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When free and cheap transcend plots and themes

The header of an e-mail message this morning proclaimed: “Download Two Free Audio Books.”

I get e-mails like this all the time, variously titled Get Free Books, This Week’s Deals, and 99¢ Books in Your Favorite Genres.

ebooksodaThese deals don’t tempt me at all. I can’t imagine basing my reading choices on books that happen to be free or cheap this week. For one thing, the list of books on my To Be Read List is already long enough. Reading the books I select based on plots and themes (and, yes, on authors’ names) will represent an investment in time. Seeing a deal for a cheap or free book doesn’t grant me a cosmic gift of 30-hour days of extra reading time.

booksendsMy books have benefited from their listings in newsletters like ebooksoda and booksends. When I reduce the price and advertise the book in a newsletter for 99¢, there’s a lot of movement on the book’s Amazon page. My hope here is that people who are already tempted by a book from an author they don’t yet know (me) will try out the book while it’s on sale. Some of those who enjoy the book come back and write reviews.

Newsletters, tweets and e-mail messages offering low-cost books definitely offer a service too readers. I’ve found and enjoyed books by known and unknown authors this way. I image lots of people do.

99centsNonetheless, I’m bothered about the process because after seeing the seemingly infinite number of pitches and promotions for cheap and near-cheap books, I start worrying that everything I say about the plots and themes of my own books–or recent books I’ve enjoyed–doesn’t matter to anyone without the presence of a deal.

Seriously, are large numbers of people reading books based on free and cheap rather than anything else? Or, with the advent of e-books (after all, it’s just a file), is there no room in the economy for books that sell at a high enough price to actually pay the authors’ for the time it took to write them?

Most little-known authors won’t sell 11787.8787879 books to earn $11,787 during the year. ($11,787 is the federal poverty level threshold for one person.) In fact, if they’re paying to get their books included in the deals newsletters, they’ll be running at a loss if they sell 11787.8787879 copies at 99¢.

noAmazonThe economics from the author’s perspective are rather grim when the marketplace–with Amazon’s constant pushing–looks at the default book price for anyone who isn’t on the New York Times bestseller list as 99¢. Amazon, of course, can make a profit when selling by volume because Amazon isn’t using up a year or two worth of writing hours to create the books on its site.

For authors and others who love great books and well-told stories, the main concern here really isn’t personal income because earning enough to live on is assumed for the most part to be impossible. The biggest concern is that more and more book-buying choices aren’t based on great books and well-told stories, but on free or cheap. When that happens, quality becomes the lowest common denominator in ones book-buying choices.

Wikipedia photo

Wikipedia photo

I used joke with my mother about the “savings” of spending a several extra hours’ worth of shopping time each week (and a lot of extra gallons of gasoline in the car) for going to multiple grocery stores to “benefit” from a few pennies off here and a few pennies off there. My view was that she was running in the red looking for deals. Now, the Internet makes the deals easier to find with little time and energy devoted to the search.

So where do we end up? Are books’ plots and themes losing out to free and cheap because the Internet helps us find the deals without having to spend much time looking for them? Or, are readers who care about plots and themes still finding the books they’ve always loved at a reduced price?

I don’t know if quality is suffering or not. But I worry about it.




  1. This is an insightful reflection on that quality-or-quantity question, and it also illuminates a sort of lack of discernment, if people are getting books just because they’re cheap or free rather than for specific topics or quality writing (libraries excepted, since they’re public ‘temples of knowledge’ as the plaque at the local ‘brary here reminds!).

    And most people, I’m guessing, have no idea that the author him or herself is last on the list when it comes to the ‘revenues’ … the publisher, the distributor, the bookseller get their share first, even when we’re lucky enough to work with a great indie publisher. And for used books, the author doesn’t get anything back from it at all.

    It is a concern. Thanks for sharing your reflection about it, Malcolm.

    November 12, 2015
    • I don’t have any answers here, you see. Just wondering. I guess that some readers see an ebook the way they see a similarly priced product in a store and figure the company wouldn’t price them that way if it was taking a loss. Most of the people creating those products are working for hire and receive wages. Authors don’t fit that category and are probably outside the considerations of those getting the 99-cent books. Thanks for your visit.

      November 12, 2015
  2. PM #

    Thoughtful post, Malcolm. Glad you wrote it.

    November 12, 2015
  3. Well, I don’t buy books just because they’re cheap, and I will spend more on a book by an author whose work I know I won’t be disappointed in. With the rise in Indie publishing, there is a lot of bad writing out there, so I’m very hesitant to spend money on a book/author I’ve never heard of. I’m more likely to download a bargain priced book (or free book!), even if it sits on my Kindle waiting for a long time (as most books do). I’m not knocking Indie books/authors as I’m one of them. There are some really great ones out there, and reading one at a bargain price will definitely make me think about going back for their next book. OTOH, I won’t download a book if it doesn’t sound like the kind of story I might like, even if it is free.
    A couple of weeks ago a friend sent me a link for a free download of an audiobook of a graphic novel written by Joe Hill. I was excited because I love audiobooks and I’ve read some of Joe Hill’s novels and enjoyed them. I tried listening to it the other day and just couldn’t get into it, so I turned it off and started listening to something else. I don’t have to tell you I was very happy I hadn’t paid money for it.

    November 12, 2015
    • Indie publishing is a factor because unknown indie authors are more of an unknown quantity than unknown BIG PUBLISHING authors. I do like to be able to download something economical when I’m less sure of the quality. Thanks for visiting, Elise.

      November 12, 2015

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