What's the role of free books in selling Kindles?

Now that the Kindle 3 is available direct from Amazon UK it has started putting a ton of effort into promoting it.

Three of the more obvious ways are – really cheap ebook prices for bestsellers, lots of free books, and a banner in the center/middle of the Amazon.co.uk homepage.

It brings up an interesting question – What role do public domain free books and free book offers play in getting readers to buy the Kindle 3?

Impact of Free books and Cheap Books on Kindle 3 Sales

Imagine you’re a reader in the UK waltzing along Regent Street in your Burberry Coat and oxfords and you see someone with a Kindle. The purity of reading is being violated but you’re far too polite to scream for the Police. You also have to admit you’re a bit curious.  

Definitely not buying that – how common and shallow. Wonder what it’s like.

Then you’re on the Tube because you know how traffic is at rush hour and you see 2 people reading on Kindles (that’s more than you see in a month normally). Now you’re really curious.

What’s going on here? In front of everyone? Are we forgetting the sanctity of the physical book.  

By this point you’ve decided you have to find out more. So at home, at a time when your significant other is asleep or absent so your sacrilegious behavior stays a secret, you log on to Amazon UK and read up on the Kindle and see if the books you like are available (not that you’d ever buy it – just to check).

One of the first things that you will probably notice is that the books are really cheap. 

Cheap Books make the Kindle 3 very attractive

You are bound to notice that Amazon has priced Kindle books at absolutely ridiculous prices.

If I were American I’d say that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, we already have coffee more expensive than hardcovers here.

It’s cheaper than the cost of a Tube ride from Notting Hill Gate to Angel (if you don’t have an Oyster card, that is).

Suddenly all those people carrying around Kindles seem like they’re on to something. You make a quick calculation – If you bought kindle versions of books instead of physical books then you’d probably save more than what the Kindle 3 costs in 12 months.  

The temptations the devil puts in our way.

Surely, that price is turning good men to evil. You are sorely tempted but thankfully you are reminded of the smell of books.

The Smell of Books Tax

You think back to the smell of books and all the time spent in libraries. The times you sat down by the fireplace and read some of the most wonderful books in the world. It’s a lifetime of memories wrapped up in that smell.  

I’d save a lot of money. Could I give up the smell of books? Would it be impropriety? Perhaps it’s just a little sin – easily compensated by giving a busker some loose change.

So you’re in the midst of this struggle between the pain of giving up physical books on one hand and the pleasure of cheap Kindle book prices on the other.

You decide you might as well see what books are available and what people are reading. On the Bestsellers list page you run into another Kindle advantage.

Kindle 3 has Free Books

It dawns on you that this is not such a bad thing – this concept of free books.

You mean to say there are all these free books – If I had a Kindle 3 I’d get them for free. Really? There are even 2 that seem mildly interesting.

So now you are tempted by the thought of free books.

To make things more interesting there aren’t just a few free books – There are 1.8 million free public domain books and 20-30 new free book offers every month.

That’s almost as many free books as there are Black Cabs in London. Maybe Amazon are on to something here.

At this point the Kindle 3 is beginning to win out.  

Free books may very well be the Decider

Fundamentally, there are two roadblocks to people getting a Kindle 3 –

  1. The attachment people have to physical books.
  2. The initial investment of buying a Kindle 3.  

Let’s assume the cheaper book prices and advantages like portability and convenience balance out the attachment people have to physical books. It’s not a totally wild assumption – no matter how much people like physical books they’ll admit the prices are getting out of hand and it isn’t very convenient to carry them around or to have to make trips to a bookstore to buy them (that is, if the bookstore is still around and hasn’t gone into receivership).

The Kindle 3’s convenience and the cheaper book prices will win some people over and leave others almost ready to switch.

That’s where free books come in. Free Books (along with Cheap Books) help readers feel their initial investment in the Kindle 3 is justified as they’ll save more than that in the long run.

Free Books on the Kindle 3 = Kindle 3 Purchase Decision

‘Free’ is an amazing word – More people search for ‘free’ and free things than almost anything else. You even have people buying things they don’t really need because they want the free bonus that comes with it.

Plus free is something books have never, ever had. You can take even public domain books and used books and there were still prices attached. The Kindle 3 represents the first time we have free books that you can read just like you would a paper book.

So when you get readers already torn between the cheaper prices and advantages of the Kindle 3 and physical books and add in ‘free books’ you get a lot of them to go with the Kindle.

