Why Are We Still Not Bundling E-books?

Alex Crowley -- August 15th, 2013

The e-book vs. physical copy debate in publishing is for the most part, frankly, kind of a boring one. Some people like their e-readers, others—like myself—don’t care about them, and I’m sure there are others who like both for whatever reason(s). So, yes, there are 3 kinds of people in the world. Most talk from the consumer end tends to be about how one format is better/easier/more-papery/more-electrical than the other and that’s fine. Industry conversations seem to be about money, which to me is largely uninteresting, but I suppose if you have a financial stake in this it matters.*

Now I have a musician friend who basically only reads e-books these days. He asked me one day why publishers/presses weren’t offering a bundled physical copy and e-book package. I didn’t have an answer because, well, because it seemed so obvious that I couldn’t figure out why nobody was doing that either. In the music world, or at least in more “underground” scenes, it’s fairly common for bands/artists to offer free album/track downloads when you buy a physical copy, particularly if it’s vinyl. It’s standard practice on sites like Bandcamp, and I’ve even bought band t-shirts that come with an album download code.

So, yes… why aren’t more presses doing this? I get that the big houses probably aren’t going to be trendsetters here, but what about small/indie presses?

I took a cursory look into it and found that only Angry Robot has done something like this (through certain UK bookstores) and, geez, I can see why nobody followed suit, since it only tripled their sales on those bundled titles. That linked piece from TechDirt gets to most, if not all, of the salient points that my friend and I could think up: people like free stuff, you can lend a physical book while retaining an e-copy for future use, and—a big point that larger houses tend to miss—that you can’t monetize everything just because you think you’re leaving money on the table. (As far as that last point in concerned, that’s money you were probably never going to make in the first place since people aren’t generally going to buy both physical and electronic versions of the same book. It’s incredibly easy to pirate electronic versions of anything, whether it be games, music, books, etc.) It seems like an incredibly shortsighted strategy, IMO, but what do I know? This has only been been under discussion for several years now. Hey, even Nicholas Carr gets it.

Mostly right now I’m curious as to why publishers haven’t done this yet (and it’s been three years since B&N apparently tried doing it in their stores). Do the “numbers” just not pan out? Are there structural reasons that bundling doesn’t work?

 

*Please keep giving Publishers Weekly all your money. Thanks!

28 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Not Bundling E-books?

  1. Publerati

    Back in the roaring ’90s, I had the opportunity to study the buying habits of the early adopters for maps on CD-ROM versus those on paper. Back then, we would ship pallets of AAA Road Atlases into mass merchants shrinkwrapped with the CD-ROM in Value Bundles. The operational costs were considerable but the sell-through was not impacted much. When we surveyed our customers in three clusters, 1) CD-ROM-only buyers; 2) Paper Atlas only, and 3) People who bought both, we saw in Focus Groups the challenges. The first group were the early adopters of technology; the second were the laggards totally uninterested in technology and oftetimes hostile toward it; and the third ended up being value shoppers who simply wanted something free but in fact rarely used the CD-ROM. Many received this bundle as a gift so did not choose it for themselves. With time, the early adopters in every industry influence enough mainstreamers to make the transition from print. The laggards are always the last to change. Twenty years later CDs are gone, paper atlas sales are down 60%-75% worldwide, and something unexpected — GPS — has claimed the market. The same is true for photo. Twenty years ago the 35mm film/photo insiders dismissed digital print quality (even though mass-produced photo quality was pretty poor when measured in research) and now today you can still get print photos from digital media but the volumes are 10% of what there were then. Turns out digital offered too much that was important and new and I would expect the same to play our for newpapers, magazines, and books in the next decade. Thanks for your post; just wanted to share this information stuck in my memory in case it helps anyone out there.

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  3. Peter Hudson

    I think a big part of the reason many publisher haven’t been bundlng is because it’s quite technically difficult to do… however, my company, BitLit has developed a simple solution to the bundling problem: A smartphone app that lets a reader verify the she’s the owner of a book when she writes her name on the copyright page and uses our app to submit a photo. BitLit validates the image and the user’s handwriting, then provides a free or discounted eBook to the reader. BitLit is free for publishers and for readers.

    Reading the comments above, I see that a few publishers we’re already working with have commented. We’ve signed up several dozen publishers (around 2000 titles) and will be launching our beta for Android in the next month or so. If anybody would like to be part of the beta please register on BitLit.ca

  4. havancourt

    Baen started adding CD copy to some of their hardback books many many years ago- way before the days of ereaders. As a organziation, they fairly earlier started to engage the ereader community. Their current monthly bundle process is also a nice method for the publishing company to stay engage directly with the readers.

  5. Kate Sullivan

    As others here have mentioned, there ARE those of us in the small press world doing this – Angry Robot isn’t quite small press anymore, but Riptide, Candlemark & Gleam, and others bundle print and digital.

    Unfortunately, C&G only bundles books when they’re bought directly off our website. We’d like to offer bundles to anyone who buys a print copy of one of our books in an indie bookstore (don’t want to give this away through Amazon, for a number of reasons), but the logistical hurdles are…not insubstantial. We’re looking into doing a pilot program with a few small bookstores, though, and hopefully offering it as an option to any ABA bookstore in the nearish future.

