Cheap EBooks: Bane, Boon, or Bust for Readers?

If you follow eBook news, you know it’s often all about pricing. From complaints about high prices and allegations of collusion on prices to concerns about cheap eBooks, customers are always keeping their eye on the price. It’s annoying to find that the new eBook you want is $14.99, while the hardback often costs less (including shipping).

To avoid paying too much for eBooks, I check out bargains on the MobileRead Deals, Freebies, and Resources forum every day. The eBook Bargains thread is also hugely popular on AAR’s own Potpourri board. It’s great to find free and bargain eBooks from authors I love, or from authors I’ve been wanting to read. Not long ago, I got nostalgic and gladly bought some Newberry Award winners for $1.99 each because the books reminded me of those great trips to the school library. Of course, I also wound up buying some higher priced titles because I just had to get a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond again.

Since eBooks first arrived, cheap and free eBooks have been seen as a sign of doom by many authors. As far back as 2007, months before the launch of the first Kindle, SF author Howard Hendrix generated a firestorm of controversy when he referred to authors with free promotional eBooks as “webscabs.” He later admitted that his use of the term was unfortunate as it distracted from his real concerns about technology. Still, the immediate result that even more authors decided to use free eBooks as promotional tools, particularly during International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.

So when I see authors or fans worrying about the effects of cheap eBooks, as a longtime reader I feel as if we’ve traveled that road before. It’s a controversy that’s been around almost as long as eBook bargains, though I and most readers I know read more than just bargain basement books. When I glanced through the lists of $1.99 Newberry eBooks, I also explored Amazon’s recommendations, looking for other old children’s books I’d loved. Soon I realized that I was scrolling past cheaper eBooks, because I realized they were usually indie published books by unknown authors or public domain books. I didn’t even notice that many 99 cent eBooks, and many of those were public domain eBooks. In many fields, it seems as if the 99 cent eBooks is being replaced by the $1.99 and $2.99 eBook, and even the $3.99 eBook. Some authors might be pricing their titles higher so that readers don’t automatically ignore their books out of habit. (“99 cents? Must be another self-published author. Next!”:)

Like many fans, I know that the cheaper eBooks are usually by indie authors, including self-published authors, and that’s not always what I’m looking for. While that doesn’t mean the book will be bad, it means that for if I’m looking for something specific, I’ll ignore it for now. This means that I often scroll past scads of cheap eBooks, and that the books I do look at range from a couple of dollars to even six and seven dollars. (Sigh. But it’s worth it if the print is better than the paperback.) If I’m looking for indie-published eBooks or I just want to take a gamble on something new and unknown, I will keep an eye out for those cheaper eBooks, but the price isn’t the only thing I care about. Also, I’ll avoid paying higher prices for those eBooks. It’s one thing to pay $4.99, or even $6.99 (reluctantly), for a beloved author, another to spend $4.99 or more for the latest indie sensation that might not be so sensational. On the other hand, some readers refuse to spend more than five dollars for any eBook, indie or not.

Some readers do buy only cheap eBooks. They read a lot, so they would rather buy seven books at 99 cents than one eBook that’s $6.99, even if the higher priced eBook comes from a big name publisher. Are there enough people like that to make a huge difference in eBook sales? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem likely. I hope not, because I’ve read samples of cheap self-pubbed eBooks that made me want to scream in frustration because of typos and comma splices. Not to mention errors like clich├ęd characters or shoddy research. I read a sample of one indie YA novel, only to learn that the author thought Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a tiny, backwater town. That would come as a shock to the over 59,000 people who live in that city (and the Lancaster metropolitan area has over 500,000 residents). Some backwater!

So when I see a cheap eBook, I’ve learned to look at it quickly. If at all. Is it by someone I know? Is it yet another copy of a public domain title? Does the person know how to look up Lancaster on Google? Usually I scroll right past it unless something about it really interests me. Even then, I have to check the reviews, the sample, the cover art, etc. I’m just as likely to scroll right past it, looking for whatever I want at the moment. I’m all for supporting indie authors, but first, I want to find books by authors I already know about.

