Free E-Books: A Reader’s Perspective

Free

“Free” books have been around since the first libraries, but our ability to access them has dramatically improved.  Just a decade ago or so, apart from the library, the closest we had to a free book was whatever happened to be in the “bargain” section at a bookstore or a thrift shop. The books could be cheap enough to be virtually free, but the selection was, to say the least, limited and outdated. These days, there are thousands of recently released books available for free. We pay only for our Internet service and reading device, while the unpaid authors hope that their generosity will benefit them in the future.

For authors, as Richard Levesque explains in So You Need a Funnel, this marketing tactic involves “cast[ing] a wide net with a specific product that pulls people in to read (and purchase) more of your work.” Another potential benefit is the development of a fan base that will spread the word about the book, but as Levesque notes, not all books are “very funnel friendly.”  This strategy is a particularly poor one for authors who have only published one novel, whose novels are not in a series, or who have published novels intended for different types of audiences.

Nevertheless, even when this strategy is unlikely to produce future sales, many authors still give their books away. In a follow-up post, With Apologies to Harlan Ellison, Levesque notes Ellison’s disdain for writers who give away their work for free, and asks, “Has the e-book revolution created a culture in which readers expect FREE! from writers? Maybe. Are those of us willing to give our books away either as promotions or as the mouths of our funnel contributing to this culture? Probably.”

It makes sense that the rise of e-books has contributed to consumer expectations about price. I would guess that most of us have a lower limit for what we’re willing to pay for a computer file than what we would pay for a physical copy of a book. A year and a half ago, for example, I balked at the $17.99 price tag on J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which has since been marked down to a more reasonable $9.99 on Amazon.

It’s hard to justify a steep price for an e-book when the publisher or author does not bear any costs associated with printing, binding, storing, packaging, shipping, or dealing with the overstock of unsold books. It may also be hard for consumers to justify spending their limited resources on a book by a new author, particularly a self-published one, when so many free options are available.

As for me, though, I prefer to pay something for the books I read. My budget is limited, but it already goes farther than it did in the past because the e-books I buy are usually much cheaper than traditional paper books. Perhaps it could go even farther if I took advantage of more free offers; however, a quick scroll through my Kindle history reveals that I didn’t actually end up reading most of the free e-books I downloaded over the last few years. I suspect that many of these books probably aren’t ones I would’ve chosen had I been required to spend money on them (such as books in genres I don’t typically read). Plus, because I didn’t spend any money on it, I wasn’t invested in it. So, I could more easily forget that I had ever downloaded it in the first place.

More importantly, though, I prefer to pay for the books I read because I like to support authors. No matter how much they seem to encourage me (and everyone else) to download their books for free, I can’t help but feel like I’m exploiting them. Considering that I have an ability to pay something for the books I read, downloading a free e-book from an individual author trying to make her name in the field makes me feel like I’m no better than the production companies behind Black Swan and 500 Days of Summer that allegedly used unpaid interns to do work that they could have hired and paid employees to do. Those interns received experience and a couple of lines on their resumes, but not the pay they might have deserved under our labor laws.

While there’s obviously nothing illegal about downloading an e-book that an author has given us permission to download for free, I don’t want to take advantage of an author’s unpaid labor. We live in a society that undervalues the humanities and the arts, and far too many authors struggle to make ends meet while they write the thoughtful entertainment we download to our e-readers. The cost of producing an e-book may be less than the cost of producing a traditional paper version, but there’s still the author’s effort and time, plus the editing, formatting, and marketing of the final product. These are all costs that a self-published author has to bear on her own.

Levesque’s post, With Apologies to Harlan Ellison, highlights the ambivalence with which he offers his hard work for free. It may be in exchange for the possibility of a review and/or a new fan, but it doesn’t feel like a fair deal. It doesn’t seem like authors in his position really have a choice.

*I reviewed one of Levesque’s novels in Take Back Tomorrow: A Fun Foray Into Science Fiction.

20 thoughts on “Free E-Books: A Reader’s Perspective

  1. Pingback: On Forgetting E-Books | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. As an author, I balk at giving away free books. I don’t make so much on sales I can afford to do that. As a reader, I enjoy free books and take advantage of the generosity of other writers.

    Do I expect free? Never. And I too, like to support authors by buying their work. My book budget is small, so I’m careful what I spend it on, but I do spend it.

  3. The sad thing is how much rubbish there is. You have to wade through it. I’ve downloaded books and, paid for them, only to find bad grammar, poor spelling and a plot so thin you could use it to replace a window or two. Conversely I’ve found some wonderful e books. Hopefully, one day, mine will be one of them 🙂

    1. Yeah, there are many poorly edited ebooks out there. With self-published authors, I’m okay with a few typos and grammar errors (I assume that I’d be paying more for it if they had paid for multiple professional edits). I’m less forgiving when I come across those kinds of errors in a book that cost me more than a couple of dollars.

      As for finding ebooks, I usually end up with a pretty good selection by reading the samples, reading reviews, and following author blogs. I’ve been pretty happy with most of my Indie reads.

  4. Interesting. Personally I’m so lazy/unwilling to market that my ebooks are offered at a fair price and people either buy them or not. Conversely I’ll often give away printed copies to anyone showing a genuine interest.
    On the purchasing side I do a bit of reviewing for a website and, whilst the reviewer is offered a free copy I’d as sooner just buy the thing and start reading. I don’t think I approach the product any differently.

