Free Ebooks – Do They Get Read?

Free EbooksIt all started with MP3 players and then, of course, the iPod. Free music, free music, free music until Apple and iTunes came along and at least settled the digital music market and returned it to some level of sanity. However, the ratio of free to paid songs residing on iPods still remained heavily on the side of free.

Now we have the iPhone and other smartphones, iPads and even e-readers such as Kindle that carry digital music. The screaming, yelling and court cases seem to have come to an end in the great digital music wars, but there are clearly lessons to be learned for the digital book, or ebook.

As with the free music bonanza of a few years ago, ebooks are now the new free digital offering. Whether it be out-of-copyright classics, author giveaways, or pirated copies available by BitTorrent, there is literally a never-ending supply of free ebooks to be downloaded for an e-reading device. I have seen many comments on social media about people being very pleased to have downloaded one hundred or more ebooks at a time. Well, this really makes me wonder.

If I downloaded one hundred songs, I would be able to listen to them all in a few hours. But one hundred books? Perhaps a year or two?

For some reason, free is an invitation to collect for the sake of collecting. But in the case of ebooks, it makes no sense whatsoever. I can see from my own book sales statistics that the one free book I offer is downloaded thousands upon thousands of times, but I really wonder how many of these thousands of copies will ever be read. On the other hand, when I see sales of my paid books, I am pretty sure I have gained readers of those books.

Then again, there is the argument that a free book offering is a way to attract new readers. I agree with this logic; however, I think the percentage is quite low. Of the thousands of free copies downloaded, would I be right to think that I may have garnered a hundred or so new readers prepared to pay for one of my other books? Or perhaps even less.

17 thoughts on “Free Ebooks – Do They Get Read?”

  1. Good point Derek. Personally I far prefer to buy a copy to support the author. I have downloaded a few ‘free’ books, but they are all out of copyright classics. As for the people who have gone on a download frenzy, I wonder if they are the same folk who strip the shelves in your local supermarket and wind up throwing most of it away unused?


  2. Andrew Claymore

    My wife and I have roughly thirty free downloads on our Kobos, but the authors are all long dead. From our perspective, being able to read the classics without having to wait for expensive special orders has already paid for both of our eReaders. I only have three current eBooks on my reader (well four if you count my own) and I have been disappointed to learn that the paper versions cost less than the electronic for many of the big name authors.

    As a struggling new writer myself, I prefer to pay for content, though I am thinking of doing a ten thousand word freebie that leads into my second novel. From everything I have heard, you need thousands of free downloads for tens of copies read, but at least it gets the name out there.

    Even if the actual adoption rate is low, a free tie-in to your upcoming novel sounds like a better marketing strategy to me than getting on twitter and constantly shoving my titles in everyone’s faces. Too many writers are trying to jump on the social media bandwagon with this approach.

    They’re starting to turn the bandwagon into a hearse.

    1. Andrew, Instead of that free givaway, why not put out a teaser chapter on your blog if you have one. Or do what I’m currently doing, give those reading my blog regular updates on my latest WIP.

      Just a thought :)

      1. Andrew Claymore

        Good advice, Jack! In fact I’ve been doing that as part of the twitter #samplesunday on my blog. I still think it’s worth doing a short freebie that can get passed around. A short side-story could be just the thing to present a little of the character’s back story and get a reader interested in what comes next.

        Still working on the blog. I think I need to take Derek’s advice. I’ll spend a whole day and write up a backlog of posts that I can keep a steady posting schedule.

        I just need to make sure they aren’t too time sensitive – nothing about the Falklands war or warnings about the miss-use of the Templars ensign by pirates…

  3. LindyLouMac in Italy

    My husband loves his kindle and reads every free book that he downloads, I think he has only paid for one so far! I have paid for a few but my main source is copies gratis from authors for me to review for them.
    Sadly I think many of the ebooks available for free or very low prices turn out to be rubbish unless they are classics. It seems anyone can write and publish a book nowadays if they are prepared to epublish!

