Are free ebooks a good idea?

In the next few posts I’d like to discuss the idea of having advertisements in ebooks and on ebook reading devices. I’m going to start by talking about some articles relating to the site ebooksplus.com.

ebooksplus.com is an ebook store that proposes to offer free books, which contain ads. This article was written by Nate Hoffelder for the blog The Digital Reader in February of this year when ebooksplus first came out as a platform. Hoffelder clearly has problems with the site’s pitch and explains why authors won’t get a lot of money from making their books available for free.

I was confused at first by the description in the article of the way the ad revenue functioned on ebooksplus, because I was under the impression that advertisers would pay ebooksplus an allotted amount of money for a certain ad, which wouldn’t change no matter how many books sold or whether or not people actually viewed the ads (I am still slightly confused by this – does ebooks plus have access to how many times the books were not only downloaded through their app but opened and read? That is slightly creepy if it is true). I realise now that this doesn’t make much sense (how would ebooksplus continue to pay its authors if the ad revenue didn’t increase with sales?). Bear with me, I’m learning!

The fact that income is based on how much each ad is viewed does make it a concern that ebooksplus is “incredibly over-optimistic about the number of eyeballs they’re going to get”, as Hoffelder puts it. I don’t think this is a concern that is unique to ebooks; royalties of physical book are paid based on sales numbers, just as these ebook royalties would be. This form of revenue, however, is still a problem for the site. Authors might have concerns about ads being unappealing to readers, which would lower their sales. With lower sales and fewer authors willing to add their content to the site, ebooksplus would eventually become unable to support itself. Hoffelder mentions the online ebook site Wowio, which attempted to sell ad endorsed ebooks, but ultimately dropped the platform and is still up and running selling ad-free titles. The ebooksplus website was not up and running until a few days ago, months after their initial press release. Were they encountering the same problems that caused Wowio to switch to traditional ebook sales?

I have general questions about this site and its ability to grow as a company. If they are making their ebooks free in an attempt to get rid of competition, what is their next move going to be? What can they branch out into? A platform of completely free merchandise doesn’t leave much room for growth, especially if authors or publishers are going to have a problem with the ad supported model and won’t want their books on the site in the first place. Will their model be compatible with the wide range of current ereading devices available? Will it be flexible enough to incorporate future forms of ebooks or future generations of devices? Their current website certainly isn’t giving anything away. We will just have to wait and see.

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