Why Do We Have to Choose Between Print and Digital?

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Michael Clarke, an executive at Silverchair Information Systems and a passionate music lover, is torn between vinyl and digital – squarely split down the middle. Vinyl to him means warm sound, beautiful packaging, tactility and the special rituals of opening record jackets, reading the copy, placing the record on a turntable and lowering the needle on it. Against these advantages he weighs only one for digital music: convenience. But that one completely balances the scales.

But Michael Clarke wonders why he has to choose. Why can’t he have both? Why can’t he buy the record and get the download too – at no extra cost? It’s not unprecedented. Blogging in The Solitary Kitchen, he writes : “What indie rock bands have figured out is that the purchase of music does not have to be an either/or proposition. They don’t make their customers choose between analog or digital. Whenever you buy a record from just about any indie band, it comes with either a CD or with a card that contains a URL and a download code so you can get a digital copy at no additional cost.”

Clarke doesn’t use the word, but what he’s talking about is bundling, and we think it’s the next big step in the evolution of the book business. We also think it’s the next war zone.

Bundling is an age-old merchandising technique in which customers are offered a discount if they purchase two related products. In the case of books, it’s a combo of two formats, print edition and e-book. Though the technical barriers to delivering both in one transaction are coming down, the real issue is how much to charge for the bundle. A little test we gave readers a few years ago will give you a sense of how challenging the concept is:

When you purchase a print book you should be able to get the e-book for…

a) the full combined retail prices of print and e-book editions
b) an additional 50% of the retail price of the print edition
c) an additional 25% of the retail price of the print edition
d) $1.00 more than the retail price of the print edition
e) free

The choices aren’t just economic but philosophical, reflecting just how aggressive a publisher wants to be and the various thresholds at which the publisher believes consumer resistance will melt. A good argument can be made for each, and as the bundling issue warms up you can expect to hear them all endlessly debated.

The time will soon come when publishers will have to choose one of the above strategies and put it into effect. Misjudging consumer attitudes could prove to be a big mistake and possibly a ruinous one. My own view? I strongly believe that the e-book version should be included free of charge with the purchase of the print edition. What do you think – and why?

Details in Bundling: Publishing’s Next Battleground.

Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis

About Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is a leading New York literary agent (www.curtisagency.com) who foresaw the Digital Book Revolution and launched an e-book publishing company early in 2000. E-Reads (www.ereads.com) is one of the foremost independent e-book publishers in the industry, specializing in reprints of genre fiction by leading authors in their fields. Curtis is also a well-known authors advocate, author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry, and prolific blogger – see his hundreds of other blog posts here.

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6 thoughts on “Why Do We Have to Choose Between Print and Digital?

  1. Joel Miller at Thomas Nelson, Inc ventured into this area a couple of years ago with the NelsonFree line of books. Purchase of the HB version included a code for the PDF. Might have even included the audiobook version. I guess he was ahead of his time… I don’t think it caught on.

  2. I would love bundles to be offered and would gladly spend a bit extra so that I had the convenience to switch between the two.

  3. There are some costs associated with the ebook versions that would be nice to recoup in some way. You need to create the file, store it, and run the site to access it. But it would not need to be a large amount. Perhaps $1.00 more than the print version to no more than 25% of the print version cost.

  4. How about bundling in the other direction? If I buy an ebook, how much extra should I expect to pay to get a print copy as well? (I’d think at least the unit cost of the book plus shipping.)

    • I’m with you Castiron. There are many ebooks I’d definitely like in both formats, both for the initial reading convenience and so I can keep a physical copy for the shelf after I’m finished. And for me, I’d also include audio format for bundling for the car or gym.

  5. I think bundling would appeal to a lot of people, but not everyone. For those who worry about technology not persisting, having the print as a back-up would be a fail safe. But for those who see digital as a way to not use psychical resources, or who don’t want to be encumbered with rooms full of books, the appeal of the ebook is NOT having a print book. Some people have already made the choice, and don’t want to go back.

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