    1. It’s interesting to read your perspective. I don’t think I’d mind giving away free copies, but my goals might be different from other authors (once I finally publish any of my WIPs!). I’m happy with my day job, and so making a living isn’t as important to me. I just like the idea of sharing what I’ve written and having an interesting discussion about it. Who knows, though, maybe my thoughts on this subject will change when my work is finally out there.

  5. Miss Alexandrina

    “I suspect that many of these books probably aren’t ones I would’ve chosen had I been required to spend money on them.” I agree; as much as I don’t mind seeing or buying free ebooks, they almost encourage a method of mass-buying without thought.

    1. Yeah! While I probably wouldn’t mind giving away a book I’ve written, I wouldn’t want to add to this consumer mindset (not that there’s anything I can really do about it).

  6. Like you, I have lots of free books on my Kindle that have never been opened. In fact, the only ebooks I find myself reading are those written by friends I want to support (and pay for, like you). Otherwise I’m cracking open one of the many unread paper books I have on my bookshelves.

    1. I felt so bad when I saw all of the ebooks I downloaded for free and never read. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to read everything, and most of those books weren’t really a good choice for me. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Because of internet access, too much has become free. Look at photographs, people see photos on the net and just take them. Of course they take the best ones too, the ones of which the photographers can make money. If a photographer wants to show their work to get more work, this does not always happen I suppose. The same with e-books. Once free, the expectation runs high on more, more, more. Movies and music get pirated even though they have taken drastic measures to prevent this. It has come to the point where artists of all types are getting less and less respect for the time and effort it takes to produce their work. Sure there will always be those willing to pay, but also there will be those that wait until it doesn’t sell and becomes free for the taking.

    1. Yes, piracy is a real issue. It’s hard to stop it. There is certainly a fair amount of illegal downloading, but lots of authors also permit readers to download their books for free. Richard Levesque mentioned in With Apologies to Harlan Ellison that he gave away 19,000 copies of one of his novels at the end of February. The good news for him is that his strategy seems to be working, but I think there are a lot of authors who feel forced to give away their hard work and who aren’t going to see much come of it. That’s sad.

  8. Giving away the first in the series makes some kind of sense. I am a loyal Lindsay Buroker reader [http://www.lindsayburoker.com/] because she gave away the first in a series, and I found it when I got my first eReader. Would I have read her work with only a preview of a certain number of words, and without the free giveaway? Maybe, but maybe not. I find myself abandoning a lot of previewed books, instead of buying. Not sure why!

    1. It’s nice to hear about how you found Lindsay Buroker’s books. I think giving away the first in a series makes a lot of sense for authors. It doesn’t make quite as much sense for other authors. I also think that extensive giveaways reduce what readers of e-books are willing to pay overall. I don’t condemn people for downloading books for free if the author has permitted it (and there are people who wouldn’t be able to read as much if it weren’t for free books). In my case, though, I just prefer to pay for what I read.

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. Interesting point! I don’t really know how I feel about the whole thing. On the one hand, I get VERY EXCITED knowing I have free access to a bunch of classics via amazon, but that’s different, I suppose, since they’re looooong past needing to make a living. You didn’t really mention it, but what’s your stance on review copies? I accept books fairly frequently from publishers, mostly, with the expectation that I’ll discuss them on my blog. That said, I still purchase tons of e-books (Amazon might own my soul. The daily deals are my BFFs, but those still cost some money.) I think you’re right on some level- “freebies” tend to go forgotten and unread. Now my mind is all a-flutter. Way to make me think before all the caffeine has taken effect!

    1. I love, love, love free classics! I downloaded Northanger Abbey just the other day for a certain read-along that’s coming up! I definitely don’t think that classics (which are no longer under copyright) present the same sort of issues as downloading a free book from an author struggling to make ends meet. I also don’t have as much of a problem with accepting review copies, though I don’t have much experience with it. Ideally, authors and publishers would only reach out to reviewers who might actually be interested in the book and who are more likely to actually publish a review. That’s quite different from giving away the book to thousands of random people in the hopes that they might read it and post a review.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. SF

    I can see why giving away books would work–in theory. But I think you’re right that those books might not be goign to the right people, the right audience. Many go unread, but those aren’t sales the author would’ve made anyway.

    1. Interesting comment. It might be true that these giveaways go mostly to individuals who wouldn’t have bought the book (that’s what my e-book history suggests), but that doesn’t mean that giving away the book for free doesn’t matter. It still contributes to consumer expectations about the appropriate price of ebooks. As Richard Levesque notes in the comment below, there have actually been readers who mention that they’re waiting for the book to be free!

      That said, there are people out there with limited budgets who really need to wait until a book is free before they can read it.

  11. Thanks for the mentions! I’m glad I was able to provide some food for thought. I’m still trying to figure it all out–and probably will be for a long time. I’d like to add that I definitely appreciate readers such as yourself who would rather pay even a small amount for my work. Every now and then I hear from a “reader” who is waiting for my next free offer before downloading one of my books. Those definitely aren’t the people I’m trying to reach when I deeply discount a book; rather, it’s the ones who might never have heard of me otherwise. I do think there are other choices–like paying more for advertising, cutting out promotions altogether and just focusing on writing the next book, hoping it’s a breakout success, etc. For now, the occassional free and discounted day is the strategy I’m going with.

    1. I hope this strategy works for you! The “funnel” concept makes sense for some authors, but it seems like many are just doing it out of obligation even when their work probably won’t benefit from it. Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking blog! I enjoyed Take Back Tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to reading your other books.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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