The Pitfalls of the E-book Shopper

by Amanda S. Green

Over the last week or so, I’ve been watching the number of free and discounted e-books multiply by leaps and bounds. Part of it is the push by publishers leading up to Christmas. Legacy publishers might be mired in mud, but they recognize — at least I think they do — the fact that lots of new devices capable of being used to read e-books will be unwrapped Christmas morning. That means folks are looking for titles to load onto those new devices so their loved ones will have something to read. And part of it is Amazon’s new prime lending program that lets small publishers and self-published authors put their titles up for free for a week if — and this is a big IF — those titles are available exclusively on Amazon.

While I’m not one of those who has made sure there is a shiny new device under the tree, I am one who is looking to load a loved one’s kindle with new titles. So I’ve been trolling through the daily list of free and discounted e-books looking for something my mother might be interested in. As I have, I’ve noticed a couple of things and these, in turn, have gotten me thinking. Yes, I know, it is dangerous when I think, but what can I say?

The first thing that has caught my eye, and has me thinking as a publisher, is the sheer number of new titles being made available for free right now. It is as though every author and publisher is rushing to take advantage of the new prime lending program. This morning, there are more than 200 new titles being offered for free. Over the last week, there has been well over 1,500 titles offered for free. That’s not counting those titles that were already free and it most certainly doesn’t count those out of copyright titles offered for free. Some of these are digital versions of books where the rights have reverted to the author who is bringing the title out on their own. Some are new books. Some are novels, some are short stories, some are non-fiction offerings. Most have inadequate or poorly written or misleading blurbs.

The second thing that has struck me with all this is how the sheer number of new offerings each day has changed the way I look for titles. Instead of taking the time to click through and read the full listing on the Amazon page for the title, I’m looking at the bar across the top of the entry that indicates how well reviewed the book has been. (The site that lists each new title offered uses the bar method to show how well received a book has been instead of the star system.) If it looks like the book has received good reviews, then I check the author and genre.  It doesn’t surprise me that many of the offerings are erotica or Christian fiction. Those have always seemed to dominate the freebies, at least on Amazon. What does surprise me are the number of sf/f. It is as though every author who has ever thought he could write sf/f has come out of the woodwork. The same can be said about the influx of titles about UFO abductions, Big Foot and its cousins, etc.

IF the book has passed the review, genre and author check, I read the description. I may not always be the best at writing blurbs for titles but, guys, that blurb has to read as if it was at least written in English. At least it should if you are trying to sell it to English-speaking readers. It needs to give the reader some indication of what the title is about, especially if you, the author, aren’t a household name. I don’t care what your education background is unless, of course, it is germane to your qualifications to write the book. I don’t care that your mother’s best friend’s uncle thought this was the best book he’d ever read. What I do care about is having an idea about what the book is about.

If the blurb interests me enough, I click through to the Amazon page for the title. I check of the cover, a quick glance at the length of the e-book, publisher information, maybe a glance at the reviews (especially if there are only one or two reviews) and I decide if I want to “click” to buy or not. Most titles that are “clicked” are sent to my kindle to check first. A few are queued for my mother’s kindle, to be loaded Christmas Eve after she goes to bed.

Before you ask, those titles that are sent to my kindle for review come from either self-published authors I’m not familiar with or “publishers” I suspect are really just DBAs for self-published authors. No, I’m not discriminating against them. There are some great self-published authors out there. What I have discovered, however, is that almost all the e-books I’ve returned for a refund or just deleted off my kindle for bad formatting issues have come from these “indies”. So, before putting the titles on my mom’s kindle, I want to make sure they are readable in their current format.

And guess what? I’ve deleted a good 20% for poor formatting. One title I looked at last night had what can only be called fluctuating indents. One paragraph wouldn’t be indented. The next would be indented almost to the middle of the screen. The third would be indented normally, etc. Then there are those that think using fancy fonts will make the e-book “pretty”. Guys, word of warning here — and we’ll discuss this later in the how to series starting Sunday — fancy fonts are the bane of e-books. Just because it looks good on your Blackberry or iPhone doesn’t mean it will look good on Uncle Fred’s Sony e-reader or Aunt Mabel’s Nook, etc. Then there are those deleted for for other formatting issues that make it difficult to read the book. As I said, probably 20% of the books downloaded are deleted for formatting issues.