There’s an upfront cost of buying the Kindle 3. However, there are two ways readers can rationalize it in their heads –

  1. Keep saving $2 to $5 on books and after a few dozen books the Kindle 3 has paid for itself.
  2. Combine free public domain books with the free book offers (there’ll be at least a few a reader likes every month) and in 6-12 months the Kindle 3 has paid for itself.

We also have lots of independent authors offering free books outside the Kindle Store in PDF format.

Amazon’s strategy to sell the Kindle 3 in the UK is perfect – offer ebooks at really low prices and offer lots of free books. It’d be nice if they remembered that there are a lot of Kindle 3 owners in the US and offered some of those free books to us too.

How do people decide which eReader to buy?

There’s obviously a precursor step where people decide they want to get an eReader.

Let’s say that involves one or more of the following – a friend talking about how good it is to read on a Kindle, seeing someone reading on a Kindle or Nook, seeing a TV ad for the Sony Reader or the Kindle, seeing someone reading on an iPad or iPhone, reading on a cellphone or iPad and deciding it might be worth trying a dedicated eReader, reading about how bad or how good eReaders are, hearing complaints about how eReaders will be the death of books and wondering if you should get one.

For this post we’ll just assume that a person has decided that they want to get an eReader.

How do they decide which eReader/reading device to buy?

Choosing between Dedicated eReaders and do-everything devices

The first step perhaps involves establishing a broad set of guidelines and needs –

  1. Want something for reading.  
  2. Have a particular budget. 
  3. Want something focused on reading or want something that’s decent for reading and also does other things.  
  4. It should look cool or it should disappear or it should not be flashy or it should be new and shiny.  
  5. How strong is my impression of the device that got me interested in the first place – Is that impression so strong that it’s the only device I want?
  6. Does it make me look serious, flippant, too serious, like a poser, clueless, lacking taste, careless about money, rich?
  7. Does it make me a target? Will people try to steal it? Can a cover hide it effectively?

Of course, this is all random and unorganized for most people. It’s all feelings and emotions and while some of the points might get written out explicitly (price, features) a lot of the factors that play into the decision (what image the device portrays, how much attention it attracts, how much it suits your needs) are often left out and not really discussed.

Choosing Criteria

We basically get positives (attractors) and negatives (limiters) for dedicated eReaders and for multi-purpose devices –

  1. Dedicated eReader attractors include – absolutely great for reading, no distractions, eInk screen, the device focuses on reading, reading related features, usually lighter and more portable, great battery life, low price, free wireless, if Amazon or B&N customer then it feels right.
  2. Dedicated eReader limiters include – looks either boring or barely passable, isn’t new and shiny, doesn’t do things other than reading, eInk page turns take .6 to 1 second (based on which eReader you get), no color screens, isn’t really the latest technology in terms of being able to show it off, the device isn’t tailored to be a status indicator.
  3. Multi-Purpose Device (iWhatever) attractors include – status indicator, pretty and great design aesthetic, does lots of things, decent for reading, availability of Kindle and Nook books on it, if Apple fan then it strengthens the bond and feels right, might make you more attractive (isn’t the TV always right), in tune with ‘a device should do more than just reading’ mentality, convenient (only for iPhone), back-lit display, large 10″ screen (for iPad).
  4. Multi-Purpose Device (iWhatever) limiters include – certain people are anti-Apple or put off by the hysteria, people who want only a device to read on, size concerns (iPad too big, iPhone too small), portability and weight concerns (only iPad), high price, high cost of ownership for wireless, closed eco-system, not readable in sunlight.
  5. Multi-Purpose Device (Android devices) attractors include – open system, makes sense for people who feel loyalty to Google, lots of features, very anti-Apple, focus on speed and power, works across lots of devices, can soon use Kindle app on it, rapid rate of progress.
  6. Multi-Purpose Device (Android devices) limiters include – too many distractions, apps aren’t as good as Apple, people might not like the Open ecosystem, lack of quality control, devices aren’t as polished as Apple.

The example of Android is just to highlight that it isn’t always ‘dedicated eReader vs Apple’.

It basically becomes a pretty interesting decision. People like to fixate on the reading aspect i.e. focus on reading vs do more than just reading – However, there are a huge number of factors that play a role and we often consider things subconsciously without realizing it.

There are a lot of things that make it to the Top 10 list that might surprise you – openness, prettiness, keeping up with the Joneses, personal feelings about a company, ease of use, working with existing devices and situation, portability, desire to fit in or stand out.

