime, and I do borrow my one free book a month, but that’s pretty much it. I don’t want to load my Kindle up with hundreds of free books. I’d rather buy a few books and keep my TBR list low (it’s currently 4). Plus there’s always the library, which is my biggest source of “free” books. My ebook Wishlist is currently at around 30, plenty to keep me busy for a while.

  5. You have really excellent points. Imagine how the free book scramble will change the scenery in five years or ten. I suspect that fewer authors & publishers will see the benefit of offering free books, and the only ones offering free will be desperate self-publishers trying to find an audience. Many free books aren’t even read by the vast majority of people who download them.

    Before you consider downloading from torrents, though, consider this: http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2012/09/06/honeypot-monitoring-bittorrent-downloaders/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=status+message&utm_campaign=naked+security
    The FBI is responsible for investigating cyber crime, of which copyright violation is an example. The article doesn’t say what agency is doing this tracking, but my money is on the FBI. Is saving a few bucks on a book worth the potential risk of being tracked by some federal agency for possible prosecution sometime in the future?

    1. “Desperate self publishers” sums up my thoughts exactly! I released my ebook on Amazon last year with an initial price of $8.95. A couple of weeks ago, after much research, I dropped it to $2.99, a figure I feel is fair and consumer-friendly. Ever since, an acquaintance who is in the midst of formatting his own ebook has been bombarding me with “drop it to zero” comments. He believes doing so will automatically vault my book into the Top 100, generate immense interest, and then after 3 or 4 days I can raise the price to whatever I want and – bam! – sit back and rake in the money (he feels this is a $100,000 proposition).

      …yeah, he’s serious, too…

      Thanks for a careful, serious and informative look into the various pricing strategies available through Amazon. I too am leery of anything being given away for free, and that’s a mindset I have no doubt that many people possess.

  6. To most people, “reading matter” isn’t a generic commodity like — say — gasoline. So while it would make sense to say “why should I pay for gas at gas station X when station Y is giving gas away for free?”, that doesn’t apply so much to books.

    I would think that most people’s decisions about what to read are driven by wanting to read a specific book, a specific author, or nonfiction about a specific topic.

    Much of the great literature of the world is in public domain and therefor available in ebook formats for free or for a very low price, and that’s great. But if you’re eager to read the latest Jennifer Egan novel, how likely is it that you’ll get sidetracked either to Jane Austen or to some random self-published tome, just because they’re free?

    OTOH, I suppose some readers have very omnivorous tastes, and they just want to “fill ‘er up” on some generic reading matter. And some other readers are uneducated buyers who don’t see much difference between one book and another. I’m just hopeful that both of these groups together are a minority.

  7. It’s always dangerous to draw general conclusions from anecdotal specific cases so we need to take Mr. Adlin’s comments with a grain of salt as you should my experiences. I will download a free ebook if the author has generally good reviews on Goodreads from my friends and if the subject matter appeals to me. Often, as a result of a favorable read, I will purchase several others by the same author, which is, of course, the intent of the free book. Stephen Leather in a panel on an English talk show said he can count on a return ratio of about 20-30% for books he gives away, i.e. if he gives away 1000 he will have sales as a result of 200-300 of which he garners 70% royalties. They make sense for him.

    I buy a lot, and I mean a lot, of books and will happily shell out $9.00-$14 for a book I want to read in history, biography, and well known mystery writers. The point of free books is advertising, pure and simple, and if a writer should be so lucky to become popular, they can then raise prices. That’s as it should be. As an aside, I am gradually converting my entire printed collection of over 1300 books to Kindle as they become available in digital form., selling the physical books on the used book market. And I love the availability of out-of-copyright classics. Amazing to be able to download the complete works of Maupassant for 99 cents in 4 seconds.

    I NEVER download a pirated book. That’s just wrong.

  8. I’ve seen this behavior in authors/publishers. I have three different series that I have read and enjoyed but didn’t pay for (legally). I picked up the first book for free, read it and enjoyed it. Looked up the second book but found it a bit on the pricey side so I put it on the wishlist to think about. Two weeks later that second book came up as free so I grabbed it. This went on every two weeks for the entire series. I have found this pattern with multiple authors. I think it’s dumb from a business stand-point but I’m quite willing to take advantage of it. If they had only given me the first book for free and priced the subsequent books more reasonably they would have received my money.

  9. Once again, I see that money is the one and only incentive to write.

    I play piano. And nobody will ever pay me for it. But still, I play. And surprisingly, people comes to hear me play for free. I just enjoy it.
    If I were to play for money, and only for that, I’d play what the market wants, not necessarily what I like to play.

    But, luckily, for me music is Art, not “a product”. So, I can pay my bills with other activities (like recording tracks for commercials or with a “regular” day job in IT) and continue to play for happiness.

