While I’d prefer it not be from Amazon–having one single vendor monopolise every part of a market is never a great idea–it’d certainly be cool to see the day where a POD machine was an essential part of every bookstore. Can’t find something on the shelves? Why, then you can print yourself a copy right there in-store! (Or buy the ebook, or order it, or, or, or.)
The idea is essentially this: I think the bundling of an ebook edition should be standard practice for all print books. That is, every print book purchased–be it online or off–should come with a license to download a DRM-free1 EPUB version of the same title, for use on a reader’s Device of Choice.
The rationale is this: I think we’re at a stage of maturity in the ebook market where ereaders are now the baseline reading experience. They are now what mass market paperbacks have been in previous decades, and the rest of the industry should shift to adjust to the change.
That doesn’t mean print books are going away, only that publishers need to realize that the actual physical object of a novel is a value-add experience. It’s a collector’s item; something you can show off on your shelf or take to a con to get signed.
There’s a couple of corollaries to this, and the first one is that more and more books–particularly from midlist and debut authors–need to shift to digital-first. If an author proves commercially successful, then their works get a print release. Not before.
The second is that publishers need to do more to work with local bookstores in making ebooks in-store purchases. Imagine if, instead of a bookshelf, stores had racks of postcard-style ebook cards; cover on the front, blurb on the back, and a barcode a customer could scan with their phone to be taken to an instant purchase and download. Congratulations; you just replicated Amazon in your physical store… again. No need to strip and return unprofitable titles; just throw away the card.
The third is that, perhaps counterintuitively, I think this model will foster a much higher rate of not just double-dipping, i.e. people purchasing both the print and the ebook format separately, despite the former coming bundled with the latter. And I think it will do it in such a way that people will be happy to comply.
Think of the scenario of a new genre series the publisher hopes will develop a strong fanbase. The publisher contracts for three+ books in digital, with an option for print if sales hit some magic number… but not before the third book, minimum.
Books 1 and 2 come out in digital, and do well enough to hit the print clause in the contract. When the publisher releases Book 3 in print, it also releases Book 1 and Book 2 in print at the same time, including offering some kind of three-volume boxed set. Now, fans of the series–who have the first two books digital–are presented with three options:
- buy Book 3 in digital, as per the rest of the series (this is the bottom-tier, “casual fan” option)
- buy Book 3 in print, including a bundled ebook (this is the middle-tier, “normal fan” option)
- buy Book 3 in print, and re-purchase Books 1 and 2 in print as well (this is the top-tier, “hardcore fan” option).
So, out of three books, the publisher has had the opportunity for five possible sales, and yet no-one feels aggrieved about being “forced” to do so, since the print book is presented as an optional extra.
Obviously not everyone’s going to re-buy their books cross-format… but if there’s one lesson the home movie and video game markets have, is that the number who will do it is probably higher than most people assume. And that’s not even getting into higher potential tiers, like Collector’s Editions, where, again, I think publishing could learn a lot from the video games market.
I mean, would I throw down $100+ for a new Discworld book if it came with a Granny Weatherwax statue? Do I even need to answer that question?
And, yes; obviously this model is going to work better in some genres than others. But it does work.
So long as both publishers and authors are willing to try it…
1 DRM-free? Yes DRM free. If nothing else, the number one thing DRM does is lock readers into a particular platform. And, in the book market, the Number One Platform–and all-round publisher bogeyman–is Amazon. The only player the support of DRM benefits is Amazon; not the publishers, not the authors, and certainly not the readers. If publishers want to pushback against the Amazon behemoth they need to start offering better alternatives, and they need to do it in conjunction with local bookstores. Ergo, bundling.
The other day I needed to buy a new cable from the Apple Store.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever bought a cable from the Apple Store, oh dear anonymous reader, but in case you haven’t, the process goes something like this:
- Walk into Apple Store, locate cable.
- Open Apple Store iPhone app.
- Use phone camera to scan cable’s barcode.
- Charge iTunes account for cost of the cable.
- Walk out of store with cable.
I remember the first time one of the Blue Shirt Kids in the store taught me how to do this, my response was literally, “Wow it’s like living in the future!”, to which she replied, “Well, we are a technology company.”