Another 10% or so are dumped due to copy editing and proofreading issues. If I want to throw my kindle across the room after a few screens, I know my mother, the original Grammar Nazi, really will. So those are gone. Add in the 30 – 35% that are then deleted because they are just BAD or BORING. Then there are the 20% that HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THEIR DESCRIPTION and, well, you get my drift.

The bottom line, out of the 100 or so titles I’ve downloaded over the last week or two, there are exactly 14 that I have queued to go onto my mother’s kindle for Christmas. That isn’t good. With the exception of those that are just poorly written, most of the others could have been in the running had they been properly formatted and/or edited.

The other thing to keep in mind if you are considering the prime lending program as an author or editor is the sheer number of titles currently being offered for free. I’ve talked with a number of other readers recently who feel as overwhelmed as I do by the numbers and who, like me, are overlooking titles without no or few reviews in favor of those with a number of reviews. That’s something new for me. I usually don’t both looking at book reviews on Amazon, or any other site for that matter. But, with hundreds of new titles offered for free or deep discounts each day, things change. Readers are looking for something to help separate the good from the bad and, yes, they know if reviews are posted by sock puppets and challenge those reviews.

So, have I considered the prime lending program for Naked Reader Press or for my own work that isn’t going through NRP or another publisher? Absolutely. I’ve talked with the bosses and we’ve identified several titles we’re going to enter in the program. However, we are also looking at the trends not only of number of titles offered each day, but of reader response. Unlike some, we aren’t going to offer more than a few titles at a time through the program. For one, it is an exclusive program. You commit to selling your titles no where but on Amazon for at least 90 days. That means taking into consideration those customers who have Nooks, or Sony e-readers or an iPad. Not everyone is willing — or able — to convert a MOBI file. There are other considerations, but that’s for another post.

The reason for this meandering walk through my still asleep mind? That’s simple. I’ve seen some things checking out the prime lending program and the titles being offered that have confirmed that we are doing things right at NRP when it comes to how we “build” our e-books. What I’d like from you guys are specific issues or topics you’d like me to cover over the next several weeks as I do the “How to make your e-book” series. Post your questions or suggestions in the comments section. I’ll check in — in between baking and wrapping and trying to actually get some real work done — throughout the day and respond and, if possible, will expand on my responses during the series.

In the meantime, have a happy and safe holiday season!


  1. Oh. Dear.

    Well, the Christmas rush of all the freebies will end, soon. Today is the last day for the two I have up for free; Amazon has a five days at $0.00 every 90 days policy. So all this flood of free books is going to disappear, and then all us authors will be waiting breathlessly to see _if_ the stories ever get read, _if_ they will bulk up sales over the next six months or so.

    For the “How to publish yourself” series, you might start with the e-tailer you consider the easiest, and go through the process. Then tackle the next.

    Actually, I suspect the basic formatting is much the same for all of them (I’m procrastinating learning Nook) so you might want to start with the basics of getting the manuscript ready.

    1. Pam, I’m not sure this is a “Christmas rush of freebies” as much as a “ooooh, something new to do” rush for authors who haven’t had an easy way to take books for free before now. Nor do I think the flood will disappear, at least not immediately. I could be wrong. But, as long as hundreds of free books are released each day, it makes it hard to get your book or short story noticed, especially if there are no reviews to recommend it.

      As for the series, I’ll give your suggestions some thought. However, I’ll tell you now that looking at it from the standpoint of which e-talier is the easiest is starting at the wrong point. The basics of editing, formatting, detemining if you want an isbn, etc., all come before then. That’s especially true since almost every e-talier, including Amazon, allows you to upload an e-pub version of your book or short story. The big exception is Smashwords that requires a DOC file and then can manage some really odd mangling of it in their meatgrinder process.

      Still, you’ve given me some food for thought. Thanks!

  2. I think this rush is, as you say, because it’s newly available. It just coincidentally (?) happened just before Christmas.

    But I think we’re seeing a bunch of the “slush rejects” here, as you found with your 14 out of a hundred, even after looking at reviews and finding readable descriptions. Sarah seems to think that the supply of slush is limited, a backlog, so to speak, which is added to only slowly. So the rush by new or poorly read authors to put their stuff up for free ought to be followed by some degree of discouragement.

    At least for the eighty days after Christmas.

    People with a lot of titles may put different ones up for free after Christmas. Or not, since they, presumably, want to earn some money.

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