On Books: Changing Buying Habits

4340980647_3237664cc3_oAs readers of my 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.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by Emily Carlin


  1. Mike Cane1 June, 2011

    You make me laugh, Rich. You haven’t paid much attention to Kindle freebies, since you use ePub. I have over 500 *free* — legit free — Kindle books. And by “over 500,” I mean anywhere from 600 to 1,000. And most of these are from legit publishers, not an e-slush pile. *Every day* brings MOAR freebies:

    That is how Amazon wins:

    1. Chris1 June, 2011

      I follow (or like or fanned, or whatever the hell Facebook calls it) Inkmesh, Daily Cheap Reads et cetera. While Kindle does seem to have a slew of freebies and cheapies specials, so too do the outlets offering epubs. Where I think Amazon does well is when looking for an ebook is on the price. Even though ebook prices are fairly *cough* stagnant *cough* Amazon is usually the cheapest.

      I mostly buy buy, in no small part because while I do read a lot, compared to book junkies, I don’t. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying there are more people who still buy ebooks enough to offset the effects of folks who just go for the freebies. At least, I hope so.

    2. Rich Adin1 June, 2011

      Mike, most of the free Kindle ebooks are also free elsewhere and many of them, I’m sorry to say, just like from elsewhere, really are slushpile entries. The joke, Mike, is really on you for believing that because it comes from Amazon it must be higher quality. I bet Bezos is ROFL over that one :).

      1. Mike Cane1 June, 2011

        Rich, you’re just bloody wrong there. I’m not downloading indiscriminately. I look to see WHO has published it and also whether it’s a novel or sampler or crap NaNoWriMo short story. The ePub freebies are mostly from Smashwords — and I will no longer touch those (in fact, I dropped all the alerts I got for free ePubs due to that). Amazon has the most paid books and real free books.

        1. Rich Adin2 June, 2011

          Mike, 10 years ago I would have stood at the front door and shouted to all who would listen that a book publised by Random House was one of the best published books because it was carefully vetted, edited, and produced, unlike those from Vantage Press. Alas, today, all one can shout is that the book has Random House’s branding — all else is pure speculation and more unlikely than likely to meet the tri-criteria of vetted, edited, and produced. Who the publisher is is no longer any guarantor that the product isn’t slushpile.

  2. Lorraine1 June, 2011

    Just today there were at least 14 free Kindle books, all from traditional publishers.

    Also today, there were a number of price drops for fairly new books from around $10 to $2.99.

    Granted, we’ve also had hundreds of indies the past few weeks as Amazon equalized prices between themselves and other retailers, but on the whole, there are many, many good books out there for free. FYI Rich, Amazon’s policy is that your book can’t be available elsewhere for less, that’s also part of the agency model deal. That’s why if it’s free at one retailer, it’s free at all of them.

    I myself have around 1800 Kindle books for an average cost of around $.60 per book. About 300 of those are from Smashwords and other retailers, not Amazon. The most I’ve paid for a single book is about $6.

    I don’t wait until I’ve gone through my TBR list to get free books or good deals. Strike while the iron is hot. So what if they sit on my Kindle for months? I’ll get to them eventually and it doesn’t cost me much. I’m spending about $60/month, far less than I was for physical books.

    1. Chris1 June, 2011

      I’ve seen cases where the ebook was free at Amazon, but not at other stores. A couple weeks ago was the anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or some such. For S&Gs I linked out to Inkmesh.

      Leaving off WHSmith and Waterstone’s UK (I had no idea the dollar was _that_ weak against the pound), it was going for free at places like PG, Amazon, and Kobo. For about a dollar at places like Borders, Sony and B&N. For a buck fifty to three bucks at places like Diesel, Powell, and eBooks.com.

      Granted, this is a book so old that it should be free, and not something more recently published.

  3. Doug1 June, 2011

    Not unique, Rich, but you and I are in what seems to be a small minority. Most fiction readers — the vast majority of them, from what I can tell — only read series. While the publishers occasionally make an early volume, often book 1, of a series available for free, they clearly do so to try to get readers hooked on the series.

    I’m amused to read postings about how “the last three books in the xxx series sucked, and the new one just came out and I hated to pay that much for an e-book.” It seems that an awful lot of people can’t walk away from a book series, no matter how lame it’s gotten.

  4. Laurie28 November, 2015

    I used to spend a ton on e-books, because I wanted the best sellers as soon as they came out. However,over the last year, I have not spent a penny. I only borrow ebooks from the library.I am able to pre-order my best sellers and am able to wait the few weeks or months to get them if I have to. I never re-read, so that is not an issue. I only wish I would have started this year’s ago.

  5. Dan - eLibSearch.com18 July, 2017

    If you like borrowing ebooks from the local library, I also recommend OpenLibrary which has hundreds of thousands of scanned ebooks available to borrow for free for all. I’ve got a site that helps you find books in local libraries, OpenLibrary and subscription sites with free trials: http://elibsearch.com



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