Let’s assume the person makes a decision and decides to go with a dedicated reading device.

How do people choose a particular dedicated eReader?

This is the part that would be absolutely fascinating to see.

Often there’ll a post on the official kindle forum asking about Kindle vs Nook or Kindle DX vs Kindle – However, it’s either a person looking for the last data points to make a decision or they’re just asking for a general comparison and we get no idea of what parts of the answers they factor into their decision.

No one ever writes – The Kindle appeals to me because it’s Amazon and the eInk is good and there are more books available and there are lots of software upgrades but the Nook also appeals because it’s got a 2nd color screen and I’m a B&N Rewards member and I want to go into the store and sit and read books for free and it just seems more advanced because it has a LCD screen.

At least they hardly ever do.

So how do people actually choose?

Let’s start by writing down the main strengths and weaknesses of each eReader.

Kindle Strengths + Weaknesses

Kindle strengths – laser focus on reading, no distractions, cheap price, cheaply priced ebooks, great range of books, Amazon customer service, Amazon brand, constant software improvements, Kindle WhisperNet, lots of features, free wireless delivery, free Internet, free delivery and Internet in 100+ countries (for US owners only), international availability, very easy to use, disappears in the background when you’re reading, Kindle Apps for most platforms, syncing across all devices, share it amongst family members, very cheap refurbished Kindles are available, lots of free book offers, Folders, Kindle DX 2 has the best screen contrast of all available eReaders, best range of font sizes. 

Kindle weaknesses – only excellent at reading, no color, doesn’t focus on looks at all, not flashy and you buy a device that you can’t really show off except to people who read, Publishers have begun to force the Agency Model (higher prices) and sometimes turn off text to speech, no lending or resale, closed format that doesn’t work outside of Kindle and Kindle Apps, closed ecosystem and other ebook retailers can’t sell their ebooks for Kindle, DRM, no touchscreen, only 1 font.

Nook Strengths + Weaknesses

Nook Strengths – dual screens, pretty, LendMe feature, ePub support, B&N eReader apps so you can read Nook ebooks across a variety of platforms, great browser, WiFi, focused on reading, 3 fonts, replaceable battery, SD card slot, low price and there’s a $150 model available, disappears in the background when reading, you can read any ePub books with Adobe DRM or without DRM on it, free WiFi in B&N stores (and perhaps Starbucks too), read any book for free for up to an hour in B&N stores, slightly better screen contrast than Kindle (not as good as Kindle DX 2), Android so if they ever open it up there will be lots of apps.

Nook Weaknesses – bugs, slow page turns, unintuitive user interface, eInk and LCD screen combination isn’t integrated well, customer service not as good as Amazon, book range not as good as Kindle Store, Non-Agency Model books are sometimes slightly more expensive, slower than Kindle when it comes to addition of new features, no Collections or Folders feature, there is no large-sized model.

Sony Reader Strengths + Weaknesses

Note: We’re talking primarily about the Sony Reader Touch Edition as it’s the model most comparable to Kindle and Nook.

Sony Reader Strengths – touch screen, free hand drawing, looks very pretty, very compact, decent range of font sizes, supports ePub, supports DRMed ePub books that use Adobe DRM, Sony Reader Store books work on any eReader that supports Adobe DRMed ePub, apps for various platforms.  

Sony Reader Weaknesses – Doesn’t have wireless (except Sony Reader Daily Edition), largest screen size is 7″ (Daily Edition), prices are higher than Kindle and Nook, book prices for non-Agency Model books are usually higher, range of books is very low, there’s not really an eco-system or a service (it’s just the device), no lending, no text to speech.

There’s not as much to write because Sony Reader hasn’t really improved much since it came out nearly a year ago.

People choosing between Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader

We now know (thanks to the last 3 sections) the best points and worst points of the 3 main eReaders.

The question is  – What happens after a reader has decided they want to get a dedicated reading device?

How do users go from ‘dedicated reading device’ to the point where they’ve decided which eReader to buy and bought it?

Perhaps they figure out what features are most important to them. Perhaps they start exploring what’s available. Perhaps they have already decided and are just looking for data points to support their decision. All we know is that they go from a decision to buy a dedicated reading device to a decision on which dedicated eReader to buy.

