Do Cheap and Free Books Kill Sales?

This has been one of those weeks where not much has happened–and I’m fine with that, although I wish more writing had happened. The weather has been hot, humid yuck–typical for Ohio in August, and something we’ve had much less of this summer than most. I think that’s contributed to this past week being a tired, headachey one.

I did have a follow-up appointment at the hormone therapy clinic, where the nurse practitioner upped my dosage on some of my supplements when I told her I’d seen some improvement in my adrenal fatigue, but not as much as I’d hoped. So we’ll see how that goes.

My husband and I also went to a friend’s for a cookout last night. Our friend asked us to bring Isis, since her kids had a blast playing with her the last time we were there. So we did, and we learned not hold our glasses near the floor, even after our hostess brought out a doggie water bowl.

Isis Drinking Wine


There has been a lot of discussion on one of my email lists about a small publisher that’s in financial difficulty right now due to depressed sales, and what the causes of that might be. Everyone agrees that this publisher’s ebooks are priced too high, but what’s the right price? Some say that the proliferation of free and $ .99 books have taught readers not to pay more, that there are enough free books on Amazon, why ever buy? Others disagree. Of course there are some readers who indeed only download freebies or buy $.99 books and bundles, but there are also those who want specific books and authors and are willing to pay for them–within reason. I definitely fall into the latter group. But it does underscore the importance of finding readers who really enjoy my work, and want to buy it.

This whole free book thing is even more of a consideration with the launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited program, where readers can pay $9.99 a month and read as many books as they want, of those enrolled in the program. My science fiction romance Hangar 18: Legacy is in KU, so if you’re a subscriber, you can give it a try for free!

What I read this week: I finished Forbidden by Zoe Winters, and thoroughly enjoyed it! I started a new one the other night that was really good–one that pulled me in so much that, even after I couldn’t keep my eyes open and turned out the light (and the Kindle), I couldn’t sleep. And not in a good way–stuff in the book kept tumbling through my mind. So I started another one last night, but am not far enough in to discuss yet. Both are by authors I love, so I have no doubts I’ll finish them, but the first I’ll have to read earlier in the day, which I have difficulty finding time for. I also read a research book, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America by Dale Taylor. Good stuff for my WIP.

ROW80Logo175ROW80 Update: I did not get as much done this week as I wanted. I got most of one scene written (might be able to finish tonight), but I’d hoped for two. Since tomorrow is a holiday, I’ll try for that again this week.

What about you–do you think the massive amounts of free and cheap ebooks available makes people less likely to buy? What’s the weather been like lately where you live–and does it affect your health? Whether or not you’re participating in ROW80, how are you doing with whatever goals you might be working toward this week? Please share–I’d love to hear from you!

Jennette Marie Powell writes stories about ordinary people in ordinary places, who do extraordinary things and learn that those ordinary places are anything but. In her Saturn Society novels, unwilling time travelers do what they must to make things right... and change more than they expect. You can find her books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, iTunes, and more.

11 Responses to \

  1. Great question, Jen.
    First of all, about 99% of what I read is on my kindle. Yes I love ebooks!!!
    I do download free books but they must catch me in the first few pages or I stop reading. Usually those are the first of a series and if I love the book, I’ll almost always buy the series, but…$5 is about my maximum for an ebook.
    I’ve stopped reading traditionally published authors. Prices are ridiculously high for their ebooks. when print books went to $10 per, I started going to the second hand book stores. I am a book addict LOL and can’t afford my habit at that price. Ironically those books are usually about $5, which is the upper limit of my ebook purchases. So it all works out, except authors get royalty payments on my kindle purchases.
    Occasionally, I’ll look at the books at Walmart, which are either 30% off or 2 for $15. Even then its got to be a special book for me to whip out cash, because I prefer to read on my kindle.

    I went to Chapters (think B & N in Canada) and wandered around and i have to admit, I struggled in the store. The idea of looking at all those books to find even one to read was overwhelming I’ve been spoiled by Amazon’s classification system, their recommendations and their lists. especially their lists.

    I’m probably an outlier on this question, Jen but I look forward to reading other comments

  2. I’m with Louise: the Kindle is a whole lot easier for me to handle, and I don’t want to spend more than $5 for any book for it. The legacy publishers all seem to charge almost as much for e-books as they do for paper books, and I’m more likely to just wait until the paper book comes to the library in that case.

    I get overwhelmed in traditional bookstores, and it’s hard to get down the aisles on a cane when there are others in them. I usually end up looking for somewhere to sit, and lotsa luck finding anywhere.

    I’m also doing Kindle Unlimited, mostly for Mary, who goes through books like little boys through shoes. I’ll have to look yours up.

  3. Louise, I read & buy books exactly the way you do! And with the same price threshold. So glad my publisher prices my ebooks at $4.99. I occasionally go to a B&N to meet up with writer friends, but I can’t remember the last time I bought anything in a bookstore. Big publishers’ books are just too expensive.

    John, I so don’t blame you – and also good luck finding something I want in a physical bookstore! I read a lot more indie and small press books anymore both for the prices and because so much of what the big publishers offer is same ol’ same ol’. And thanks for checking out Hangar 18 for your wife – I hope she likes it!

  4. Same here. I refuse to pay as much for an e-book as the paperback when I know the publisher had far fewer costs to produce the e-book. And $5 is my limit. There are several of my favorite traditionally published authors whose newest books I have not read yet, because I want them on my kindle and the e-book is overpriced.