    Back to writers: if money is your only incentive, and you’re not getting enough of it, just stop writing. I assure you we readers won’t be harmed: there are enough excellent books to fill more than one lifetime of reading. And, believe it or not, there are artists who are not motivated by money only. And usually, they’re the best ones, so, eventually, money goes in their direction just the same.

    I repeat myself just to be clear: I’m not saying that someone has to work for free. I’m saying that someone, sometimes, actually does. And often they do a very good job.

  10. Sometimes it helps one or other author to sell more books. I’ve got a giveaway last April and after have read the book, I bought books 2, 3 and 4… He gave me one for free and sold 3 other books at $3.99.

    I’ve also got lots of other giveaways, but only this particular author was lucky enough to hook me to buy his other books.

  11. And there’s also http://www.onlyindie.com/ for even more… (But they don’t seem to be exactly taking the industry by storm. I put a freebie up there and have given away an astonishing 6 copies in 3 months.) I think the market is flooded with free ebook samples mainly because everyone is trying to hook more users and get rich, in an era when everyone is writing a book. :-)

  12. Maybe I’m the odd man out, but I rarely read free books. I got the original Kindle in May 2008 and have read only a half dozen or so free titles since then.

    I used to download everything that was free but now I rarely bother. So the first book in a series is free and I ask myself: Would I ever pay to read that author? If I answer no, then I don’t get it. The books I read are what interest me, not what’s free or inexpensive.

    Few of the free books look very good, IMHO, and for my time, $12.99 on Iain M. Banks is a better deal than the free first book in the Adventues of Billy Bob the Gumshoe or Space Marine or whatever.

    1. You raise an interesting point, Greg. Considering the hours, days, weeks, months it can take to finish a book, surely the monetary cost of the book should be a lesser consideration than the enjoyment-value of the book. If you spend 10 hours on a book, that means a typical non-free book costs $1.00 per hour. By how much will you be willing to lessen the quality of those hours in order to save yourself a buck?

  13. I agree with the argument that authors and publishers that make their work available for free, 99 cents, two pence, or similar “buy one get the rest of the series free” marketing ploys are creating an environment that debases the industry, cf. music in the last decade.

    It’s not about the artistry, or the profit–it’s about visibility. The current model prevents the appreciation of quality by drowning new, quality authors in a dismal sea of free, swampish reads. For now, traditional publishers control the markets, control the reviews, control the major book awards, and therefore control the narrow door to becoming a “real author.” They do this with money, and the money is ebbing rapidly.

    If readers are unwilling to pay as much for a quality book as they would for lunch, then the future of publishing and literature in general looks rather dismal. Value the work, don’t give it away.

  14. Great article. I just made the 1st 2 books in my trilogy free today on Smashwords. This means my books will be available for free on all the eBook platforms Smashwords distributes to. Also, Amazon will eventually put my books on their site for free, thus I avoid using KDP Select, which limits which readers can get my books for free. The 3rd book in my trilogy will be .99 cents everywhere, and the price will stay the same on that. It’s my first series of books, so I’m just going cheap as chips right now.

  15. The real, actual street value of a single copy of an ebook is exactly zero. And that’s where prices are going.

    In the near future only the ones who will find a way to make money without counting copies will earn a living from it.
    The others will only dream about stashes of cash and will spend their time complaining about bix sixes, amazon and piracy.

  16. Did libraries kill print books? No. Libraries increased the sales of print books tremendously, especially in the long run. Because the marginal cost on an ebook is zero, it is easy to offer ebooks for free, either for a short time, as a promotional effort, or long-term to introduce readers to a particular writer. In almost all forms of popular entertainment, there is a particular type of customer who pays the freight for everyone else. That’s the “gotta have it now” customer. The gamers who buy games the first day they are released, the moviegoers who go to the first midnight showing, the readers who (used to) buy the hardback release of their favorite author. After you’ve milked those folks, you discount your game, send the movie to the dollar movie houses, and publish the paperback version.

    We’re moving to a world where the first release ebook is the high margin book product and the price of older ebooks can be reduced, sometimes even to zero.

  17. I have read all of the comments about the article and will add my two cents. First, some of the writers sit in judgement of those of us who download free ebooks. YES, US as I download and read free ebooks, for Nook, Kindle a little sony and a little Kobo, and feel no shame. Just because an ebook is free does not mean it is poorly written and if so, you can delete it. Second, it has been implied that one downloads every free book one comes across. That is not the case, as few people like every genre. I love romance, mystery/thrillers and history books, and have searched the internet, to include B&N, Amazon and others. I have Calibre on my computer to assist me in my endeavors. Third, there is no way one can live a decent life in America without money, so putting down writers for trying to earn money is mean spirited, of course those who disagree with the writers’ way of earning money can always support them financially.

  18. Rich:

    You wrote
    “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. You don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle ebooks. Amazon provides free software that lets you read their ebooks on your computer or other device (see http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771 ).

    ii. Amazon offers a large number of Kindle ebooks that are free to all comers (no Prime membership required). Individual ebooks may move on and off this free list.

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