Free and Bargain eBooks – Blessing or Curse?

kindle I have caught a new addiction: I hunt the net for free and bargain eBooks. Thanks to the delightful folks at Mobileread and here at AAR Potpourri Forum, and thanks to special discounts offered by ebookstores like Fictionwise or Kobo, and by publisher sites like Harlequin, Avon or Carina, I pick up loads of books for comparatively little money. Let’s take the last two months: In April, I acquired 66 new eBooks, and altogether I paid $ 70. In May I acquired 171 new eBooks, and I paid $ 210. On average, that’s $ 1.18 per book, and considering I still paid full price for a number of them, you can see how many came completely free. Before I started to gather my numbers, I was going to write that I now bought more books than usual, but paid less for them than I had done with paper books. Faced with the exact numbers now, I must concede that while this is certainly true for April, in May I spent more on books than usual, ending up acquiring far higher numbers than in any other month before.

I made extensive use of Kobo’s delightful € 1 off discount for a lot of books, especially books from Smashwords and Harlequin that were cheap to start with, and with the discount came free, or virtually free. Similarly, in May there were very good discounts and bargain prices offered from Fictionwise and Carina Press. I want to point out that I acquired all of my new books legally, respecting geographical restrictions and never pretending I was from anywhere but Europe. And I want to add that were I a citizen of the United States, I would have had even more books available, and were I prepared to read books on my PC with a Kindle App, even more.

These are the types of books I like to buy cheaply or download for free:

- Recent books by beloved authors that are only available in e-format. Some authors disappear under the radar, most often because they are out of a contract or because the lines they used to write for have disappeared (I’m looking at you, Signet Regencies), and I am always delighted when I come across a recent book they have published. In this instance I discovered that Allison Lane published two new regencies with Belgrave House, and accordingly bought them.

- Books by a well-known author in a different genre. For some reason, I just can’t get into vampire romances. Tried a few, disliked each of them, but I’d heard a lot of good about Colleen Gleason’s writing, for instance. So I was happy to buy the three non-vampire historicals in the Medieval Herb Garden series she seems to have self-published at All Romance eBooks.

- Books in genres I don’t usually read. For instance, I did download a number of inspirationals, especially from Revell/Baker and Bell Bridge, both of which are generous with freebies. I have even read two recently, one of which, Heart of Stone by Jill Marie Landis, led to …

- Follow-up sales. When I’ve downloaded a freebie by a new-to-me author, read it and liked it, I am usually more than happy to try another book by her, this time paying for it. I bought two more novels by Jill Marie Landis, and one by Jenna Black (YA fantasy) for the same reason.

- Books by authors whose online presence I like and books whose covers are cute. This may sound silly, but if the books comes cheap, I am far more likely to try out a new author, even if I wouldn’t have bought my first book by her for the full price. And if I like the book, then I may buy future ones at full price.

- The Wildest Heart by Rosemary Rogers. This deserves a special mention, because I hated it with a vengeance when I first read it in German in the late 1980s. When I came across it at a bargain price, I began to wonder whether it was really as awful as I remembered, and hey presto! I had bought it.

- Duplicate copies. Ah, duplicate copies! I acquire them in several subtypes:

** E-duplicates of books I adore. You never now! I might urgently need them (unable to wait until I can lay hands on my paper copy at home) while stuck on the underground, on a holiday, during a break at work! Examples here are Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair, In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming and the first three volumes of the Roselynde series by Roberta Gellis.

** E-duplicates in the right format. My Opus does read PDF, but it’s really good only with ePub. Because they were just available in PDF, I first bought Kate Allan’s Krakow Waltz and Lynne Connolly’s Yorkshire in PDF. Some good discounts later, I have additional ePub copies.

** E-duplicates when I can’t stand waiting for the paper copy. So far, there have only been two books in this category (Carla Kelly’s The Admiral’s Penniless Bride and Naomi Novik’s Tongues of Serpents). In each case, I was so impatient for the book that I used a good bargain offer and bought the ebook before the paper copy arrived – which I still got. Some authors I need in paper.

** A revised edition of a book I like. I really enjoyed Mary Jo Putney’s The Would-Be Widow, but was sceptical about the revised edition The Bargain. (Too often “revised” means “sexed-up” in this context, and if there was a book that didn’t need that, it was The Would-Be Widow.)

While all this bounty makes me feel like a child in a toyshop at Christmastime, in more sober moments I see some drawbacks in spite of the undeniable delight I take in my new books. The first drawback is choice. I acquired more than 230 new books in two months (and okay, some are short stories or novellas. Still). No way do I have the time to look at each, reading the first pages, savoring it, before I settle down with one to read. On a recent train journey that lasted three quarters of an hour, I spent 30 minutes just browsing through the Opus before finally deciding on one story. I keep a list of titles on my PC, and I need it on a regulary basis to check up on what I’ve really got. I forget about some of the books I bought. And I have been so busy hunting the internet for bargains recently that on average, I spent more time getting books than actually reading them, which is not a good development.

