What Would Happen if Amazon Gave Every Ebook Away for Free?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

ebook digital publishing ereaderWhat would happen if Amazon gave every nearly book in its system away for free for three days? That’s what two of the leading bookstores in China did this past week.

Last Wednesday through Friday, Dangdang.com offered “nearly all of its ebooks for free,” according to China.org.cn.

Competitor Jingdong — subject of today’s feature story “Jingdong Battles Dangdang, Amazon for China’s Online Book Buyers” — was quick to match the offer, saying they were giving some 50,000 titles away for free.

Dangdang is currently offering print books at 50% off as well, a move a spokesman attributed to “the celebration of upcoming World Reading Day.”

The giveaway, which the ebooksellers said was being done to help promote commercial ebooks and raise reader awareness, has been criticized by publishers and authors alike.

Zhao Chen, from People’s Literature Publishing House, told Beijing News that giving so many books away would “bring harm” to publishers, while Zhang Hongbo, secretary-general of the China Written Works Copyright Society, called the promotion “sloppy,” particularly if the companies had not sought permission of the publishers beforehand (a spokesperson from Dangdang would neither confirm nor deny whether the company had contacted publishers, though said the site would honor requests to stop offering a title if specific complaints were made).

Meanwhile, at least one author, Feng Tang, is said to have consulted attorneys about his potential loss of royalties.

Though the e-publishing industry is said to be valued at 133.7 billion yuan ($21.6 billion) this figure includes games and advertising and it is unclear exactly the sum ebook commercial sales represent. Anecdotally, they are said to still be less than 1% of the market — hampered in no small part by the wide availability of pirated editions.

So what would happen if Amazon gave all their ebooks away free for a day?

Well, there’s no telling exactly, but if the experience of one student quoted in the China.org.cn article is any indication, readers would simply load up their devices with as many free books as they would hold. The article quotes Yan Feng, Fudan University professor and tech columnist, as saying he downloaded 50 titles, and some friends downloaded as many as 100 — or more than enough free reading for anyone for a year or more.

Where’s the incentive to buy more books after such a binge? It is, if anything, likely to reinforce the idea that books should be free. And who is to say that the same people who download this initial lot of free books won’t simply wait the retailers out for another free promotion?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.