  5. I recently read a blog post that estimated there are over 3 million books for sale on Amazon. I’ve also heard that the ideal price point for an e-book is between $1.99 to $3.99. Five or six dollars is the limit for me. Anything above that is just too pricey.

    I don’t think it’s just the big New York publishers who overcharge for e-books. I’ve noticed some shorter works by small publishers that were priced higher than I expected–the price didn’t seem to match the story length.

    On an individual level, if the first book in a series is offered for free, it probably does drive sales. But will we all have to price our stories at $.99 in order for people to buy them? I certainly hope not–even writers need to eat.

  6. Don’t we all struggle with pricing issues, especially if we are self-published. I went with $4.99 for a while for my e-books on the recommendation of another writer, but then I read an interview with Mark Coker. He said $2.99 and $3.99 are sweet spots for pricing books, and if you are relatively unknown, $2.99 is a better fit. So I’ve repriced my books, despite the fact that about 3 years have gone into writing each (historical fiction). Most of the writers and readers I know can’t understand why e-books are priced as high as paperback by traditional publishers. Yes, as a reader, I do try out free and 99c books, but only after reading the preview, and I’m relatively comfortable going up to about $4. And the convenience of carrying about 80 books around with me on my Kindle that are accessible at any time beats out the heavy and pricey bookstore books. The publishing industry is changing rapidly — I’m thinking as writers and readers, we’ll need to keep innovating as well. And if someone joins Kindle Unlimited at roughly $120/year, that doesn’t mean he or she is reading books for “free”. But it does mean the market for e-books just expanded a little more in an unexpected way! For writers, contests, reviews, and visibility will become more important. Thanks for writing about this, Jen. Now I want to find out about those ‘lists’ that Louise mentioned. Also, I checked out your Hangar 18; it looks interesting, but at least on the Amazon page I looked at, no e-book. 🙁 All the best! beth

  7. First of all, I am sorry that you are still struggling with adrenal fatigue Jeannette. That, and the humid heat would stifle anyone’s creativity, much less zap your energy. That said, another cute picture of Isis! And I find it interesting the attitude from your commenters towards the investment in an ebook. I too have a threshold that I do not cross. When hubby and I were totally broke, I really did appreciate those freebees. Yet now, even though I could afford to pay a lot more, it is irritating that the publishing houses still insist on charging absorbent amounts for an ebook. Is there something I don’t know? Is there hidden costs in publishing an ebook that I don’t know about? Maybe it’s just me, but I think they’re greedy. And I too prefer to read on an electronic device verses a physical book. It’s lighter and easier. And green in a environmental way. I hope you feel brighter soon! ((Hugs!)) 🙂

  8. Hi, Jennette,
    I was pleasantly surprised this morning when I ordered a friend’s debut from Hachette/Grand Central: the e-book was 2.99 on Amazon. The print version, though, was priced prohibitively high. Hmm. What’s the strategy there? Why didn’t the publisher just do digital? In my ideal world, e-books are priced less than $6.

    Hope you feel better soon!

    Thanks for the Isis pic!

  9. Kassandra, same with me! For big-name authors, I just go to the library. 🙂

    Denise, I’ve seen some high-priced books from small presses too – that’s why the people on my mailing list think the one is hurting. I have tried several series with free or $.99 first books and have gone on to pay full price for the others, so no problem there. But I agree – I don’t think all of them need to be bargain-basement priced.

    Beth, I’ve read Mark Coker’s blog, and find it interesting. What’s funny is my books don’t sell AT ALL at $2.99, and they sell just as many at $4.99 as they did at $3.99. I think the science fiction component may have something to do with that? I wonder what you looked for on Amazon – if you just search for Hangar 18 Legacy, it sure enough doesn’t come up. But if you limit the search to books it’s right there. Silly me for not linking it in my post, though – fixing that now… and thanks!

    Karen, I’m glad you like my puppy pics! I think the publishers are taking a hit on fewer paper books being sold, so they’re trying to make up for it with ebooks. Even though there isn’t the shipping, warehousing, and returns for ebooks, the big publishers still have massive overhead they have to cover in one way or another. Plus multi-year contracts with printers and distributors that were executed before all the changes. At least that’s my guess! And thanks for your good wishes! 🙂

    Pat, with all the Amazon-Hachette nonsense, I was wondering if anyone noticed those! One of my RWA chapter friends’ Hachette books are $2.99 and the paperbacks are $5.99, so someone there has their finger on their readership. I think my friend’s books are with a digital-first imprint, so maybe that’s why? And thanks!

  10. I can see offering the first book in a series for free (forever) if you have several others in line after. It’s a great way to hook a reader (at least, you HOPE). But I really HATE that KDP thing where an author can offer the book free for a short period of time whenever. Kind of a slap in the face to the person who paid full price for it. Think they’ll buy again? They’ll probably think long and hard first. I know I would.

    I’m not fond of digital books. I can’t share a good one with my daughter, because she doesn’t own a reader. Heck, most of them can’t even BE shared! And for an author I like, I’ll buy print every time (as long as the book is available that way). I’m more apt to re-read them that way.

  11. Jennette: We have been flabbergasted by the weather in Greater Boston, where I live. The “official” summer was cool, sunny, and dry. Now, in September, we have been hit with heat waves. Horrid. But it just stormed and I hear that tomorrow will be back in the comfortable seventies, thank heavens.

    Cheap and free ebooks are great for getting books into readers’ hands, but not great for authors’ bottom lines. It take a lot of time, energy, and expertise to write a book, and authors should be paid fairly for their creative work.