Let’s assume there are two stages –

  1. Collecting data points to make or to support a decision. 
  2. Making a decision.

They aren’t necessarily in that order. It’s more of a decision being made somewhere in the process and all the data collection before that point (if any) being used as help to figure out a decision and all the data collection after that point (if any) being used to support the decision and feel good about it.

Guessing what the process looks like

User decides to buy a dedicated reading device. In part this was because he first saw his co-worker reading on a Kindle. Chooses to go with a dedicated reading device because he doesn’t want distractions.

What happens next?

Searches for information on the Kindle and reads the Amazon product page. Searches more and finds a post that talks about Kindle vs Sony Reader.

Finds out Sony Reader has touch. Asks friends and family if anyone has a touch and finds his cousin has one. Talks on the phone about it and finds out that Kindle has cheaper books but his cousin thinks the Sony Reader is better.

His co-worker who has the Kindle mentions Kindle DX.

Goes and compares features and decides Kindle fits his needs and budget better.

Searches for ‘best eReader’. Finds some other eReaders  but none appeal to him. Is about to buy Kindle and then decides to sleep on it.

Next day passes a B&N store and sees Nook advertisement. Walks in and listens to sales guy bad-mouth the Kindle. A bit annoyed at sales man being so aggressive but intrigued by Nook.

Compares Kindle and Nook – looks at comparison chart at B&N. Thinking about getting the Nook now and then sees Nook WiFi for $150.

Completely confused. Reads some reviews and draws up a list of 5 most important features for his needs – low price, lots of books, lending, reading PDFs, text to speech. Realizes Kindle and Nook are neck to neck.

Flips a coin and then wonders if he should try a best of three. Thinks about it a bit more and decides to go with Nook WiFi even though it doesn’t have text to speech.

There are so many parts of this decision-making process that are completely invisible to everyone else. Even a search engine only knows part of it. Even the user’s clicking around Amazon.com only paints a partial picture. 

In this example we haven’t even fully considered a person’s emotions and feelings and things like pressure from a friend/relative to get a particular eReader or reading device. It’s a pretty complicated process with things going on at both the conscious and subconscious level and you have to wonder how we could get better insight.

A reader’s decision making process for which eReader to buy is a pretty involved process – most of it is invisible to others and some of it is invisible to the person making the decision. Yet figuring it out lets us better understand what to build for readers, how to let readers find out about it, and how to help them make the best eReader purchase decision.

Amazon Kindle Review + Recommendation – The Kindle Decision aka the $359 Question

Should You Buy a Kindle?
I’m collating everything I’ve read and realized in the process of researching the Kindle for this blog and answering the ‘Should I buy a Kindle’ question via the following sections –

  1. I start off by listing the categories of people for which the decision is a no-brainer.
  2. After that I list the main functionality and additional functionalities.
  3. I list the major pros that Actual Kindle Owners have listed.
  4. I then list the major cons from Kindle owners and critics (i.e. people who’ve never owned a Kindle and have strong opinions) alike. For the cons I have included an explanation of whether it really is a con or not since there seems to be a ton of misinformation on the internet.

Note: I have collated details and information from all sorts of reviews (owners; non-owners; amazon customers; journalists) – if you do want to look at reviews yourself there is an excruciatingly painful level of detail on the Should I Buy a Kindle? page or you could use the link on the left to jump to Reviews at Amazon and go through the 1700+ reviews there.

Category of People for which its a definite YES:

  1. Anyone who reads a lot of books i.e. 1 book a week or more
  2. Anyone who reads a lot while commuting and/or travelling i.e. more than 1 business trip a month OR a commute time of greater than 1 hr a day on a train/bus/tube.
  3. Someone who is looking specifically for an ereader that adds on a TON of bonuses like free internet access.

    There might be a few categories i’m missing here and will add these as more come up. If you fall into one of the above three categories, you can rest assured that like the overwhelming majority of Kindle owners you will love it – Go Ahead and Buy the Kindle at Amazon.

Category of People for which its a definite NO:

  1. People who want a laptop, UPMC, iTouch, cellphone or some other device and don’t really want an ebook reader.
  2. People who are hung up over DRM – authors deserve to get money for what they write – sending a book out without DRM would severely cut authors’ and publishers’ revenue streams. The music album download that radiohead set up where they let users decide on how much users wanted to pay is a good example since a lot of people did not pay even 1 cent for the album. If an author writes a good or great book, its completely reasonable for him to expect to get paid. DRM might not be the most elegant solution – however, its a necessary evil. Until someone finds a better solution DRM is the only way authors can get what they deserve.
  3. People who are NOT looking for an ebook reader. A lot of Kindle haters are people who don’t even read much and are attacking it for something other than its core functionality i.e. it being an ebook reader. You can read books on your cellphone, your PDA, your Asus EeePC and your laptop. So if you only have a passing interest in books and just want to ‘try out’ reading on a device, then use a device you have and don’t buy a Kindle.

