Monday, March 12, 2012

Bundling eBooks with Physical Book Sales

Brandon Sanderson started a good amount of chatter over the weekend based on his posts to Twitter & Reddit.  Notably, he is working to find some way to to include an ebook with the hardback edition of A Memory of Light.  I think this is a very noble effort but one that is simply not feasible with today's publishing industry.  Granted, I could see Tor doing this for just A Memory of Light as a marketing stunt, but I can't see this becoming standard practice.  I think there are a number of reasons why this would be difficult to pull off.

First, publishers are fighting a bitter battle over the perceived value of ebooks.  The combination of Amazon's $9.99 New Release pricing and the prevalence of self-published authors selling their books at $0.99-2.99 was establishing a new book pricing metric among consumers.  This was a pricing structure that major publisher would not accept, at least in the near term.  Consistently providing a "free copy" or even an "upgrade" for $1-2 would only reinforce the disposable nature of consumers.  Again, I can see free copies given away as a promotional tool but not as a standard practice.  This completely ignores the potential effects it would have on privacy.  Promoting the idea that the electronic copy is worthless or near worthless is a a dangerous paradigm to establish.  Even if it means threatening public libraries.

Next, I think the cost for a major publisher to format and distribute eBooks is under estimated.  While smaller more nimble publishers have appeared, such as Carina Press, the that specialize in eBooks, this business model runs contrary to major publishers established means of doing business.  Major publishers have a crushing cost of business between long term leases, material contracts, etc.  This stems both from the business of publishing but also from their location in New York City.  The inertia of this model does not change swiftly and so these costs are carried over into the eBook realm where major publishers are simply non-competitive at the moment.

The point being that for a major release such as a New York Times #1 Bestseller, these costs could be absorbed, it is probably untenable for a mid-list author who hopes to sell 50,000 copies of a book.  In the coming years this will probably cease to be an issue as major publishers lean down and build expertise, but for now, it is a fact of life.  Also, I am ignoring whether or not major publishers require their authors to submit their data in a structured format, critical to electronic formats because I simply don't have a clue.

Booksellers would probably reject the idea of a free eBook copy depending on how the plan was executed.  Anything changing or altering the Point-of-Sales system would likely be off limits without major concessions.  A system of distributing codes within the physical books would be a fiasco as well for no other reason than simple theft.  Regardless, all of these ideas would be a major headache for the booksellers customer support personnel.  Imagine the number of people coming back to the store complaining that a) their code didn't work b) does it work on my "insert device name c) can I give it to a friend since I already own the book?  The potential issues are nigh endless.
Now, should the major publishers go the opposite way and try and give away a free physical copy with each eBook purchase, they are probably creating a bigger problem.  Why?  Because their only logical choices will be to partner with Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and would completely ignore anyone without an ebook distribution platform.  Amazon is probably a publishers biggest enemy.  Barnes and Nobels is Amazon's biggest rival.  Not much of an upgrade there.  Regardless, both issues present a major problem.  Publishers would be referring business to their competition.  Publishers would be locking your customers in to their enemies' ecosystem via DRM.  Publishers would also be training their customer to buy and read eBooks versus physical books, further eroding the sales of physical books.  That isn't friendly a publisher's bottom line while they transition to a new eBook first world.

Image Source: Risingshadow

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