The Great Free Book Debate: The Readers

This is the first in a two-part series by Alexandra Butcher. Part two is here.

Indie authors are given an almost overwhelming amount of advice about promoting and marketing their book, a great deal of which is contradictory.

It has to be said there is NO single path to take which works for every author. One person may find a good deal of success with one way, and the next finds that it simply does not work.

One of the most controversial ways is to offer a book for free. Amazon’s KDP Select Programme allows self-published authors to do just this.  In return for exclusivity to Amazon, an author can offer his or her book for five days free promotion in every ninety day term. The theory being readers will take a chance on a free book by an unknown or little known author which they may not otherwise consider. The reader gets a free book and the author gets their name “out there” and, hopefully, the reader will go on to spend money on a book by the same author, assuming they like the book. Some authors report an uptick in sales in the days and weeks following a free promotion, but certainly not all.

Other platforms, such as Smashwords, offer vouchers which can be used to purchase a particular book for free for a set time. For example, in exchange for an honest review, a short term sale or other promotion.

Why is this controversial? Well, if the frequent and often heated discussions on the Amazon KDP forums are anything to go by, many authors feel offering one’s book for free devalues it, the author herself and thus all indie authors. It is also debatable whether this strategy actually works in a market already full of what some see as “substandard” books. There is also the argument that readers will madly download free books, and never actually spend any money on buying books.

So do authors really see any benefits? Do readers simply grab what they can and never set eyes on the book again? Do readers leave actual reviews and go on to buy a second book by this author? Or are these free books really a pile of steaming… you know what?

The Participants

I have gathered an assortment of readers and authors to argue their viewpoints:

  • Sharon Michael – reader

Part 1: The Readers

This is Part 1, which focuses on the perspective of readers.  Part 2, which shares the perspective of authors, is here.

There are a great many books on Amazon and Smashwords which are offered for free. Do you download them, and if so, do you actually read them?  Roughly how long after downloading do you read them?

Sharon Michael: I do download them, although I do so only within the general categories I normally read: mystery, action/adventure, sci-fi and fantasy. Plus, I further screen by reading the blurb, and if it doesn’t sound like ‘my sort of thing’ I bypass it. I will try to read every book I download, though that doesn’t happen, since I will not complete a book that doesn’t entertain me. How long after depends totally on how busy I am with other things.

Erin Eymard: Back in the day when Barnes and Nobles first released the Nook, I couldn’t wait for “Free Book Fridays.”  There I could pick up whatever the featured free book was and more often than not, found an enjoyable book.  This was almost three years ago.  The difference between then and now is that these books that were featured were curated by B&N. Someone was vouching for their quality.  Now with the glut of free books on the market, I find myself less likely to download them and even less likely to read them.  As a reviewer, I get a lot of books for free.  But when it comes to reading for my own leisure/pleasure, I will more likely buy a book (usually in the $0.99 to 2.99 price range).  Some books that I download for free never get read.

Alexandra Butcher: I do have quite a number of free books on my kindle, but I also buy a lot of books so it is probably about equal. Usually by the time I read them I cannot remember whether I paid or downloaded for free. I tend to stick to books I know I will probably have a chance of enjoying, since it isn’t really fair to an author to get something you know you probably won’t like, and then being proven correct and leaving a bad review. I have taken a chance on some books I wasn’t sure about and liked them.  It is true there are some books which might never get read, but that can be said of some of the books I have paid for. I have plenty of books on the shelf which I haven’t got around to reading yet…

If you do not download them, why?  What influences this choice?

Sharon Michael:  I have been reading for many years and have pretty well established likes and dislikes, even within my preferred genres. If the blurb indicates that the book has characters I probably won’t like, or some of the standard plotlines I don’t care for, I don’t download. Mysteries can often be too ‘cozy’ or too ‘noir’ for my preferences. Urban fantasies with zombies, for example, I will bypass probably 99% of the time.
I skim through library books the same way when I am looking at new authors/books there.

Erin Eymard: I am like Sharon Michael in that my likes and dislikes have been pretty well established.  It usually takes a new or innovative spin on something that I like to get me to download it.  Covers are a big part of it for me.  I do judge a book by its cover.  If the author doesn’t care enough about the book to put out a top notch cover, I don’t care enough to read it.

Jaq D Hawkins: There are just so many! I’m picky and will read a sample before deciding to download. Why give myself a big slush pile to go through?

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  There are two major reasons I won’t download them for free.  First is that free books tend to come from novice writers who are so desperate to get SOMEONE to read them that they don’t care if they get paid or not.  The other:  I am picky about what I read. I’m low vision, and so far the e-readers don’t let me customize the settings to something I can see very well.  At least with paperback books, I can use my zoomax magnifier to enlarge the text and convert it to a color combination that works for my sight loss.  In light of this, I have to be very particular about what I choose to read and careful about protecting my remaining sight.

Do you have experience of free books being substandard compared to books being sold at the usual price?

