When Advertisements Become Kindle "Bestsellers"

Should free electronic books count in sales ratings?

Of the top 50 eBooks on Amazon's current Kindle bestseller list, 32 currently have a list price of $0.00. A few of the free eBooks on the list are pre-1923 public domain works, such as Pride and Prejudice and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most of the free eBooks, however, are still under copyright protection and have been released by publishers who want to drum up interest in current or future releases from their authors.

Take the current #1 bestseller, Andrew Gross’s The Dark Tide. It’s available “for a limited time” at the low, low price of zero dollars. “This price was set by the publisher,” an Amazon note says. The reason for the discounted price can be found below the cover image, where it’s helpfully suggested that you “pre-order Andrew Gross’s new book, Reckless, available April 27th.”

As a technique to build a fanbase, this is a solid strategy on the part of publishers. But should these freebies be considered “bestsellers”? Mike Cane writes on his blog The eBook Test that "free eBooks should be purged from all popularity lists. They are advertisements, as far as I’m concerned, not products."

Barnes & Noble segregates its free eBooks on Their free books begin their sales rank numbering at 1,001 and don’t appear on the regular eBook bestseller list. The bestselling eBook at is 1,001, while the second bestselling is 1,002, etc.

While this isn’t the best solution (if your $12.99 eBook is bestseller #1,000 and drops in rank, where does it go?), it’s better than the slushpile that Amazon is running. The Kindle list is lopsided towards free eBooks. This skews the perceived reading proclivities of Kindle users and fails to provide an accurate portrait of the eBook reading community. “I’m tempted to say that Kindle buyers are rabid but indiscriminate readers, and they’ll lap up whatever you put in front of them,” CNET’s Peter Kafka writes.

Even if Amazon does move their free eBooks from the top of their Kindle bestseller list, questions will still remain. What should the minimum acceptable price be to qualify for the bestseller list? $5? $1? A penny? The lowest-priced book on Barnes & Noble’s eBook bestseller list appears to be Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things ($.99); there are current books on Amazon’s list for as low as a quarter.

At what price does an advertisement become a book? And, perhaps more importantly, at what price does a book become an advertisement?

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