A second problem results from my changed expectations in pricing. I am so used now to picking up wonderful books at bargain prices that I get more and more reluctant to pay full price. With several eBook stores, I live in constant happy anticipation of the next special offer and just keep the books I am interested in on the wishlist until it comes around. I just hope the eBook stores and authors can survive this attitude in their customers. No, seriously: I appreciate wide choice in eBooks and eBook retailers, and the constant hunt for bargains worries me. I don’t want any of the stores that I like and that I buy from regularly to disappear from the net because they didn’t properly calculate their power to withstand their own discount policy.

This leads me to my final point: With all these bargains and discounts, as much as I love them, I am afraid books – not just eBooks – will lose in value. You can argue that the market makes prices, and obviously this is the case. But a book has an inherent value: The author wrote it with great effort, often taking months, then there’s editing and formatting. I like well-edited, well-formatted books. So if you take into account all the effort that went into creating a book, it is definitely worth something, an amount that I am rightly required to pay if I want to read it. So when lots of good books go for dumping prices, I am worried readers will forget that it’s only fair they pay an acceptable price. And I am worried authors will feel discouraged when they see their creation sold for so little that they worked so hard for.

So what do you think? By what criteria do you get cheap and bargain eBooks? Regarding pricing, are my concerns too old-fashioned for this digital age, or are we in danger of ruining the book market? Does a book have an inherent value that should demand a certain price? And authors, what’s your take on this?

– Rike Horstmann

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37 Responses to Free and Bargain eBooks – Blessing or Curse?

  1. elaine mueller says:

    question here –

    who sets the price of these bargain e-books?

    i ask because i have to wonder if the authors are getting scr***d over, either by their print publishers who are discounting the digital versions or a “publisher” like amazon when they dramatically discount the self-pubbed version. if the author puts up her rights-reverted backlist title at 4.99 or 3.99 or 2.99 to get some decent royalties out of it, does amazon or nook or kobo slash that on their own decision?

    i like to think the continuing shift to e-publishing is going to mean more for the authors and the readers, but if the authors have no control over this massive discounting, maybe it will only benefit readers and epublishers/distributors???

    i realize this is a readers’ board so maybe i should just take the attitude that hey, they’re free/inexpensive books so quit complainin’, but writers need to make a living or they won’t keep writing cool stuff for us to read!


  2. Susan says:

    I shop the bargain books just as carefully as the full priced ones. I only get what I really am interested in. I will sometimes impulse buy a very inexpensive title, but if you do that too often, your budget can be nickle and dimed away.

    I did get several titles from the Carina Press 99 cent sale, and the All Romance Memorial Weekend sale (and three titles for free from credits).

    It has not changed my pricing expectation. Until the e-publishing thing is sorted out, there’s going to be fluctuation. I still did not hesitate to spend full price for Kiss of Snow by Nalini Singh (and didn’t even complain about it!), and have purchased several books for full paperback price recently.

    However, bargain books is a great way to find an author or new genre to try out. I also love that many author’s backlists are becoming available.

  3. Leigh says:
    talks about how the agency six are losing market share in the romance e-market. While I hate to wish bad business on any companies, these publishers’ decisions made this happen.

    Supposedly authors can earn more with a $.99 book then even a $1.99 book. I don’t expect e-books to be priced that low, but I do love this as a great way to discover new authors.

    I haven’t gone a book buying binge since I first purchased my Kindle. Like Susan I still just download books I think I might be interested in.

    • elaine mueller says:

      Leigh: about how the agency six are losing market share in the romance e-market. While I hate to wish bad business on any companies, these publishers’ decisions made this happen.Supposedly authors can earn more with a $.99 book then even a $1.99 book. I don’t expect e-books to be priced that low, but I do love this as a great way to discover new authors.I haven’t gone a book buying binge since I first purchased my Kindle. Like Susan I still just download books I think I might be interested in.

      leigh -

      i read lubart’s article and while it appears to indicate agency-priced books in the romance genre have declined as a percentage of titles on certain e-best seller lists, i didn’t see anything that said they’d actually lost overall market share.

      nor did i see anything that said authors could make more on a 99-cent book than on a 1.99 one. at amazon’s royalty rate of 35% under $2.99, that’s 35 cents vs 70 cents so they have to sell twice as many just to break even. but at 2.99 the rate is 70%, so now the author has to sell SIX times as many at .99. is there any documentation that shows a 99-cent book sells six times as many as a 2.99?

      disclaimer here — i read on the kindle pc application, and i’ve downloaded a lot of free books (mostly classics) and a few .99 from authors new to me. (just counted, and the total in that last category is 5.) and i’ve purchased four books at 2.99 that i know are self-pubbed backlist titles.

      but my question remains — who is setting the prices? the authors or amazon/bn/kobo?

      the numbers may tell the story — after all, on a 99-cent sale, amazon makes 65 cents, the author 35 (give or take fractions). on a 3.00 sale, amazon makes 90 cents, the author 2.10. amazon only needs to sell ONE AND A HALF TIMES as many at 99 cents to make up their loss in percentage; the author needs to sell SIX TIMES as many.