Sharon Michael: To some extent, yes. More errors from poor editing and some that simply are not as well written.

Erin Eymard: Yes!  Editing errors seem to run amok in many free books that I’ve come across.  Though I must say, that there are many books that I’ve paid for that have had their fair share of editing and formatting errors.  I think it is more of a symptom of self-publishing rather than free/paid.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  YES!  Now granted, my work is not editorially perfect (I admit to being a low vision author who misses things sometimes) — but when I find something, I CORRECT IT.  Most authors don’t do that. More often than not, the writers who put in the most effort on editorial won’t offer their books for free — unless it is a special and very limited promotion.

Alexandra Butcher: Yes, to some extent, but as some of the others have pointed out this is not exclusive to free books. I agree there are many indie books which aren’t perfect, but there are a lot which are very professional. Errors are not limited to indie books. I read a book by well-known author just recently and there were five typos in the first five pages. Whether by indies or more established and traditional published authors, sometimes errors get missed. In many ways this is worse for trad-pubbed authors whose books have been professionally edited.

After downloading and reading a free book, have you then gone on to buy a full price book from that author?

Sharon Michael:  Yes, I have. There are more authors on my “auto buy” list now, in less than two years downloading from the freebie lists, than I’ve added through library introductions in the last 10 years. I now purchase (or will purchase when new books are published) books by seven authors I was first introduced to through a free book: Stephany Simmons, Faith Hunter, Claude Bouchard, Toni Dwiggins, Kerry Greenwood, Eileen Hamer and David Bishop.

Erin Eymard: Yes.  I think it can be a great tactic but only for someone who has a significant backlist of books.  One of the “Free Book Fridays” on the Nook was the first book in Vicki Petterson’s Signs of the Zodiac series.  I loved it so much that I bought the rest of the series (at their 5.99/6.99/7.99 price point).

Alexandra Butcher: Yes. One of the first free books I downloaded was Viridis by Calista Taylor, which I found very enjoyable and went on to buy Devil on a Sparrow’s Wing which is the sequel.  I have also downloaded a couple of other books by this author, although I haven’t read them yet.

Jaq D Hawkins: Not yet. This is a phenomenon that mostly affects series books, and we find those most in Romance and Fantasy. I do not read Romance. Most of the Fantasy I have found has been of mediocre quality. Some has been better than average, but I have yet to discover that next great series that makes me want to read all the books (apart from my own of course). One possible exception is Jim Hine’s Goblin Tales. The trilogy was trad published, but this book he released indy. I’ve been planning to get it for some time.

If someone offered you a copy of a book for free in exchange for an honest review, would you accept it? If so, would your review be different than if you had spent money on it?

Erin Eymard: I often accept free books for an honest review.  And I treat all book reviews the same whether or not I’ve spent money on it.  The only difference is if it is an established author.  For indie/small press/self-published authors, if I am not going to give it at least three stars, I won’t write the review.  If they are a BIGGUN and I’m going to give it less than three stars, then I certainly will write it because in my mind, they should know better.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  I don’t have a problem with free books for a review.  Reality is that reviews are often a form of favor to authors, especially independent authors.  So asking a reviewer to also pay for a book seems unfair.  This is different if the reviewer finds the book on her or his own and decides to do a review. But if it is an author soliciting the review then yes, absolutely, the reviewer is entitled to a free copy.

Jaq D Hawkins: My time is valuable. I have accepted read for review books in situations where my own books would get reviewed as a result. Occasionally as a courtesy to other writers I know, at least on-line. My reading time is insufficient to requests so I don’t agree to read a book until I’ve seen a sample. This may reflect in my review as I will have already decided that I’m going to like the book before I agree to invest my time in reading it. The one exception to that is a review group on GR where people are assigned books in a way that there are no reciprocal reviews. I take the four books I’m given. I haven’t come across any real dogs that way yet but if I’m not over keen, I write an honest but polite review. That’s what I would do in any circumstance.

Do you believe that free books encourage people to read more? Why/why not?

Erin Eymard: I’m not sure that it encourages people to read more.  I think people who download free ebooks were going to read something anyway. Now maybe giving out free paper copies of books might promote more reading.  Sorry, I know that’s not really a great answer.

Jaq D Hawkins: That’s hard to say, but I would think that more book availability would open up a natural reader’s curiosity more.

Laurel A. Rockefeller: Library books are free to read, and we do know that borrowing from a library does encourage reading — as noted by my voracious reading of Dorothy Fontana’s books as a pre-teen, just before the accident that took my sight.  Of the books I read before my accident, probably 80% were (paperback, this is the 1980s) from either the public or school library.  But I think people treat library books differently than they do free downloads off sites like SmashWords or Amazon.  I know I am actually more likely to read (listen to) a book downloaded from my library for the blind than a freebie from Amazon.  When it’s a “free to own” book, people tend to respect it less.