A Quick Synopsis of Functionality, Pros, and Cons

  1. The Main Function – A book reader. That’s it. If you read a lot of books, especially on the go and want an elegant eReader then the Kindle is a Great Fit.
  2. Additional Functions (listing the main ones)
    1. [Experimental] GPS Device with Google Maps
    2. Wireless Internet Access with Experimental Browser
    3. Music Player [Random Shuffle of Songs] 
    4. Audio Books
    5. [Experimental with no Colour] Picture Viewer 
    6. Amazon Kindle Store for Books 
    7. NewsPapers and Magazines
  3. Big Pluses
    1. The overwhelming majority of People who own it, love it.
    2. eInk screen looks much closer to a book than any electronic device screen (except of course for other devices that use eInk)
    3. Easier on the eyes + can also change font sizes
    4. Free Ebooks – insane collection of books from all eras.
    5. Over 100,000 eBooks from the amazon Kindle Store
    6. Amazon store all the time
    7. Newspaper and Magazine subscriptions
    8. Blogs (my recommendation is to use the browser and not use the 1$ a month subscription service)
    9. Free Wireless Access – Wikipedia + Internet browsing + being on EVDO means you aren’t just restricted to WiFi hotspots.
    10. Kindle NowNow – instant answers from real people
    11. Dictionary
    12. Up to 6 Kindles on one account. So a family can share their books. Or a group of friends. Or a group of classmates
    13. Easy to shop and books get downloaded in 1-2 minutes
    14. Easy to travel and move.
    15. Access to all your books easily.
    16. Save paper = save trees.
    17. Can make notes on the Kindle
    18. Transport all your reading material in the Kindle.  
    19. Built in capacity for 200 books.
      1.  SD card to add capacity
      2. Newspapers
      3. Magazines
      4. Blogs
    20. Extensions 
      1.  MineSweeper
      2. Convert from formats like PDF to view on your Kindle
  4. Big Drawbacks
    1. Price is steep (at $400).
    2. Not a Colour Monitor
    3. The backbutton gets pressed inadvertently
    4. Delivery Time wait – approximately 6 weeks when i last did a study.
    5. Problems with the Cover – Velcro solution (flicker picture) – there is a solution.
    6. Aesthetics – This is a very individual thing.
      1. Don’t like it’s only in white
      2. Button design (already mentioned back button problem)
    7. Limited number of papers and magazines
    8. Limited number of books (at 100K books now – so check what you like + whether it’s available + have close to 75% of bestsellers)
    9. $1 for blog subscription – solution: just read off the browser
    10. Only in the US + no coverage in montana and alaska. – Do check coverage BEFORE you order. important.
    11. Lack of support for common file formats – solution: MobiPocket Creator.
    12. How do you lend books to friends? Personally, i’ve lost too many good books. and at 10$ a book – let ‘em buy it. or share an account amongst friends.
    13. Prospect of free wireless internet later being removed. Highly unlikely cause of the public outcry and i’m sure there are legal issues here.


If you read a lot of books, travel or commute regularly, or one of the main pros makes the Kindle a winner for you, then Go Ahead and Buy the Kindle at Amazon. It is easily the best eBook Reader solution available (and i include all the additional things it brings to the table).

Additionally, if some information on this blog or this post helped you make a decison – that makes me feel my time is well spent.

If you need to look at more facts or more of an in-depth discussion try this page – Should I Buy a Kindle?

If on the other hand, you are looking for something other than an ebook reader, then please take into acount that the Kindle’s main functionality is ‘eBook Reader’ and expecting it to be a cellphone, mini computer, ultra portable laptop, etc. will lead to disappointment.
Finally, if you have one or two main reasons that are dissuading you from buying a kindle, please add them as a comment so we can submit it to Amazon as ‘Suggestions’ for Kindle Version 2.0.

And thank you for surviving this far 😉
A much more detailed list of Kindle extensions, pros, cons, reviews etc. is available at the Should I Buy a Kindle? page.