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  5. bungluna says:

    I’m keeping an eye on the e-reader thing. For now, the majority of my reading is done from the library or from a subscription service (booksfree). Until they come up with an online option, I won’t be buying an e-reader, since I love books and only buy my keepers.

    There are a few authors that I have in my must-read list that have gone only digital. I mourn the fact that I can’t get their work, but not enough to make me go digital myself. I hope eventually the busness model will include a POD option for old foggies like me.

  6. Hannah says:

    I always keep an eye out for freebies and I impulse buy a lot of 99 cent books. I have more than 1,200 books in my Kindle archives (most of which were freebies) and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed even though I don’ t have physical copies of these books around. Not to mention feeling guilty about all the books I’ve bought but haven’t read yet. I even thought about deleting books that I wasn’t going to read from my Kindle archives so that they’d be completely “out of sight, out of mind.”

    So I calculated what I spent in May. Not counting the freebies at all (of which I downloaded dozens) the average price I paid for an ebook was 3.68–and I spent more than $120 on ebooks (ouch!) I bought a lot of 99 cent titles and even some 1 or 6 cent titles from the Mother’s Day sale in early May. I’d like to go back to a previous month and see what the average price per book was by comparison. I know that I’m buying far fewer titles that are 6.99 and up.
    If I only paid for the books I actually read (which I average around 10 or so per month) I’d spend a lot less. That’s my ideal situation.

  7. Leigh says:

    Elaine the $.99 vs. $1.99 or $2.99 was in another article. I will look for it.

  8. Kayne says:

    I really appreciate seeing the special deals posted here. The ones I choose are authors I have wanted to try or books that are recommended. I consider the time I have to read as very valuable so I’m careful how many I download. Recently I have been enjoying Ashley Gardner’s mystery Captain Lacy series as $.99 ebooks. I appreciate authors that make their backlists available as ebooks especially with discounted prices.

  9. Berinn says:

    As a low/mid-list author, I find it harder and harder to stand out in ocean of self-pubs and low prices flooding the online stores now (especially with a $9 ebook (set by the publisher)).
    As a reader, I love the extra stories I can get from my favorite authors. Because there’s so much out there, my kindle is saturated with books. So I’ve become a lot more selective on any book I buy, even if it’s free.
    With the smothering quantities of books available, I believe all readers will be forced to become more selective, which in turn, brings quality back to the forefront. So in a nutshell, I’m not worried: in the long run it’ll all work out for both readers and authors.

  10. Rike says:

    elaine, that’s an interesting point. I would the guess the retailers are responsible for the reductions, with the possible exception of the Agency publishers. I can’t imagine the authors having much of a say there.
    Susan and Leigh, I wish I had your self-control. Maybe I’ll get there in the future ;-) ?
    Berinn, I’m glad to hear that authors think quality will be decisive in the end. Even now, mostly I won’t download or buy self-published ebooks, unless they are by an author I like or/and they are self-published reissues of older books after the rights had reverted. Low quality in language and editing will put me off any book.

  11. elaine mueller says:

    rike –

    regarding self-pubbed e-books — i agree with you about quality of language and/or editing 127%. this is where i’ve found the amazon free previews to be invaluable. and looking at my purchasing record i have not bought a single self-pubbed e-book after reading the preview SPECIFICALLY because the writing was so poor it took me out of whatever story might have been there to begin with. i have purchased digital reprints of backlist titles and will probably (but haven’t yet) purchase one recent e-pubbed new book from an established author, but none of the other self-pubbed e-books have met my standards.

    and i will say, it’s pretty easy for me to tell the difference between e-formatting glitches and just plain bad writing. my decisions not to buy have been based on. . . . just plain bad writing.

    but will the same hold true for the reader who just reads for fun? who doesn’t pay attention to the details, just looks for an entertaining story to take her out of the mundane for a few hours, and will grab up all that inexpensive reading material? i dunno.


  12. Christine says:

    I found when I first got my Kindle I glutted myself on any and all cheap or free books in my genres. Over time I have become more selective of what I download even if it is free or at a nominal cost. I do find (as I am a dedicated reader and will pay full price for “must-read” authors of mine) that offering a book for free or a reduced price is a great way to get me as a customer- if I enjoy it.

    Example: the first book in the “Shadowfever” collection by Karen Marie Moning was offered as a freebie. I read it and ended up buying all the rest in the series.

