Question For the Week: Do Cheap and Free Books Devalue Books?


I was inspired to ask this by a short blog post I came across on ANewDomain, via Book2Book, a daily email from BookTrade.

It set me to wondering whether we, as writers, are our own worst enemies. And it was reinforced by another short piece I read a little while ago at Digital Book World that says research shows that only 60% of books downloaded are actually read.

Are we devaluing books by making them too cheap or even free? Do people, as a general rule, value those things they get free or at a bargain price? The evidence suggests they actually value an item more if they pay more for it. For example, look at the extravagant amounts applied to perfume. A small bottle of water with a few drops of aromatic oils sells for many tens of pounds, when the content is probably worth no more than a couple of quid at most. In fact, it’s often the case that the packaging is more expensive to make that the contents! People value it as a ‘luxury’ product; something they wish to be associated with because of its perceived value rather than because of its actual worth.

Free newspapers are routinely tossed into the bin on receipt, unread. Free ‘gifts’ with certain consumables are consigned to the rubbish as a matter of course. Many other ‘free’ items are now viewed with such scepticism by the majority of consumers that they have lost all value as enticements to spend.

Do we, as authors, want to join this marketing debacle, to reduce our work to the status of a plastic dinosaur in a packet of cornflakes or a knockdown end-of-line ‘bargain’?

I currently have one book I give away. It’s a seasonal short and humorous piece I wrote specifically as a gift to my loyal readers on my blog. It’s still available free, and will remain so, since it’s my way of saying ‘thanks’ to readers rather than a marketing ploy to draw them in.

But I also fell into the $0.99 trap when this was so popular. So, I’m going to remove my books from that pit and try them at a price I think is valid for their content. I’ve no idea whether this will affect sales, but I have come to the conclusion that discounting books down to the very cheap or giving them away free is doing the whole world of books no good, so I’m opting out of it. It’ll take a little time to change the prices, but I will do it.

How about you? What’s your attitude to free and/or cheap books as either reader or writer? I’d love to know.

11 thoughts on “Question For the Week: Do Cheap and Free Books Devalue Books?

  1. Valid opinions on both sides of this particular fence. I’m giving away my first book for free. It’s a collection of short stories, so I’ve already been paid something for the contents by traditional publishers. In part, it’s a marketing move, although I’ve discovered it’s more than that. I read an article on another site that encouraged authors to put up a tip jar for free books, and I really didn’t want to do that. Books have meant more to me than I can say, and I want to give something back.

    And then, concerning promotion, I’ll feel easier about promoting a book that’s free. It’s not a thing that comes naturally to me, so for my first time, I’m quite glad I can remove that squirmy feeling of asking others to plunk down their hard-earned cash for my words.

    But I plan on selling my novels for $3.99, with occasional sales a buck cheaper. It’s the price of a Starbuck’s drink for pity’s sake. I think having a free book out there will help me with being able to do that. Okay, I hope it will.

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    1. I agree Cathleen, it’s not a straightforward situation and our pricing does depend on our individual situation. I think the important thing is not to get hung-up on trends and fashions, but to come to your own conclusions about what suits your own books and outlook best. And that can only be done by experiment. Even then, there are so many variables that determining which are relevant and which are unimportant is actually quite difficult.
      I’ve yet to make any changes to my prices. The process is time-consuming and I feel I should make other changes at the same time as the price change, so it will be a slow and gradual process.


  2. I’ve come to the same conclusion on books. At first, I was downloading all my friends’ free and 99cent books. Well, most I’ve never read. I think promotions are okay with a set time. We have to consider ‘how much is my writing worth?’ I think many of us lower our standards because we don’t have that self-esteem that says I am a great author.

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    1. I’ve done the same sort of thing, DM. Sorry for the delay in response, but I was unable to access my site for a while. Seems to be sorted now, though! You’re right: we should always consider the worth of our words. Giving them away free is sometimes justified, but do we want to persuade readers that our words are worthless by giving them all away or selling them like cans of beans? I suspect that a higher price tag does make many readers believe they are getting something more worthwhile.