Sure, there are people who buy books just because they’re cheap without caring what the book is about. I don’t know many people like that. Most every reader I’ve met buys books based on the author, as well as the subgenre, the plot, the cover art, etc. However, I know those bargain hunters exist. They’re the type who post negative reviews because that erotic romance they bought turned out to have bad words in it, or because that Christian romance turned out to have religion in it. They’re the ones whose reviews are usually marked “2 out of 57 people found this review helpful.” Most readers know better than to pay much attention to those reviews, just as most readers know that just because a book is cheap, that doesn’t mean it’s going to interest them.

Are those bargain hunters affecting best-seller lists on Amazon? Probably, but it doesn’t seem to be a lasting effect. Those listings change all the time. Today’s bargain that tops the list might be forgotten next week, or even tomorrow. But people are still talking about books like Easy by Tammara Webber (an indie book now picked up by Berkley) or the books of Abbi Glines (another indie author picked up by a big publisher), as well as Reason to Breathe by Rebecca Donovan and LOSING IT by Cora Carmack. While those eBooks were priced lower than most eBooks from big name publishers, they tended to be around $3.99 to $4.99. They still do quite well. Amazon’s top 100 Kindle charts show a variety of books, from the latest by established authors, to self-published books now published by big name publishers, to the latest hot indie books. In science fiction, the second hottest Kindle book right now is the eBook edition of Cloud Atlas, even though it’s $11.99. Obviously, the price hasn’t scared off too many readers.

What does that cheap price buy you anyway? Amazon has a large selection of Kindle Singles, but like many people, I don’t want to spend a couple of dollars to buy what amounts to an article, unless it’s by a “gotta have” author or a great topic. (Wait… Cecelia Holland has a Kindle Single called Lincoln’s Little Girl? ‘Scuse me, I’ll be right back…) Like Kindle Singles, the cheaper eBooks are often novellas or even short stories. I might pay a few dollars for a short story by an established writer in SF, fantasy, or horror because short stories are an important part of those genres. But a romance short for the same price? I’ll add it to my wishlist and think about it really hard. Everyone has their cut-off points, and their exceptions. There are authors who sell longer novels for as low as 99 cents, but then I have to decide whether I want to commit the time to read a novel by a completely unknown author. I’m spending my time as well as my money, after all.

Meanwhile, authors (both indie and “traditionally published”) try whatever they can to promote their work. Some use free and cheap eBooks to do it, and guess what? They do it because it works for so many authors! The cheaper prices help generate word-of-mouth because more people are reading those books. Authors also learn that exposure can backfire. A Christian romance author experimented with the KDP Select program, and learned that the offering her books for free could backfire. She ended up with an increase in what she called “unqualified readers.” That is, people who download books because they are free, then get upset because the books aren’t what they expected or wanted and post those (unhelpful) one-star and two-star reviews. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more authors started to avoid rock bottom prices just to avoid that type of review. After all, Word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful forces helping authors get readers, but if can also backfire. As more authors have experiences like this, I think the rock bottom eBook prices will become even less visible, except for special limited time promotions.

– Anne Marble

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15 Responses to Cheap EBooks: Bane, Boon, or Bust for Readers?

  1. Jane G says:

    Why worry about cheap ebooks when there’s rampant piracy?

    • Anne AAR says:

      I see them as two different issues. Also, authors can be worried about both issues. Generally, people who buy eBooks through Amazon (or B&N or other vendors) are not the same people who pirate eBooks. (There are always exceptions, of course.) Today’s eBook vendors have made it so much easier to buy the book that most readers would rather just buy them. (Anyone who started out buying eBooks in the dark ages remembers having to wait for the vendor to e-mail the book to you. If you bought something on the weekend, you sometimes had to wait until Monday for your book. And often they came with passwords. Ack!)

      Also, pirates are less likely to leave negative reviews on Amazon because an eBook they downloaded for free turned to be a genre they didn’t like. (Some people have speculated that many eBook pirates are “hoarders.” They download books just because they can, but they often don’t read them in the first place.)

