Buy the Atoms, Get the Bits for Free

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Should publishers give readers a complimentary e-book with the purchase of a hard copy?

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Nick Carr thinks that book publishers ought to follow a practice established by the makers of vinyl LPs and give away digital copies of books to people who buy hard copies:

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.

An interesting proposal indeed. Carr goes on to outline a few objections, but I think he overlooks one: publishers don't have a great many shared interests with Amazon.com these days, but they do all want to avoid inventory and supply-chain problems. With hard copies, publishers and booksellers have to figure out how many to print, where to store them, how to ship them, when or if to return them, and so on. None of these problems exist when they're selling the "bits" rather than the "atoms," as Carr puts it.

So far many publishers have under-rated these advantages because of their worries about privacy. But gradually they're coming around. And selling the "atoms" and giving away the "bits" gives them the worst of both worlds: supply-chain and inventory issues remain, without solving the piracy problem.

So, cool as this would be -- I for one would be buying atoms plus bits all the time -- I don't think it'll happen.



Image: Peter Organisciak/Flickr.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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