December 20, 2011

Are All Cheap Ebooks Crap?

two metal hooks stuck together in a brain teaser

In my last post, I asked how much people would be willing to pay for ebooks.  Most comments agreed with my thoughts: Ebooks should be less expensive than paper books because of DRM, ownership, quality, and physicality issues.  What surprised me, however, was the number of people turned off by $0.99 ebooks.

The comment section of that post turned into a great conversation about how new owners of ebook readers typically go through a phase where they jump on all the free and cheap ebooks they can find.  I know I did.  I even wrote a post last year about where to find legal copies of free Kindle ebooks.

Yet once I filled my Kindle with more ebooks than I’d be able to read in a year, I stopped looking for those bargains.  I still haven’t read most of those free and cheap books I picked up, and I probably won’t ever read them.

Like many other people, I’m too busy to waste time reading a so-so story, and many of the free or cheap books aren’t worth my time.  This attitude was reflected over and over again in the comments of my last post.

People have been burned by low-quality cheap ebooks and are now wary of buying any ebook priced at $0.99.

What Does that Attitude Mean for Readers?

I fear some self-published authors will increase their prices simply to create the appearance of quality and avoid any $0.99 stigma.  However, cost does not create value.

If a story is worth more than $0.99, great.  Those authors aren’t doing themselves any favors by branding themselves as a $0.99 ebook writer.  But if a story isn’t worth the increase, the higher price will move the stigma line and create an incentive for disappointed readers to post bad reviews.

If the new cost floor for ebooks becomes $2.99 instead of $0.99 as everyone rushes to avoid the stigma, readers will have to become more discerning with their purchases.  Most of us don’t want to throw away several dollars on a dud.

How Can We Separate the Good Stories from the Crap?

This is the question of the year, and sometimes it seems as difficult as the brain teaser in the picture.  I’m not the only one who’s learned not to trust Amazon reviews because too many authors have their friends stack the deck.  (Besides, I’ll admit I’m pickier about grammar than most, so what a random reader might not notice might drive me crazy—er, crazier.  *smile*)

From now on, I want to see a sample of the writing first.  Authors should enable the ability for Amazon to show a free sample and/or use the “look inside” feature.  Book listings on other sites should include a link to the author’s webpage with the first chapter.

If I’m going to pay $2.99 for an ebook, I want to know if craft or formatting issues will impair my enjoyment.  More importantly, I want to see whether I’m hooked by the story.  A good beginning is critical for all authors, including those who self-publish.

No free sample on Kindle or author website?  No “look inside”?  No purchase.

How to Keep a “Try Me” Price and Avoid the Stigma

I’ve read several good self-published stories, and yes, they were priced at $0.99.  So I don’t think a cheap price automatically indicates bad quality.  However, those authors were ones I got to know through their blogs and Twitter, so I had a pretty good idea of their potential for quality.

On the other hand, the chances of me buying a random $0.99 ebook are fairly low.  A low price might be enough for a new Kindle owner caught up in the shiny, but for most readers, $0.99 isn’t enough to get readers to try an unknown author.  All the platform advice of blogging, Twittering, and whatnot applies here for the author to make themselves known.  But what’s most important is a book so good that those who read it want to tell others about it.

Buzz from others, real recommendations from people I know, tweets gushing about the great book they just read, all those things will get me to check out a book.  Only then will the “try me” price of $0.99 come into play to tempt me to take a chance.

Yes, it’s hard for authors to get their names out there and to convince readers to give them a try.  No one said this was going to be easy.  But the good news is if an author is good enough to justify higher prices, readers are willing to pay for quality.

What do you think?  Are all cheap/free ebooks crap?  If you’ve found some good ones, how did you discover them?  Have you used the “look inside” or free sample options to check out a book before buying it?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Scott Bury / ScottTheWriter

Is cheap always crap? No. And expensive, or even mid-priced, is not ever a reliable guide to quality.
The problem is, there is never a quick and reliable, easy guide to good writing, especially when you’re looking for new voices. If you stick to recommendations from the NYT best-seller lists, you end up with crap like Eat, Pray, Love.
I have read some excellent indie authors for 99 cents, and some unedited drivel. And I’ve paid 10 bucks for unedited work that shows promise, but really needs an editor or two.
All I can do is keep searching with an open mind, and hope that the audience looks favorably on my work.

Kathrine Roid

~”However, cost does not create value.”
Not a time to get very far into psychology, but we humans have the odd ability to automatically consider more expensive things to have higher quality that dirt-cheap things. I’ve read about some studies. We are very weird creatures.

I HEAVILY rely on Amazon’s “preview” feature for regular books, and even more so for self-published books (which a lot of those dirt cheap ebooks are). Unless I have had high recommendations from a few friends, I won’t buy a self-pubbed book without have looked at a decent preview. It was using the preview feature on self-pubbed books that I came to respect agents and editors who judge a story by the first page. I understood how problems with the writing were apparent within the first few sentence before, but once I personally started judging stories from the first page, I could completely empathize.