  2. farmwifetwo says:

    The only books on my kindle app are the freebies. I also, check them out as much as I do one’s I’ve bought. I’m not filling up my phone with stuff I don’t want to read.

    My kobo is for books that only come in “e” or OOP hqn’s for the most part. Yes, if it isn’t around $4 and under it’s unlikely I’ll purchase it.

    Books, I wish to keep – and they get fewer by the day – I buy in print.

    I finally loaded the overdrive app to my phone so I can download library books. I can’t be bothered to go from the computer, the ADE, to the kobo and back again.

    Either way, the majority of my books come via the library. 50% or more of those books recommended here, goodreads, etc tend to get returned only part read. I find I do the same with my “grab at the store” books and have cut that back to “are you sure you truly want to read it”, so even a cheap book becomes a waste of money if unfinished.

    Therefore if an author wants me to try her/his books whether in “e” or print, for the most part I recommend getting it purchased through the library systems. Get it out there, let people try it, get paid for it – libraries have to purchase books. I have bought a lot of books, from a lot of authors, once I’ve gotten them from the library. Many people do.

  3. Maggie AAR says:

    I like buying author short stories for .99. Wen Spencer had two to go with the release of her latest elf book and I really enjoyed them.

    I have also gotten free or cheap kindle books for authors that are published and popular. Sandra Bricknell did this with one of her Always books.

    I am more likely to try an author if the book is cheap. Susanna Frasier is someone discovered through both this site and the cheapness of the book. Anne Aguirre is another. Amanda DeWees.

    Cheap ebooks are excellent marketing tools. I am also less likely to post a negative review of one (I only paid three bucks, etc.) than a full priced book. And the fact is, I have read as many bad full price books as cheap ones. To give a for example _ I bought both Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari and Enclave by Anne Aguirre at the same time. Ashes, Ashes was 9.99. Enclave 2.99. I can barely remember Ashes, Ashes. I just paid full price for the sequel to Enclave. Those low prices include some great books, those high prices far from guarantee one.

    • Eggletina says:

      Yes, yes yes to that last paragraph!

      I think authors and publishers are getting pretty savvy about using bargain pricing for the first book in a series. Once hooked, many readers are probably more willing to buy the rest of the series at regular prices (I know I have).

      I also use gift cards for trying new authors and higher (agency) priced fiction. If it turns out to be a hit with me, I’m more open to buying books by that author no matter the price. I also play the waiting game to see if certain books will eventually go on sale before I buy them. It really depends on how much of my budget I’ve blown from month to month.

  4. Lucy Blue says:

    I read this article with great interest and a bit of a sinking heart. After six print books (that have also done well as e-books) with a major publisher, I’ve recently been experimenting with self-publishing, releasing a collection of short stories through Amazon. Like Ann, as a reader, I also tend to buy e-books from authors I know first and stick to the middle range, pricewise. I’m also hesitant to pay single short stories. That’s why I did a collection (five stories) and priced it at $2.49 – more than 99 cents because hey, I am a fairly established mid-list writer, but less than a paperback because hey, it is an e-book, it’s short stories, and it’s an experiment.
    I think the brave new world of e-book publishing is a double-edged sword for writers and readers for just the things Ann writes about here. The possibilities for amazing content at a reasonable price are endless, but it’s hard as marble to find the good stuff in such a crowded market. And for writers, it’s hard to stand out. I tried to make sure I had a good, professional-looking cover and that the stories were worth reading and well edited. But I’m still in the baby steps stage of learning how to translate that into sales.

  5. Mrs. Fairfax says:

    Yesterday I got an email from Amazon telling me that Deborah Crombie has a short story out, Nocturne (with Bonus Material!), for 99 cents. I grabbed it, it’s been a while since the last Duncan & Gemma story.

    The short story turned out to be about a conversation Kit has with that elderly German neighbor, and it was 23% of the publication. The other 77% was the first part of No Mark Upon Her, which would have been nice as a sample if I hadn’t already read it. I’ll be more suspicious of “Bonus Material” in future. It’s only a buck, but it seemed like bait and switch to me.