    Here’s hoping it takes off. It just makes good sense for you to be able to read the book you bought in whatever format you’d like it in.

  6. Joe Wikert

    In an earlier comment, Abby touches on one of the main reasons why this hasn’t happened yet. Most publishers have no clue how to create a direct relationship with their customers. Plus, the fact that so many of them are wedded to DRM means they simply couldn’t fulfill direct ebook sales to the largest platform on the planet (Kindle). Then there’s the fact that publishers also worry they’re leaving money on the table if they bundle print with e. For some reason they think that someone who buys print will also buy e, so bundling them is a lost sale. Wrong. And even for that small percentage of the audience this applies to, they could just raise the price of the p+e bundle.

    1. Ted Savas

      Joe is right on the money.

      We are Savas Beatie are working hard to bundle and are hoping to role this out, in conjunction with our distributor, later this year, and we have a good direct market to our customer base so that won’t be a larger hurdle for us. DRM is an issue, but we think we will have figured out how to handle that. Pricing is an issue (as is how you calculate royalties, but most do not purchase both, and selling a book at full retail, and including a free e-book, equates roughly to a wholesale unit sale, but without having to pay a distributor cut.

  7. Colin Marks

    It’s a good point, and along a similar line, I was wondering just this morning why stores don’t group e-books together like they do physical books. I can buy a discounted collection of the Man Booker shortlist, or at Amazon I can buy the two novels in a series for a reduced price, but only for physical books. I’m sure some of it is to do with reducing stock, but it can’t be everything…

  8. Michael

    Algonquin Books did physical and digital bundling for Hillary Jordan’s WHEN SHE WOKE. The PW article you link to in your 2nd paragraph mentions this and the reasons why it was so complicated.

  9. Brad Lyons

    Chalice Press, a small church-related press, has bundled a print and eBook version of a somewhat pricy academic book, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History. Our hunch is that contemporary students may want the utility of an eBook, with exportable highlights and notes, while having the standard book for their professional library. It’s too early to tell about the success of the bundling package, but getting the idea implemented by our warehouser was challenging. Our warehouser is not a small operation, but our bundle was the first time anybody had proposed the idea. Part of the problem is the backside logistics of the database coordinating sales and fulfillment. That said, now that we know how to do it, we’ll be looking for other ways to bundle.

  10. Alyssa Linn Palmer

    Riptide Publishing has done this for a little while (riptidepublishing.com). And their prices are reasonable. Also, as a self-publisher, I offer anyone who has bought one of my paperbacks a free copy of the ebook.

    So it is happening, just not with the Big 5.

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  12. Abby

    For many publishers the reason would be because we aren’t selling ebooks directly to customers; we make the content available in the right format(s) to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. and they distribute the ebooks through their own ecommerce systems. Since we’re not controlling the selling or distributing of our own ebooks, we can’t create print/ebook bundles and we can’t compel Amazon to do so until Amazon decides it wants to.

  13. Joy

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been wondering about this hesitation for a while, and more recently I’ve asked publishers why they aren’t experimenting more with different models of selling ebooks. Although I asked smaller publishers, their answers pretty much correlated with those in the MHP article: DRM issues and technology costs (ie for digital delivery). However, many independent publishers are bundling p+e: Calamari Press, Dzanc Books, the University of Kentucky, even Canongate tried it out with Tale for the Time Being. Here in Germany there are also a handful of indies (Onkel & Onkel, Rogner & Bernhard) who offer all their books as bundles. So I suppose the real question is: why are the Big 5 so hesitant?

  14. Michelle Louring

    I have been saying that you should get an ebook copy when you buy a paperback for a year now! I still buy paperbacks, even though I have ereader apps installed on three different devices, and I would love to have a ebook copy of my favorite books, so I can read them if I for some reason don’t have the paper book on me(oh, the tragedy…). But I’m sure not willing to pay the same(or more) for an ebook copy of a book I already have on my bookshelf!

  15. Carla Douglas

    I have wondered this too — and wondered why, if you have a subscription to a print edition of a daily newspaper, you don’t automatically have unlimited access to the digital edition. Gouging the loyal!

  16. Bubicus

    FYI, at least two Humble Bundles (www.humblebundle.com) have contained e-book bundles that have raised several hundred thousand dollars for the authors and various charities.

  17. David Haywood Young

    Hmm. I don’t even have print versions out yet–coming fairly soon though, and one (1) indie bookstore has promised to actually order them–but I’ve thought about this.

    Question is: how does the bundling happen? Including storage media in the books would be silly and expensive. So…a coupon code is reasonable. Thing is, lots of people (not including me!) are concerned about “piracy.” Once that code is out in the world, somebody will put it online.

    My take? All my ebooks are DRM-free for all retailers. So people can post the whole thing for free anyway if they really want to. Not a lot of additional risk with a coupon.

    Next question: where does the coupon work? Amazon has no such feature available AFAIK. Smashwords does…but why would I want to advertise for them? When print-book readers have likely never heard of them? My best bet, for a lot of reasons, is probably to include a coupon code that points to my own site, isn’t it? And to build a site/blog that they might find interesting and fun?

    I’m on board. Will others be? A few, maybe. Thanks for reminding me!

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