For me, it’s “Judge a book by its fruit.” Read a few pages. There isn’t a more sure-fire test.

Jennifer Davis

I’ve read a number of well-written and enjoyable self-published e-books in the $0.99 range, and I’ve read a lot of horrible books at higher prices.

As Katherine Roid said above, there’s no better indicator than reading the sample provided if there is one. Reviews, also, can provide a great indicator of quality, too, unless there are a disproportionately large number of reviews for the number of sales, which tends to indicate fake reviews.

I know that when I read a good book by a self-published author, particularly if that author is a new author, I always try to spread the word and encourage other people to give it a try, and always try to leave a positive review.

Karen L. Syed

It is sad that our society has become so generalized. If I had the mentality that cheap is bad, I would have missed a LOT of really good books. I don’t care what anyone says, a higher price does NOT dictate better quality. Stepping away from books and into the realm of clothing. We bought jeans for my hubby at Wal-Mart ($15.99) over a year ago and he is still wearing them and they are in great shape. We later bought him tow pair from Old Navy ($29.99 a pair). Within a month, the Old Navy pants had begun to frey…fray…come apart at two different seams. These are not tight pants. One of the pockets has a big hole in it where the stitching was so close to the edge it didn’t stand a chance. The other pair have begun to wear thin in the inseam…after a month and maybe being worn 4 times. The quality of those pants is horrific, yet we paid so much more and got that big beautiful Old Navy name on them. Back to books. I stopped reading a lot of best selling authors because after their 2nd or 3rd books, everything was just recycled from their earlier books. I am not willing to pay for anything that is stale and poorly written by someone who supposedly knows the business. If a new author makes a mistake, okay, they will hopefully learn and not make it in the next book. But doody happens. To judge…  — Read More »

Laura Pauling

I’m not sure why someone would ever buy a book without reading the sample first. That’s what we do in bookstores right? We flip open to the first chapter? I love 99 cent books but I still read a sample. Harperteen has 10 books being offered right now for 99 cents so it must not be that bad of a strategy. 🙂 But I only bought one. The others weren’t my style and the reviews weren’t terrific. If we know what we tend to like and buy according to that and not the price, we’ll be much happier readers. I’ve found my reader enjoyment has nothing to do with price and more about the writing and my personal reading tastes.

Kerry Meacham

I mentioned in your last post that I love the “sample” or “look inside” feature of ebooks. I know within 10-15 pages if this is a book I want to continue reading or delete. I just simply don’t buy books unless I can sample it now.

Kathrine Roid makes a valid point in her comment about perception. I love the story about when Arnold Schwarzenegger first came to the U.S. and was trying to make a living with a friend (Franco Columbu I think) doing stone work. They were having trouble getting much work, and they assumed it was because of their Austrian and Italian accents. So they kept lowering and lowering their prices. It didn’t work. They finally talked to a friend that had a business and told him they couldn’t lower their price any more or they would be losing money. What should they do? He told them they should use their accents to their advantage and call themselves “Old World Stone Artisans” and triple their original price. They did so and soon had more work than they could do. The kicker is that they were actually good stone workers, but their lower price made it appear that they must not be very good at what they did or they would charge more.

We humans are a peculiar bunch. Great post. ~clink~

Marcy Kennedy

“No free sample on Kindle or author website? No ‘look inside’? No purchase.”

That’s exactly my philosophy, whether the author is traditionally published or otherwise. In the end, all the reviews and buzz can’t take into account the quirks of my personal preference. What I love, my husband or mom or friend hates and vice versa. I need to read at least the first chapter to decide whether this particular one will appeal to me. And frankly, if you can’t capture my interest in the first chapter or two, I have no guarantee that you will ever capture it.

Kristin Nador

Interesting post, Jami! Coincidentally, I was scouring Amazon last night looking for some Kindle books to purchase with a gift card a writing friend gave me. Boy, was I excited! I was planning on getting several books that are on my TBR list, since the gift card amount was substantial. A lot of my books on my list are NYT best sellers from years past, as well as some classics. My excitement quickly deflated as I found book after book was over what I consider to be a more than fair Kindle book price of $9.99. One was $36! My goal of getting several books now dwindles to two or three.

Besides the obvious goal of making a profit, I think traditional publishers want to separate their books from the perceived self-pub crap book pack and are doing that with higher prices. I like the idea of having a mid-range regular price, then intermittently having a ‘sale’ for between 99 cents and 2.99. I think you can get readers to take your book seriously, and also grab the ‘ooh it’s almost free’ crowd.

