I used to buy a lot of MP3s. I don’t anymore. That’s not to say I don’t listen to MP3s. I have about 10,000 of the little guys squeezed like vienna sausages into my iTunes music folder, and I listen to them a lot. But when I buy music today I buy it on vinyl. I’m no audiophile, no retro hepcat, but my ears tell me that music sounds better on vinyl – warmer, more nuanced, less shrill – and I make it a point to listen to my ears. Also, I’ve rediscovered the pleasures of looking at the art work on record jackets. Thumbnail images are pretty weak substitutes. In fact, they suck.
But the decisive factor in the transformation of my purchasing behavior, as a marketer would say, wasn’t aesthetic. It was the decision by record companies to start giving away a free digital copy of an album when you buy the vinyl version. Hidden inside the sleeve of a new record, like a Cracker Jack prize, is a little card with a code on it that lets you download the digital files of the songs, often in a lossless format, from the record company. So I no longer have to choose between the superior sound and packaging of vinyl and the superior mobility of digital. When I’m near my turntable, I spin the platter. When I’m not, I fire up the MP3s.
Buy the atoms, get the bits free. That just feels right – in tune with the universe, somehow.
There’s a lesson here, I think, for book publishers. Readers today are forced to choose between buying a physical book or an ebook, but a lot of them would really like to have both on hand – so they’d be able, for instance, to curl up with the print edition while at home (and keep it on their shelves) but also be able to load the ebook onto their e-reader when they go on a trip. In fact, bundling a free electronic copy with a physical product would have a much bigger impact in the book business than in the music business. After all, in order to play vinyl you have to buy a turntable, and most people aren’t going to do that. So vinyl may be a bright spot for record companies, but it’s not likely to become an enormous bright spot. The only technology you need to read a print book is the eyes you were born with, and print continues, for the moment, to be the leading format for books. If you start giving away downloads with print copies, you shake things up in a pretty big way.
So why give away the bits? Well, traditional book publishers have three big imperatives today: (1) protect print sales for as long as possible (in order to fund a longer-term transition to a workable new business model); (2) help keep physical bookstores in business (for the reasons set out in this article by Julie Bosman); and (3) do anything possible to curb the power of Amazon.com, the publishers’ arch-frenemy. Bundling bits with atoms helps on all three fronts. First, you give people an added incentive to buy a print book. When it comes to paperbacks, in particular, a customer essentially gets the physical and electronic copies for the price they’d pay for an electronic copy alone. That changes the buying equation. Second, you do something that helps physical bookstores in their own end-of-days battle with Amazon. Suddenly, they have a strong new sales pitch. Third, by offering the ebooks in a standard, non-proprietary format (ePub, say), you make the Kindle, which doesn’t handle the ePub format, considerably less attractive, particularly for anyone buying their first e-reader. (Why buy one that’s not going to accept those free ebooks you’re going to get when you decide you want a print edition?) Either Amazon stands firm with its proprietary format, or it retools the Kindle as a general purpose reader that can handle ePub. If it chooses the former course, it loses e-reader market share. If it takes the latter course, it weakens its grip on sales of ebooks and weakens the rationale for subsidizing Kindle purchases. There’s also one other potential benefit for publishers, which could be very important in the long run: By setting up their own site where customers download free ebooks, they open a direct relationship with book readers, something they’ve never really had before.
I’d like to say my plan is a no-brainer, but it’s not. I can see at least three obstacles, and there are probably more. On the commercial side, you’re going to have some cannibalization. There are probably households today who, to get the best of both worlds, buy a book in both print and electronic versions. Give away the ebook, and you sacrifice those ebook sales. I have to believe, though, that that’s not going to amount to that many copies, and if you’re talking about your long-run survival those duplicate sales are trivial. Also on the commercial side is the question of how this would affect Barnes & Noble, the struggling behemoth of physical bookstores which also, with the Nook, is Amazon’s top competitor in the e-reader market. I’m sure there would be both benefits and costs for B&N, but since I don’t know the details of the company’s finances I don’t know what the net effect would be. Still, if you’re losing as much money as B&N is, business-as-usual is not exactly an attractive strategy.
There’s also the technical challenge involved in actually distributing the free ebooks. Vinyl records are sold sealed in plastic. The only way to get the code for the free e-copy (other than engaging in vandalism in a retail store) is to buy the album, crack the seal, and fish out the code. The books on bookstore shelves aren’t sealed in plastic, so how do you prevent creeps from writing down the code in a store and then going home and filching the e-book from your server? I don’t know the answer to that question – I’m thinking maybe you print a code on the sales receipt – but I have to think there’s a geek somewhere who could come up with a boffo solution. Some publishers are already experimenting with physical/digital bundles, including ones that include an ebook download for free, so there are clearly already some test cases to learn from. The good news is that book buyers, as a group, probably aren’t the most criminally minded segment of the population.
Will giving away ebooks secure the future of the printed book, save the corner bookstore, and let publishers go back to enjoying three-martini lunches? No. But I think it would help, and at the very least it would annoy Amazon. When you’re on the receiving end of Massive Disruption, it’s not a bad idea to foment a little disruption yourself.
POSTSCRIPTIVE QUESTION: In that article I link to above, Bosman writes that “sales of older books — the so-called backlist, which has traditionally accounted for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the average big publisher’s sales — would suffer terribly [if physical bookstores disappear].” I had assumed, following Long Tail logic, that online bookstores, which can “stock” far more backlist books than even the largest physical bookstore, would spur more backlist sales than physical stores. I guess I was wrong. Can anybody with inside knowledge of the book trade confirm the truth of what Bosman wrote? And if it is true, what does that say about the power of the Long Tail effect?