If you follow eBook news, you know it’s often all about pricing. From complaints about high prices and allegations of collusion on prices to concerns about cheap eBooks, customers are always keeping their eye on the price. It’s annoying to find that the new eBook you want is $14.99, while the hardback often costs less (including shipping).

To avoid paying too much for eBooks, I check out bargains on the MobileRead Deals, Freebies, and Resources forum every day. The eBook Bargains thread is also hugely popular on AAR’s own Potpourri board. It’s great to find free and bargain eBooks from authors I love, or from authors I’ve been wanting to read. Not long ago, I got nostalgic and gladly bought some Newberry Award winners for $1.99 each because the books reminded me of those great trips to the school library. Of course, I also wound up buying some higher priced titles because I just had to get a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond again.

Since eBooks first arrived, cheap and free eBooks have been seen as a sign of doom by many authors. As far back as 2007, months before the launch of the first Kindle, SF author Howard Hendrix generated a firestorm of controversy when he referred to authors with free promotional eBooks as “webscabs.” He later admitted that his use of the term was unfortunate as it distracted from his real concerns about technology. Still, the immediate result that even more authors decided to use free eBooks as promotional tools, particularly during International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.

So when I see authors or fans worrying about the effects of cheap eBooks, as a longtime reader I feel as if we’ve traveled that road before. It’s a controversy that’s been around almost as long as eBook bargains, though I and most readers I know read more than just bargain basement books. When I glanced through the lists of $1.99 Newberry eBooks, I also explored Amazon’s recommendations, looking for other old children’s books I’d loved. Soon I realized that I was scrolling past cheaper eBooks, because I realized they were usually indie published books by unknown authors or public domain books. I didn’t even notice that many 99 cent eBooks, and many of those were public domain eBooks. In many fields, it seems as if the 99 cent eBooks is being replaced by the $1.99 and $2.99 eBook, and even the $3.99 eBook. Some authors might be pricing their titles higher so that readers don’t automatically ignore their books out of habit. (“99 cents? Must be another self-published author. Next!”:)

Like many fans, I know that the cheaper eBooks are usually by indie authors, including self-published authors, and that’s not always what I’m looking for. While that doesn’t mean the book will be bad, it means that for if I’m looking for something specific, I’ll ignore it for now. This means that I often scroll past scads of cheap eBooks, and that the books I do look at range from a couple of dollars to even six and seven dollars. (Sigh. But it’s worth it if the print is better than the paperback.) If I’m looking for indie-published eBooks or I just want to take a gamble on something new and unknown, I will keep an eye out for those cheaper eBooks, but the price isn’t the only thing I care about. Also, I’ll avoid paying higher prices for those eBooks. It’s one thing to pay $4.99, or even $6.99 (reluctantly), for a beloved author, another to spend $4.99 or more for the latest indie sensation that might not be so sensational. On the other hand, some readers refuse to spend more than five dollars for any eBook, indie or not.

Some readers do buy only cheap eBooks. They read a lot, so they would rather buy seven books at 99 cents than one eBook that’s $6.99, even if the higher priced eBook comes from a big name publisher. Are there enough people like that to make a huge difference in eBook sales? I don’t know but it doesn’t seem likely. I hope not, because I’ve read samples of cheap self-pubbed eBooks that made me want to scream in frustration because of typos and comma splices. Not to mention errors like clichéd characters or shoddy research. I read a sample of one indie YA novel, only to learn that the author thought Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a tiny, backwater town. That would come as a shock to the over 59,000 people who live in that city (and the Lancaster metropolitan area has over 500,000 residents). Some backwater!

So when I see a cheap eBook, I’ve learned to look at it quickly. If at all. Is it by someone I know? Is it yet another copy of a public domain title? Does the person know how to look up Lancaster on Google? Usually I scroll right past it unless something about it really interests me. Even then, I have to check the reviews, the sample, the cover art, etc. I’m just as likely to scroll right past it, looking for whatever I want at the moment. I’m all for supporting indie authors, but first, I want to find books by authors I already know about.

Sure, there are people who buy books just because they’re cheap without caring what the book is about. I don’t know many people like that. Most every reader I’ve met buys books based on the author, as well as the subgenre, the plot, the cover art, etc. However, I know those bargain hunters exist. They’re the type who post negative reviews because that erotic romance they bought turned out to have bad words in it, or because that Christian romance turned out to have religion in it. They’re the ones whose reviews are usually marked “2 out of 57 people found this review helpful.” Most readers know better than to pay much attention to those reviews, just as most readers know that just because a book is cheap, that doesn’t mean it’s going to interest them.

Are those bargain hunters affecting best-seller lists on Amazon? Probably, but it doesn’t seem to be a lasting effect. Those listings change all the time. Today’s bargain that tops the list might be forgotten next week, or even tomorrow. But people are still talking about books like Easy by Tammara Webber (an indie book now picked up by Berkley) or the books of Abbi Glines (another indie author picked up by a big publisher), as well as Reason to Breathe by Rebecca Donovan and LOSING IT by Cora Carmack. While those eBooks were priced lower than most eBooks from big name publishers, they tended to be around $3.99 to $4.99. They still do quite well. Amazon’s top 100 Kindle charts show a variety of books, from the latest by established authors, to self-published books now published by big name publishers, to the latest hot indie books. In science fiction, the second hottest Kindle book right now is the eBook edition of Cloud Atlas, even though it’s $11.99. Obviously, the price hasn’t scared off too many readers.

What does that cheap price buy you anyway? Amazon has a large selection of Kindle Singles, but like many people, I don’t want to spend a couple of dollars to buy what amounts to an article, unless it’s by a “gotta have” author or a great topic. (Wait… Cecelia Holland has a Kindle Single called Lincoln’s Little Girl? ‘Scuse me, I’ll be right back…) Like Kindle Singles, the cheaper eBooks are often novellas or even short stories. I might pay a few dollars for a short story by an established writer in SF, fantasy, or horror because short stories are an important part of those genres. But a romance short for the same price? I’ll add it to my wishlist and think about it really hard. Everyone has their cut-off points, and their exceptions. There are authors who sell longer novels for as low as 99 cents, but then I have to decide whether I want to commit the time to read a novel by a completely unknown author. I’m spending my time as well as my money, after all.

Meanwhile, authors (both indie and “traditionally published”) try whatever they can to promote their work. Some use free and cheap eBooks to do it, and guess what? They do it because it works for so many authors! The cheaper prices help generate word-of-mouth because more people are reading those books. Authors also learn that exposure can backfire. A Christian romance author experimented with the KDP Select program, and learned that the offering her books for free could backfire. She ended up with an increase in what she called “unqualified readers.” That is, people who download books because they are free, then get upset because the books aren’t what they expected or wanted and post those (unhelpful) one-star and two-star reviews. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more authors started to avoid rock bottom prices just to avoid that type of review. After all, Word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful forces helping authors get readers, but if can also backfire. As more authors have experiences like this, I think the rock bottom eBook prices will become even less visible, except for special limited time promotions.

– Anne Marble