I wish the sample feature was required for e-books, I could have saved myself a little book heartbreak and virtually throwing a crappy book against the wall. Of course this is only in my mind because I would never do such a thing to my beloved Kindle. My precious. Okay, I need to get out more. 🙂

Yelena Casale

Good post.
When I got my Nook, I was also guilty of buying all the free and cheap books I could find. Like you, most of them remain unread.
Nowadays, I mostly buy books for 99c if they are sale books or a novella by an author that I already know and love, or a famous author that I want to get into.
Having said that, I have read a few books that were 99c that turned out to be not bad. But mostly they are exceptions to the rule.

Gene Lempp

I generally use the “look inside” feature when considering an ebook, but then I also page through a hard copy book before I purchase it as well. I also test drive cars, read on a new product I’m considering using, etc. It is just smart consumerism. If something is marked as, and obviously promotional (as I mentioned with series in my comment to your last post) then $0.99 is a temptation, otherwise I would tend to hesitate and want to look deeper to see why the author felt that was all the value their product, er book, deserved.

Interesting discussions all over the web on this topic currently. Will be interesting to see how this evolves in 2012 and what the eventual verdict from the readers is.

Roni Loren

I do think that we psychologically see cheaper things as lower quality. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my post about why a book should cost more than a small cheeseburger. And raising the price obviously wont’ fix the quality problem because those authors who are putting up bad books for 99 cents don’t THINK their book is bad. Every book up there is what the author thinks is their best. So my guess would be that most would say their story is worth way more than 99 cents but they’re trying to get exposure. And I have read some great cheap ebooks. But there is something more valuable than money to me and that’s time. My reading time is precious. I don’t have time to sift through the slush pile to find the gems. Even reading samples takes time. The only way I buy an indie book is if I’ve seen recommendations everywhere for the book, I know the author in some way, or it’s by an author I’ve already read and enjoyed. That’s it. I’m a little less picky with traditionally pubbed stuff because I at least know it’s been vetted by an editor and had to get through the process to be published. This, of course, doesn’t guarantee I will like it, but there’s a lower-risk that it’s going to be awful. And on a different note, I think we authors are sometimes too paranoid that no one is going to want to read our books…  — Read More »

Teresa Robeson

I love the “Look Inside” feature, and I think it’s a great idea for all books to offer them. If Look Inside isn’t available, but I’m intrigued enough, then I will borrow the book from the library to see if it’s worth buying (I have a bad habit of reading about 15 books concurrently, so I rarely finish a book in the time allotted by the library).

Shelly Thacker
Shelly Thacker

Oh, heck. I just commented on your previous post, which I bookmarked last week while in the middle of deadline madness.

> I like the idea of having a mid-range regular price, then
> intermittently having a ‘sale’ for between 99 cents and 2.99.

This is exactly what I’m doing right now. I think a lot of indie authors are moving in this direction.

> I’m not sure what traditional publishers’ motivations are for high
> ebook prices.

Oh, I have a few theories, LOL. I tackled this question recently on my blog. See what you think:

Thanks for hosting such a thought-provoking discussion, Jami!

PW Creighton

The largest benefit of ebooks is the decreased cost and “impulse purchase” mentality attached to them. I certainly agree that there should be a sample to help judge the piece but at the same time the synopsis should also be a good judge. The .99c book will always exist but in the end the audience will determine what is acceptable cost for an author’s work.

kathryn magendie

Now all I can think about now is going to my books on amazon and reading the samples to see how they will look to potential readers *laughing*

But, as for the 99cent deal, Amazon put one of mine on a 1week promo for 99cents and I felt weird about it, but at the same time, I hoped it would introduce new readers to my work. I did worry people would not see the “promo” thing and think that was the regular price of my book and then think I was selling it “cheaply” – there’s so much to consider and worry and think about in this business, it can near drive you insane! 😀

I agree with the idea that free and 99cent books can cause “kindle book overload fatigue” – that’s the last thing an author would want! Who’d want their books languishing in someone’s kindle, or on their bookshelf! So, that takes me back to the sample – now I must go read mine, or, even make sure my publishers put a sample device there -eek! I hope so!

I’m here from “Fiction Groupie” by the way!

Daniel Swensen

I haven’t read the other comments, but I primarily tend to look at cover art, the strength of the blurb, and user reviews. That last one is tricky because they can be very biased, so ignore the really breathless praise and try to find concrete details.

Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

Yes — I think for me, it’s more determination than skill. I feel that if a book cover is complete clown-shoes, then either the author doesn’t realize it, or they do realize it and don’t care enough to do anything about it. Neither bodes well for the book itself. It’s a bit harsh, granted, but I agree with something you said on Twitter awhile back — with time and energy at a premium, I’ve become as picky as an editor when it comes to books. If it doesn’t grab me quickly, then it’s game over, fair or not.


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