    It’s the same with library books, if I really enjoy it I will buy myself a copy. I did it with “Butterfly Swords” by Jeannie Lin and also bought the prequel novella once I knew I liked the author.

    Even though I own 99% of Carla Kelly’s backlist in paperbacks bought mostly second hand, I will buy them again as e-books when she releases them.

    While I am always on the hunt on the bargain forums and the Kindle free list for deals I am more than willing to pay up for an author I know I love. My only exception- I will not pay more than the hardcover/paperback price for an ebook.

  13. Laura Wagner says:

    Speaking for one site, Smashwords, that specializes in self-published work, the author sets their own price. A friend of mine recently self-published on there. Not sure if Smashwords takes a set royalty or percentage, though. I’ve purchased a couple of books on there and the quality varies widely, but I like the variety of plots for romance and science fiction titles.

  14. Carrie says:

    I will occasionally try a new author when a book is listed free on kindle, but usually only if someone I know can tell me if it might be worth it. I don’t feel like having a hundred “cheap reads” I’m never going to read on my kindle. It makes the archives too cluttered to look through. Mostly I get free or reduced priced books from authors I’ve already read, or ones I’ve been interested in trying. And I don’t buy books, either in print or kindle, that my library has a copy of already. (Unless I read it and the book is a keeper, then I buy it after the fact.)

    Agency pricing has definitely effected my buying habits. Since I can gets the books cheaper in print (usually with coupons) I buy the print copies instead of the ebooks. If I were allowed to use coupons or special promotions on ebooks from those publishing houses, then I’d buy the ebooks instead. That’s capitalism. I want the best prince I can get so my money goes farther. I’m not trying to stiff writers. By using 15-20% off coupons and memberships to buy books, I can get 20% more books a year with my book budget. I think in the long run authors win with that strategy. That’s especially true since, in my limited experience, romance readers read/buy a lot more books a year than most other readers.

  15. willaful says:

    I agree with your point on choice and I think the use of the word “addiction” can be more valid than people realize… I have a lot of compulsive behaviors around books and getting free/cheap ebooks is my latest one. It’s so very easy to justify!

    I would also make the point that you can easily spend more money than you should on “bargain” books. It’s not a bargain if ultimately you’re blowing your budget.

    I don’t feel that the cheap book devalue more expensive books for me because honestly, I just don’t buy expensive ebooks. Ebooks have inherently less value to me because I can’t do anything with them but reread them — and not even the way I like to reread, which is in sections, by skimming. They have added value in other areas, such as convenience, of course — but still, I have yet to encounter an ebook I wanted so desperately I would pay full agency price for it.

    I’m loving all the new sales and deals and buying ebooks much more now than before because of them — “Unlocked” by Courtney Milan — $.99. Being able to instantly begin the great new book all your GoodReads friends are raving about? Priceless! — so they’re getting more money out of me than they were before, which was almost none. :-)

  16. MaryC says:

    Free and bargain ebooks are a great way to try out a new author. Even though one can download the app to read Kindle, NOOK or Kobo ebooks on one’s laptop, if I can’t load it onto my NOOK, I won’t be reading the book unless it is sold in print.

    One feature of having the NOOK that I enjoy is the ability to purchase an author’s backlist.

  17. xina says:

    When I first started reading digital on my iPad w. the Kindle app, I downloaded many cheap or free reads. And just like with anything, just because it’s a bargain, doesn’t mean it is a good thing. I ended up with a lot of books that were just plain awful, and learned how to delete (which was an adventure in itself). Now, I only download what I know I will be interested in reading.

  18. Jane A says:

    I have been loving the free and bargain ebooks available to us. I am selective about what I get, but I have been introduced to many new to me authors who I might not otherwise have tried. I have also been reading and enjoying a substantial number of backlist ebooks.

    Additionally, I have bought a lot fewer of the selections available through the Agency Five publishers. I have felt resentful of their pricing policy and I don’t buy many of the books that I would have prior to their policy change. I’m now able to satisfy my “need to read” from places like Smashwords and from the bargains and freebies talked about in this blog.

  19. Hannah says:

    @xina I deleted 200+ books from my Kindle archives yesterday. It was very time-consuming and definitely made me think twice about buying free or cheap ebooks. Now I’m determined to delete two books from the archives for every one I buy to keep things more manageable.

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  21. Great post and fascinating comments giving a glimpse of what ereaders and free/low priced ebooks do to one’s reading habits!

    First, it would seem many go on an ebook buying binge – up to 1200 books in just a few months! Wow, that’s impressive!

    Second, because there’s bound to be a reaction, the buying binge dies down – just like any bubble, it bursts and the person goes back to his/her usual selective reader habits.

    So I’m not too worried that “free ebooks are devaluing books” – no, after a short burst of enthusiasm caused by the digital revolution, it will be back to business as usual…

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