My to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing. Unfortunately for publishers, however, it keeps growing with free offerings from both publishers and self-publishers. I admit that a lot of the free self-published books should never have seen fingers on a keyboard, but I also have to admit that I am finding a lot of good reads among the free self-published books. Some are very high quality, many are just good reads.

But “just good reads” is more than enough. These are books that aren’t of the caliber that one would choose for a book club discussion, but they are decently written and they do hold my interest. And this is the problem for traditional publishers as well as for self-publishers who want to charge a price that is reminiscent of a traditional publisher’s pricing: the world of free ebooks is becoming very competitive with the rest of publishing in terms of quality.

I used to spend thousands of dollars a year on pbooks. These days it is the rare book that I pay anything for. Looking at my hardcover purchases, I find that this year I have spent about 30% of what I had spent last year during the same time frame — and if I project it out to the end of the year based on books I have preordered, I will end the year spending about 22% of what I spent last year. That is a huge drop, and it is all because of the free ebooks.

Some readers focus on the extent of garbage that is found among the free ebook offerings — and there is a lot of it to focus on. But think about how you buy books and how that has changed with buying primarily online. Then think about how that applies to “buying” free ebooks.

Before the days of ebooks, I would spend hours in my local Barnes & Noble searching for books that were well written on topics that I wanted to read. I’d find a few hardcovers that I would purchase. When I got the books home, I’d start reading. It often happened that what I thought was a well-written book based on the sample I had read while in the store was not so well written after all. I might “force” myself to read the book anyway because I had paid hard-earned money for it, but equally as often, I would simply put the book aside to try again another day — a day that didn’t come very often.

But free ebooks have relieved me of that pressure to read a not-well-written book because I invested in it. Yet with that relief, I still find many more decently written and interesting free ebooks to read than I can read in the time I have, thus my to-be-read pile keeps growing. Free ebooks have made it very easy for me to discard a book without feeling guilty about doing so. Free ebooks have created the guilt-free age of reading.

Because there are so many free ebooks and because a large enough number of them are decently written, I see no need to return to the bookstore to look for books and I see no reason why I should pay agency pricing for ebooks from traditional publishers. This is not to say that I do not buy nonfree ebooks – I do. When I come across an author whose free ebook captures me, I’ll buy the author’s other ebooks – but free comes first.

What does this mean for the traditional publishing model that expects to be able to charge a relatively high price for an ebook? Ultimately, it means disaster. Right now traditional publishers aren’t directly competing with self-publishers; the quality gap remains Grand Canyonesque. But that gap is closing with greater speed than traditional publishers realize. Eventually, traditional publishers will need to more directly compete with self-publishers. This is not so difficult to do when the traditional publisher prices an ebook at $8 and the self-publisher prices an ebook at $7. But it becomes increasingly difficult when there is a yawning gap between the price the traditional publisher charges and the price the similar-quality self-publisher charges, especially if the self-publisher’s price is free. As Smashwords’ twice-yearly sales demonstrate, free and discounts of 100% and 75% are increasingly becoming the price of ebooks.

The salvation for the traditional publisher has to be quality when it can’t compete on price. Consequently, more attention needs to be paid to initial quality and to gaining a reputation for that quality. Unfortunately for traditional publishers, an increasing number of self-publishers are realizing that the quality problem also applies to their ebooks and they are improving their quality faster than are the traditional publishers.

It will be interesting to see how things stand 5 years from now. I wonder how many traditional publishers of today will still be profitable then.

Via An American Editor

(Photo: TAKA@P.P.R.S)


  1. Have you ever read Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely? It’s been a few years, so please forgive some foggy memories, but he has a chapter that basically says people go gaga for free and will willingly and happily accept a worse deal if they think they’re getting something for free. I think the same type trend is happening for free books. For the most part, the free books aren’t that good or just good enough, they’re actually pretty inferior, but the “magic” of free taints the readers experience into believing they’re “just good reads.” Now I’ve only read about a dozen free or indies reads and they’ve all been at most “just OK reads” but most were less than that. You’re mileage may vary, but I do think readers are will be happy with poorer quality when they can get it free. It may also apply to cheap books, but I can’t remember if Ariely applied discount items in peoples positive attraction to free

  2. I have a cheap streak a mile wide, but I feel about free books the way I feel about free anything – I have to want it in the first place to want it for free. So while I’ve certainly gotten some good books for free, I don’t limit my book searches to free, although I do limit them to under $8. (And I read a lot of stuff priced over $8 – for free from the library.) I suspect the world divides into people who actively go through only free stuff and those like me who are happy to get something worthwhile for free but limit ourselves to only free offerings.

  3. My experience is almost identical to Rich as far as the to read pile is growing way faster than I can read because of free books. I also buy books from several authors that gave their first book away. I find that I throw away around 75% of the free short stories, bad enough that I have become more selective in that category. Free full length books are probably about 30-50%. If the story doesn’t grab me in the first few pages it is gone. If I hang out for a chapter and still not completely hooked, it’s gone. By reading a 6-10 free books for every one I buy it cuts way back on the book budget. Jim…

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