Alexandra Butcher: Yes, I do. Anything which encourages a wider reading audience is to be encouraged.  From my own experiences my reading tastes have widened certainly since I have had a Kindle and also from downloading free books. As I said earlier I have chanced books, such as Paranormal Romance and Steampunk, which I might not otherwise have found. Now I don’t read a lot on PNR but I do read and recommend a few, and I would probably not have read much of this genre if I hadn’t taken the chance.  A lot of people don’t have much money for books, or live close to a library, so this is one way of finding good literature accessible to all.  A lot of the classics are now free on Kindle, and thus more accessible to a wider audience.

Do you believe that free books reduce the quality of all books? If so, why?

Sharon Michael: No, I don’t. I tend to ‘use’ the free book downloads much as I have always done by checking out library books, an opportunity to get a ‘feel’ for a new-to-me author. I read fast, I have fairly narrow preferences, now long established and my criteria for purchasing a book is that I like it well enough to keep to re-read. There are more free books that I delete after only reading one or two chapters, but I download more free books than I checked out from the library as well, so I don’t know if the actual percentage of books I try, and find I don’t care for, is substantially different.

Erin Eymard: No, I don’t think that free books reduce the quality of all books. Just because a book is free does not mean it is of poor quality.  Many great works of literature are available for free as well as some trash.  In the end, it all averages out.

Jaq D Hawkins: What one book costs has no direct effect on the quality of another book, but I do think that free books have demeaned the perceived value of books and the fact that there are a lot of substandard self-publishers giving away free books has had a large impact on the expectations of readers.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  Actually I think the deluge of free books DOES undermine the overall quality of literature.  Because spending money is a great gateway filter.  When money is involved, people think more carefully about whether or not they would REALLY want to spend hours reading something. When it’s free, people don’t respect it and treat it as trash — along with any book below a certain price.  This of course assumes the book is free for more than a couple days on end; special promotions are different in my mind.

Does the price of a book affect your choice to buy, or are you more influenced by other factors such as reviews or recommendations from a friend?

Sharon Michael: To some extent yes, although once an author is on my ‘auto buy’ list price is not a consideration. Authors I have been following for years that are well known and established, I purchased pre-Kindle at regular hardback prices and their Kindle prices are at the upper levels. I still purchase them. The same is true for authors I “discovered” through a first free book that now are apparently selling well enough they no longer offer their books free. I think the highest price now for any of my “free Kindle authors” is $7.99 now.  If I’ve only read one free book, liked it very well but not quite sure if I like it well enough to re-read, I may be inclined to buy the second book if it is priced under $3 or $4, but will rarely buy at higher prices.

Erin Eymard: The price definitely.

Jaq D Hawkins: The price influences me in that I would not pay hard copy prices for an ebook. Anything over a fiver is unjustified as there is not paper or ink or manufacturing costs for copies after the initial production of an ebook. I take reviews and recommendations with a grain of salt. There are so many fake reviews on sites like Goodreads (both 5 and 1 star) that it’s hardly a system to be trusted, and even when only professional reviewers reviewed books, it was still the opinion of someone I don’t know. If I went by the comments of critics, I would never have seen several of my most favourite films. I read the Amazon sample, then decide for myself.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  I’ve seen some pretty crazy prices on digital books – some people even demanding over $100 for an EBOOK.  So, yes, of course price matters.  Digital books priced $1.99 to $4.99 are more appealing to me than outside of that range.   Likewise, I factor that in with paperbacks (which, as established, are much more accessible to me than digital currently as a low vision person).  Depending on length, a paperback priced $7 to $20 is fair, a bit more if it’s large print over 250 pages.

Do you simply wait for a book to become free before getting it?

Jaq D Hawkins: If I know it’s going to be free soon, then yes. Again, I lived on a low income for too long to throw away money, even though I would like to support indie authors. If I really want a specific book, I’ll watch it for a while and then decide if the going price is worth it to me. There was one recently that is over £15 for the ebook and I simply won’t pay it.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  It depends on how badly I want it and how much I value it.  If it doesn’t matter much to me, sure, I will wait for a free day (if any) to grab it cheap.  If I like or respect the work/author though, I want to pay her or him for her work.  Writing is a profession; writers need to get paid too!

Would you prefer an author to offer a book at a reduced price rather than free?

Jaq D Hawkins: I immediately have a better perception of the book in this case.

Laurel A. Rockefeller:  Reduced price gives me a better impression of the work.  A $2.99 digital book that drops to $0.99 for Black Friday comes off better to me than it always being $0.99.

Read Part 2: The Authors

Questions for Our Readers:

Has the proliferation of free books been good or bad for readers?  Has it been good or bad for literature as a whole?

Do you associate free books with quality, or the lack thereof?

About the Author:

Alexandra Butcher is a British author of dark fantasy/fantasy romance and erotica, and the author of the Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles series.  She lives with her very understanding partner and an assortment of pets, and spends far too much time online.  You can visit her blog at