  3. I’m so interested in these posts as I worry sometimes that we are out worst enemies. Are we devaluing our work and contributing to the myth that indie books are “worthless?” I’m with you, Stuart, that I care more about being read than making a living from writing (a long long shot anyway). I do offer my self-published books free now and then to drum up interest, and my ebooks are a good value (2.99-3.99).

    A point of interest – my traditionally published books are not selling well. The publisher will not bend on pricing which gives me very few promotional opportunities. So, sitting on a higher price (3.99-5.99) doesn’t work well either.

    An interesting topic. As the world of publishing continues to change, we’ll see what happens. 🙂

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    1. I think, as Mick originally commented, this is a complex issue. I raised it in the hope of getting some experienced input from others and you’ve provided that, D. I, too, am both self published and published by a small publisher, so I can understand your frustration over sales from both sources. I suspect the real reason, the most important aspect of the numbers game is simple exposure. There are so many books out there that we get lost in the crowd so easily.
      The price is just one aspect of a complex situation. But, if cheapness doesn’t actually help to get our books noticed, then we might as well charge a reasonable fee for our work and, at least, not contribute to the notion that books are worthless, I think.

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  4. I take all of your points. I wonder whether the biggest problem with cheap or free e-books is that they are just that; cheap or free e-books. An e-book does not sit on your shelf reminding you to read it every time that you glance casually in that direction. I only have a couple of e-books, and they are very easy to forget as they lurk in some forgotten corner of the hard drive.

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    1. Interesting point, Mick. As you say, physical books can accuse you, sitting on the shelf, an ever present reminder. But ebooks lurk somewhere obscure and have to be sought out. Easy to forget.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughtful and considered response, Mick. I agree with you about the difference between a choice to accept something for free and having that free item foisted upon you. I also have left full price books unread whilst preferring to read a book bought second hand. And, yes, cheap products of a creative nature do provide potential customers with a chance to sample something new without spending a fortune. And libraries have always been free, I’m pleased to say.
    My point, however, is aimed at the prevalence of cheap books more or less regardless of quality or actual worth. It is a habit amongst the self-published, encouraged by several ‘gurus’ in the indie field, to price a book at $0.99 without any thought about the work’s actual worth. It has become a fashion, almost an expectation.
    And, I do wonder what non-writer readers make of it. The other blog I mention suggests that books are frequently downloaded and never read. I suspect all readers have more books than they actually read: it comes with the territory. But the almost giveaway price of $0.99 allows readers to download large quantities of ebooks without the slightest intention of ever actually reading them. It is this devaluing that is most pernicious, I think.
    As a writer, I want readers to read my work, not simply own it on a device. It’s the work I care about, not the income. If I was worried about making a living, I’d spend my time doing something more likely to result in a worthwhile income than writing!
    I’ll be interested to see whether my proposed change in pricing makes any difference at all to my book sales and will report on this in a later post. (how much later, I can’t say).

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  6. I think that this is actually quite a complex issue, Stuart. The examples that you give of free newspapers and free gifts given away with other products, are things that people have been given, but usually have not actually chosen to receive. They are not terribly likely to want them, really. Making a decision to download (for example) your seasonal book, on the other hand, involves making a choice and taking an action to receive said freebie.

    I buy many books in Oxfam shops, and although I pay much less than I would if I had bought the book new, I still value it no less than I would otherwise, and I am just as likely to leave a full-price book unread for years as I am the one from the charity shop. In each case I have bought them because I want to read them.

    The very cheap book, whether it be in a shop or online is also a way of discovering an author I might not otherwise have read. It is not exactly the same thing, but when I worked abroad a long time ago, I bought many music cassettes because they were all ridiculously cheap in that country. Many were of bands I had never heard of, but they were cheap enough to take a chance on. Inevitably, I discovered a lot of artists whom I really liked, and later spent a fair amount of money on other music of theirs back here.

    Shops call them loss-leaders, of course.

    Many books are lent out by libraries for free, and I’m not aware of large numbers of authors resenting this. At the other end of the scale, it is difficult to market them like perfumes. There are limited editions in hand-tooled leather and all of that stuff, and expensive coffee table books with lavish high quality illustrations, but they don’t sell many copies and publishers are understandably very wary of them.

    Of course, I speak as an as yet unpublished author, and might well change my mind when the time comes.

    Apologies for the rather long ramble…

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