Five Reasons Why a Free E-Reader Would Be Great for Publishing and Readers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

This might seem a bit obvious, but I think it’s worth saying anyway: A free e-reader would be great for both the book publishing industry and readers.

Yesterday, we saw the introduction to the market of the cheapest e-reader to date, the $13 txtr beagle. It’s not exactly the Kindle Paperwhite, but it gets the job done. How far are we away from seeing a free e-reader? It’s coming “soon” say some.

Well, it can’t come soon enough, I say. Some of my reasons are “duh” while others may not be so obvious initially.

1. It would put a bookstore/library into everyone’s pocket. A free, useful gizmo that puts the world’s books in your pocket would be a hot item and lots of people would get one. Imagine every stocking stuffed with one next holiday season; why not? It’s free! And, as we know, device-ownership is key to e-book adoption.

But let’s frame this discussion in reality: If e-readers were free, they wouldn’t really be “free.”

On the low-cost end, consumers would probably have to give up some personal information (email, address, demographic information) to get one as well as sign up for some sort of service so that when they purchased an e-book on the reader it would be bought through that service. (No big deal for me — I already do that with Amazon for a reader that I paid nearly $150 for.)

On the high-cost end, you might have to commit to some data service plan or buying a certain number of books a month.

2. Great for e-book gift-giving. E-books don’t make great gifts. It’s hard to give them in the first place, you can’t unwrap them in the traditional sense, and they’re not tangible in a way we’re used to.

Imagine, however, if for $15 or $20 you could give someone an e-reader preloaded with a book or two of your choice, with that book’s cover displayed on the back of the device. Two gifts in one!

3. Bringing e-books into schools, libraries and to under-served communities. One issue that I believe the book industry should pay more attention to is the increasing digital divide between children who grow up with e-reading and those who do not. (It’s both a moral and a business issue.)

A free e-reader could be some remedy to this, making it easier for schools, libraries and non-profit organizations like Reading Is Fundamental to purchase and distribute e-readers among children whose families can’t yet afford them or wouldn’t otherwise have them.

While publishers shouldn’t hope to profit greatly from the growth in this market, it’s a larger market than wealthy book-buyers and there is something to be gained here.

4. Opening up emerging markets. Tablet, e-reader and smartphone adoption lags in developing countries. Translation: there is little e-book distribution infrastructure for most of the world’s population.

First off, when they become inexpensive enough digital technologies flourish in developing countries. If e-readers were free, it would be relatively easy for a company like, say, Amazon to invest in giving away thousands or hundreds of thousands of e-readers in a market it wanted to build in order to spark e-book-buying.*

It’s not like Amazon hasn’t engaged in a similar strategy before (albeit different in a few significant ways). E-books didn’t really exist as big business until Amazon basically created the market with the first Kindle in 2007. Put e-readers into people’s hands and they start buying e-books.

Second, there are non-profit organizations seeking to bridge the digital reading divide in these countries and their biggest problem is lack of e-readers. Free e-readers means more e-readers for those organizations.

And, let’s face it, e-books don’t have the same reputation in developing countries as in places like the U.S. For example. A glut of e-readers in the market could change that.

* Obviously, the e-readers would be free for the consumers and not for the company providing them. However, if the price of e-readers was $0.00, that implies a very inexpensive manufacturing and distribution cost. So, say it costs $10 for each one for the company; it would cost about $1 million to distribute them. If each person who gets one buys a handful of books…well, you get the idea. Also, devices are obviously not the only roadblock in growing a business of any kind in a developing country, but it’s certainly a big one for the e-book industry.

5. A way for new e-booksellers to make a splash. Throughout this month, Zola, a new e-bookseller, will be launching. The publishing industry is excited for a new e-bookseller to enter the market – more places for people to buy books likely equals more people buying books and more books bought. Indie bookstore owners who have agreed to use Zola to sell e-books are likely excited about the launch – another revenue stream and a new entrée into the e-book market.

But what about consumers? How will consumers find out about Zola? The company has its own plans, I’m sure, but I bet it would love to give away, say, 50,000 e-readers that are hooked into the Zola store – if it were affordable to do so (see italicized footnote above).

Zola reportedly has about $2 million in funding from angel investors and management, which is probably not enough to buy a really significant amount of e-readers at any price, but I bet the company could pick up $5 million more in funding fast from an investor if the money were to be spent on buying and distributing e-readers to 500,000 new customers. A $10 cost of new-customer acquisition is a deal almost any company can live with.

Obviously, this is the strategy that txtr is using with its $13 e-reader: “If we can only get our e-book store cheaply into millions of readers’ pockets, we could sell more books.” (In addition to selling e-readers, txtr operates an e-bookstore.)


There are so many more reasons than these as to why a free e-reader would be great for books. Feel free to add your own in the comments. And while you’re at it, feel free to tell me why you think a free e-reader would be good for culture as a whole (if you believe this as I do).

4 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why a Free E-Reader Would Be Great for Publishing and Readers

  1. Gary Lynch

    The evolution of e-readers will follow the path of mobile phones where the actual device is, for all intents and purposes, free if you commit to a two year service contract (smartphones are currently the exception). As you point out free e-readers will open up an enormous market of content consuming consumers (used to be called book reading). For the device manufacturer, rather than making money on the purchase of the device itself they could create an annuity stream by charging a usage fee every time someone downloads a new book. Like most usage fees the cost would be very low and relatively unobtrusive to the consumer, but in aggregate the usage fee income stream would be very high – and very profitable.

  2. David Biddle

    I get what you’re saying here, but there are already free e-readers everywhere: computer screens and smartphones. I own an iPad and a Kindle. I like them both for different reasons. The both make books feel unwieldy if I don’t touch one for a while. I was quite skeptical of using an iPhone as an eReader until I got one. Yes, the screen is small, but it works absolutely fine. So did my laptop the other day when I was too lazy to get up and track down one of my readers. Amazing what you can do with the Cloud, networks and some common sense. It’s pretty clear in some ways that the whole idea of marketing tablets and readers is to sell more gadgets. They’re really not necessary.

  3. RevitalShiri-Horowitz

    Free ebook is indeed a great gift for the reader and a good exposure for the writer, but you know, we do need to make a living…A book takes so much time a effort to write, don`t we Authors deserves to be payed?

    Revital Shiri-Horowitz

  4. Michael Seese

    It’s the Gillette model: make the razors free or cheap, and then sell the blades for an arm and a leg. Or, consider that for all intents an purposes, most cell phones are free. Of course, in that case the company selling you the phone makes you contractually agree to pay a set amount each month for service.



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