Pursuant to this post on bookstore showrooming, this conversation with KJ Charles on Twitter.

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.

What? How?

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:

  1. buy Book 3 in digital, as per the rest of the series (this is the bottom-tier, “casual fan” option)
  2. buy Book 3 in print, including a bundled ebook (this is the middle-tier, “normal fan” option)
  3. 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.