  6. Leigh says:

    I am willing to spend more on authors that I know. Still ten dollars is about my limit. If a book is priced more than that I utilize my library.

    I rarely download free books or buy 99 cents books, unless it is a bargain price book on authors that I already read.

  7. Joanne says:

    As a soon to be indie romance author and complete unknown, the world of e books is still new to me (I work in a library so I only buy what I really want) but it has been an eye opener to see what there is out there in indie land. It’s overwhelming in fact. Indie authors I’ve spoken to have seen spikes in sales following free download promotions so folk are reading, liking and buying, it seems. But as Anne said, it can backfire so I shall continue to observe – darn, it really is a double edge sword!!!

  8. genevieve says:

    I like it when the books from my favourite small publisher offers cheap or free ebooks because it offers me a chance to read a new author without the risk of putting a major dent in my pocket book and wall.
    I do admit that when it comes to books from say Smashwords I understand that there is a risk of glimpsing the dreaded Bad Editing Syndrome, but that also can happen to the bigger publications as well.
    My thought on that is if the author is just THAT good I’ll ignore it, and the opposite as well I will delete or return the book so fast my head will spin.

  9. Audrey says:

    I’m new to ereading and I haven’t bought many regular books yet.

    I’ve been paying a dollar or two to try new authors, and that’s all I’ll pay. If there isn’t a cheap way to try someone, I just won’t.

    I’m finding that my autobuy authors are at least as expensive if not more digitally and I refuse to pay the same or more. I’ve deleted more than a few that just didn’t strike me for one reason or the other, and my keep criteria is the same print or digital – would I read it over and over? But I would say I got burned only once – I tried a short story by Jessica Subject for $4. It took me 27 minutes to read from start to finish including excerpts for her other books. It wasn’t well written plus four dollars is ridiculous for the length, I want at least a short story, not a magazine article. It also made me take note of her publisher, Decadent, to avoid them if that’s their pricing.

  10. pamelia says:

    I think pricing is very important when I purchase e-books. One thing I can’t stand is when the paperback is priced at $5 + change while the e-book is a whopping $9.99. WHY??! I can’t fathom spending more for the non-corporeal of the two. I have opted not to buy books when this occurs, so maybe if there are any publishers reading this they can take note.
    I’ve also felt like the recent serial book offerings have been major price rip-offs and have avoided them like the plague — $2.99 for what is essentially 2 chapters? No thanks. I’m not shelling out $16 for what will ultimately be less than 300 pages.
    I think $0.99 is a fair price for a short story and appreciate when books go on sale for $0.99 as a temporary measure (maybe to entice me into starting a new series) but I have learned to always check the page count before I purchase any ebook since some very short offerings run upwards of $4-5 and I have been burned in the past paying that amount for less than 50 pages — it left a sour taste in my mouth.
    Funny to think that I didn’t blink at shelling out $11.99 for books when I was getting a trade paperback or hardcover, but now I can’t justify spending that much for an e-book unless I KNOW it’s going to be really good.

  11. Judy K says:

    I have a Nook tablet and before purchasing ebooks, have found it useful to follow reader reviews. Most reviewers will say if the book is not a full size novel but more a novella with less than hundred pages and not worth the purchase price. I find even in full sized ebooks the stated number of pages falls short by as much as 20-30 pages to include bio, author notes or excerpts from a new release.
    I look for ebooks on B&N in the price range from free to $1.99. I have been pleased so far with these selections.
    Recently B&N has notified me regarding 5 publishing houses that are in a price fix agreement with each other and are under investigation.

  12. Mark says:

    Baen Books has been publishing ebooks longer than most other publishers (well over a decade), keeps their prices low (unless you are in such a rush you will by an ARC), keeps all their ebooks DRM-free, and offers many books in a free library. I think their history pretty much refutes most arguments against cheap or free ebooks.
    Baen Free Library:
    Baen ebooks:

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