  4. As a new indie author, any extra sales my free offerings bring in are gravy. I’m trying to get my name out, so if even 1 out a thousand read my book I feel pretty good. (My numbers show more than that). I realize that of the 30,000 downloads only a fraction read it and a fraction of those buy something else of mine, every one counts. It takes 10 years to become an overnight success.

  5. Robin DeJarnett

    This is a great question. I’m really happy to get classics for free – especially for my teenagers’ English classes. But books under copyright are a different issue. Which leads me to a related question:

    Is there a difference between free and 0.99? Are you more inclined to read a book you pay a little for vs. a free one? Is there an implied value if you have to pay something (even a little) for a book? Or is even 0.99 too much (I don’t think so)?

    As both a shopper and a writer, I’m curious as to what you all think.

    1. Interesting question Robin. At least with free classics you know you’re getting a whole book. A lot of 99c books are in fact not books but novellas and short stories. It takes a bit of investigation to find out the word count on ebooks, so a 99c cent book can be very expensive for what you actually get.

      I think there is always a difference between free and cheap and there will always be those who begrudge paying for anything associated with the internet. The 99c model in my mind was created to try to attract these people.

  6. I download quite a few books on my kindle, both free and paid for. However, I tend to only ‘buy’ one or two at a time which I will then read before buying anything else – basically the same way I buy physical books. I have come across a few free books that are terrible (so I immediately delete them from my kindle so I know not to bother with them) but equally I have read free books that are amazing and therefore, when I have the money, I am more likely to gravitate to these writers when I need my next book fix.

  7. I completely agree Tamara. Free ebooks should be an entrée to a writer’s talent and not just a quick freebie. As you say, you do need to sort the good from the bad, but you can make some great discoveries.

  8. I’ve read a few free ebooks and have been far from impressed. Most have been horrible. At the same time, I participated in Smashwords July promotion and offered my $4.99 ebook for free. My “sales” for July went through the roof. But I have not had a single review posted because of the free ebook. Do free ebooks get read? I would have to say no.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this tons lately — it really seems like there needs to be a standard.

    1. list how many pages / words are in this so called free book.

    2. tell the reader IF it’s beta – i.e. working drafts should be labeled as unedited works.

    3. If it is a full novel & professionally edited, then credit to the editor and pages / word count should be right there on the “cover” blurb.

    Unfinished books for sale? mixed with the few rare gems being given away for free, what a mess for readers to have to suss out. :(

  10. I always buy my books. I just want to be able to read them when I want and as slow as I want, cause sometimes I read 3 or more books at a time. And when I read them I just want to have them in my bookcase.

    I have only read once a digital book and that was because the book wasn’t in stores in my country but I don’t think I will ever do it again. I just like the feeling of a book in my hands.

  11. Ah, most of the free ebooks I have are in the public domain. I get a lot of free samples, but that’s to genuinely see whether or not I like the book. The only true freebie I’ve gotten so far was for my participation in a writing contest.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t read all the free ebooks I’ve collected so far, but that’s just because I haven’t had time. It takes a while to read Tolstoy…

    I will admit though, a lot of the freebies (and $0.99-ers) can be pretty awful. Of my many samples of ebooks, over half of them have ended up deleted…

    Honestly, though, I agree with you. A lot of the freebies probably end up in a dark dusty corner of the person’s hard drive, never to see the light of day.

    But I suppose if you are a writer just starting out, it’s still a good way to get your name out there, even if you only gain readers from about 20% of the downloads.

  12. I think, Derek, you had another astute post about visibility. It’s almost an impossible hunt to find find your own book without giving Google the title or authorship in the search. It’s tough to get read, free or not, when you and your work are invisible.

  13. I do e-hoard free and sale books… and I end up reading most of them.

    I usually buy 2-4 e-books per week and read 1-3 books per week (including physical books and library books). How much I paid for a book seems to have no bearing on how quickly it gets read. A Simon Winchester book that I was dying to read and was rather expensive has been languishing in my hoard for over a year… while many impulse buys get read the day I buy them.

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