No shit. Wow. This is why Apple has enough cash in reserve to buy itself back from its own shareholders.
It’s also what I think of whenever I hear bookstores complaining about “showrooming“, i.e. people who come into bookstores to browse, then buy products on Amazon.
And, y’know what. I have a confession: I absolutely, 100% truly, do this all the time. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, ranging from “it’s my lunch break and the queue in the store is too long” to “meh, I’ll buy the ebook instead”.
But there’s one easy (well, conceptually easy, at least) thing that would “fix” people like me. Because here’s the experience I want to have:
- walk into bookstore, browse, find interesting title
- open bookstore’s phone app
- use phone’s camera to scan book barcode
- be presented with the option to buy the print book, ebook, or both (ideally, all print books should come with a free digital copy as well, but I’d also accept a bundled deal for no more than, say, a dollar over the print price… and yes I know this is dependent on publishers not the stores per se, but a girl can dream, right?)
- use in-app purchases to buy the book
- if applicable, download my (DRM-free) newly-purchased ebook onto my phone right there on the store’s free WiFi
- if applicable, walk out of the store holding my newly-purchased print book in my hand.
And there. Boom. Showrooming problem fixed. Game over. Wow. Much hard. Very Amazon.
For bonus points, the app should also link me to things like reviews and recommendations, bundled deals (“Download the entire Wheel of Time series now for just $59.99!”), and offer push alerts on preorders and series.
And, look. I know bookstores are struggling right now and don’t necessarily have the cash–not to mention UX know-how–in order to design something like this. Which is why I’m sure there’s some upstart young ecommerce dev company out there just itching to bang up a whitelabel version of exactly this, which can be quickly rebranded and on-sold to every single freakin’ bookstore chain from the multinational megastores to the corner mom ‘n’ pop genre shop.
So y’all get right on that, Silicone Valley. I gots me some books to buy.
I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot recently, and–for the first time–it’s for professional reasons as well as personal.
I like books. I like the physicality of them, I like the smell, I like the covers and the way they look on my shelves. I like everything about books.
Except… I don’t like reading them.
Firstly because of the weight. Most books are heavy, and sort of awkward, and my arms are twitchy after a lifetime spent hunched over keyboards and clutching at pencils. There are few things that set off my RSI like reading a physical book for an extended period of time, in a way that holding my tablet or phone or laptop doesn’t.
Secondly is the convenience. Because the places I mostly read nowadays include:
- the gym
- the toilet (don’t judge, you do it too)
- in bed at 4am while my husband is trying to sleep next to me
- in queues at the supermarket
- surreptitiously at boring events, often while pretending to be “doing work” (which reading sort of is, I guess)
and physical books just aren’t great in most of those situations. Particularly the gym; I can use the elliptical one-handed while holding my phone. With a book, not so much. And that’s not even getting into the page-sweat issue, which a) gross, and b) I often sweat Interesting Colours thanks to my hair dye. So there’s that.
The point being that, after much introspection, I’ve been forced to conclude that, while I prefer books as physical artifacts, I actually prefer reading on my devices. A quick mental index of books I’ve finished over the past year or so supports this; I’m way more likely to finish something if it’s in digital, rather than physical, form.
(I also think there might be something in here about coming from a reading background involving a lot of fanfic. Fanfic normalised reading on-screen, given the stunning lack of other options. AO3’s “export to .epub” option is the best damn thing on that site, I swear…)
I’m still a sucker for a bookstore, though, which is why I like the linked article’s last suggestion:
The experience of a bookstore – physically standing in a room filled with books – is still precious. While it may seem a waste of money for a bookstore to encourage digital downloads in-store, for young people who have adopted the new technology with open arms this could be a great addition. Being able to pick up a book physically, flip through it and buy the digital copy via a QR code or something similar – without having to carry it home – not only solidifies the idea that they are still purchasing a book, but also shows a brand’s adoption of new technology. Punishing the adopters of e-reading technology is not the way to go.
Yes. That. More of that, please. If only so I don’t have to buy everything off Amazon all the damn time…