Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bundle Up! The Pros and Cons of Print+ebook

(cc) @susa@ from flickr
One of my favorite things about Twitter is that it provides not only a great news source if you follow good blogs and sources for industry news like Publishers Weekly, Writers' Digest, and Galley Cat, but it also provides a place to immediately discuss relevant news with others who want to discuss them.

Which is why I recently found myself in this awesome twitter conversation with several agents about the pros and cons of book bundling. I think about this sort of thing a lot, and so getting to bounce it off others was kind of like twitter candy.

What's bundling? That's the term given to the practice of putting an ebook and print combo in one. The idea would be that a book could be kind of like those DVDs you get that include a digital copy of the movie. Pay $14.99 for a DVD, $18.99 for a Blu-Ray, and $21.99 for a Blu-ray combo pack with an unlocking code for the Ultraviolet movie. 

On Thursday, Amazon announced the launch of “AutoRip, a new service that will allow users to pay a small additional fee to automatically get all the MP3s for a physical CD that they purchase from the site. As mentioned above, DVDs have been doing this for a few years now. The question immediately bounced to ebooks: could this mean bundling is not far behind?

As a bookseller who works almost exclusively in the digital sales department, the question I am asked most often about content, behind "How much do ebooks cost on average?" is "Are there ways to get a print book and an ebook at the same time?"

I've heard publishers say there's no demand for bundles, but I don't think that is true in the least, based on my experiences. But it is still true that there are kinks to be worked out in the system.

Here are the advantages I see to bundling.

1. It gets readers to buy more. It's no secret that big readers read in lots of formats. They read ebooks, they read hardcovers, they read trade and mass-market paperbacks. They like to read, and the more convenient you can make it for them to do so, the more they buy. Plus, you'll inevitably have some people who will buy the package even if they didn't come in thinking they wanted an e-book, which makes an extra sale.

2. It creates the convenience of a DRM-free copy without actually having to offer DRM-free copies. The biggest (and most justified, imo) complaint about ebooks is that they simply don't work like print books: no matter what B&N and Amazon say about their lending programs, you simply can't lend them to a friend the way you can a print book. And you can't resell them, and you can't regift them. A print book does all those things, so it's like getting the ebook plus a version you can do everything you'd like to with. Since so far, only Tor has been brave enough to offer DRM-free ebooks, this gives publishers a bit of an out. (I still think they should offer DRM-free ebooks, but that's a blog for another day.)

3. It exposes print buyers to ebooks and e-readers. I don't know about you, but I had never heard of Ultraviolet until I started seeing an option to buy a bundle with the DVD plus an Ultraviolet copy of the movie I wanted. Now I have apps that can play Ultraviolet movies on my Blu-ray player as well as my iPad. Give a hardcore print reader the option of getting an ebook for a few dollars more...maybe her next purchase is an e-reader to read it on, and then from there...

4. It makes it convenient for the reader.  I am reading Ken Follett's WINTER OF THE WORLD right now. Veeeeeery slowly. The book weighs more than my friend's kid did when he was born, and so I'm careful about where I take it. This of course means I don't get to read it all that often. I wanted it to match my hardcover of FALL OF GIANTS, so I bought it in hardcover, but man is it hard to lug around. I would gladly have paid $3 or so to get an ebook version along with my hardcover, because there was plenty of room for my nook in my luggage over the holidays.

So there are a lot of reasons why bundling is attractive, both to consumers and to publishers and booksellers. But all that said, the current state of e-books is such that there are some major drawbacks to this idea, as well. 

1. What if the versions come from different stores? Right now, DRM means that a Kobo book can't be read on a nook, a nook book can't be read on a Kindle, a Kindle book can't be read on a Kobo, etc. etc. So what if a person walks into their bookstore and sees the latest Tom Clancy as a bundle, but happens to own a Kindle? More than likely, the store loses a print sale while the customer goes to Amazon to get the bundle. There's no easy way around this, and since only one reader is affiliated with a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, what this would probably mean is that even fewer people buy print copies in their B&N or their local indie if they can get a bundle for their Kindle--a big disadvantage for the bricks-and-mortar stores.

2. Buying ebooks in a physical location is tricky. Both B&N and Amazon already offer the option for ebooks to be bought individually, without the login for the customer's device. You can actually pay cash for your ebooks at a register at B&N. But there's a catch: you get sent to a website to enter in a code to put the books into your library. Same thing if you're sending someone a specific Kindle title as a gift. That extra step is enough to deter people from anything that isn't outright free (and sometimes it's even enough to deter them from something that is). That said, I think this is the easiest problem to solve--just build into the software of the reader the ability to process the purchase codes, and you're all set. You buy the bundle, you get a code, enter the code into your reader and boom, here comes the ebook.

3. Who pays which piper? Right now, most authors have one royalty rate for their hardcovers, one for their paperbacks, and one for their ebooks. If a book is bundled, customers would likely expect a jump of a few dollars, not the full price of the ebook. So then is there a separate royalty rate for the bundle? Does the author get regular rate on the hardcover, plus an ebook royalty but only on the $2 extra for the bundle? Does the bundle count as a retailer discount, and the sale gets recorded as an ebook at full price? Those are questions that understandably make publishers and authors nervous, and there'd have to be a good solution.

As a big reader and a bookseller, I think bundling sounds like something we ought to think about striving for. But I certainly acknowledge legitimate, and large, hurdles that must be overcome before it makes practical sense. At the same time, moves like Amazon's "Auto-Rip" and Ultraviolet+DVD bundles show that at least some segments of the industry are thinking about other paradigms for electronic content more generally, and the publishing industry definitely needs to stop and take note.

What do you think? Would you buy a bundled book? Are you an author and concerned by potential impact on royalties? Is DRM the real problem in all this? Let me know in the comments! 

Further reading (many thanks to Evan Gregory for the link):
Is the Time Right for Bundling? (Publishers' Weekly)


  1. You make some great points. I imagine bundling would create havoc in terms of contracts. Perhaps a discount code for eBooks (when a print is purchased) would be a solution--that way two sales would be recorded.

    1. The money is definitely the biggie on my mind, too. I think the other way to solve it might be if a bundle were treated as its own format in the contract, with a rate that is deemed industry-appropriate (though what that rate might be, I have no idea.)


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