The price of a free e-book

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NameoftheWindBefore I left for Florence, Christmas happened. On my Christmas list was “e-reader,” so I could carry a library with me while I was abroad and it wouldn’t crush my shoulders and ruin my back. My Nook has served me quite well this past year and I’m very glad of it. I can fit Anathem (Neal Stephenson; 1008 pages), The Count of Monte Cristo — in French (Alexandre Dumas, northward of 1000 pages), The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss, 722 pages) and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear (1120 pages)… and a few more! all onto one nice little e-reader.

Everything was shiny, excellent, hunky-dory, and all-around great all the way to Florence and back; across 7 planes, over 40 hours of train rides, and with many hours of airport and train station waiting time. It was when I got home and discovered BookBub that I had a problem.

You see, BookBub trawls the internet hunting for cheap or free e-books in the format(s) you request. It then sends you an email with your BookBub deals, according to whichever update schedule you choose. (Mine is daily.) These cheap/free books are typically priced as such in order to promote them. More often than not, if it’s under $2, it’s the first in a series and they’re out to get you hooked. What I didn’t realise was that this cheap/free promotional system is effectively a replacement for the penny dreadful.

If you, like me, are always on the lookout for new books to read, BookBub sounds like heaven. So several weeks of updates come and go and I find myself downloading the few free (or $0.99) e-books whose descriptions catch my eye as “possibly quite interesting.” I never read them, though — I hadn’t the time.

At least, until I went to go visit some friends in a distant city, and made use of commercial air travel to do so. Armed with nothing but my Nook for reading material, I embarked upon a trip which took me nearly 12 hours longer than it should have to complete. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing if I hadn’t already read nearly all the good things I had loaded onto it, and all much too recently to justify re-reading. Plus, I had all those bargain books. They were worth a shot, right?

Hours and hours of tedious, dreary reading later, I realised that, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they’re all terrible. Unless you KNOW you’re embarking upon a marvellous fictitious journey and it’s worth every penny and then some (The Name of the Wind was on sale for $1.99 when I bought it), you’ll be trudging through unedited (or poorly-edited) e-ink pages and wishing you had something more substantial to read. Reading the drivel which is out for free reminded me why I now primarily stick to classics, harder sci-fi, or established fantasy: because I need something to chew on, mentally. After twelve hours of air travel — not to mention an enormous amount of waiting time — over my weekend, I felt as though someone had been actively undermining my ability to appreciate good literature by poisoning my mind with trash. And the worst part was that the “someone” was me. I put my Nook away and hit the library. I needed something MUCH better to read.

If you, my dear readers, will allow me a moment of dramatic flair: the price of a free e-book is your mind. Most of the time, you really do get what you pay for. My advice? Keep the promotional info, but only buy things which will definitely be worth your while. (I highly recommend both Rothfuss and Sanderson as authors.) Otherwise, save that money for used paperbacks at places like Goodwill, your local library, or a used bookstore.

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