4 September 13 | Chad W. Post

Amazon made a couple of announcements yesterday that, as Amazon announcements tend to do, set the book world atwitter. They announced the next version of the Kindle, but the news that really generated the headlines was the announcement of “MatchBook.”1

Amazon has unveiled a new US initiative to bundle print and e-books, called Kindle MatchBook.

The online retailer is to offer customers the opportunity to buy Kindle editions of print books bought from Amazon.com for prices said to range typically from $2.99 down to completely free.

The offer will set to be available not only on newly published titles, but also titles bought as far back as 1995, where the books are signed up to the scheme.
Russ Grandinetti, vice-president of Kindle content, said: “If you logged onto your CompuServe account during the Clinton administration and bought a book like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus from Amazon, Kindle MatchBook now makes it possible for that purchase—18 years later—to be added to your Kindle library at a very low cost. In addition to being a great new benefit for customers, this is an easy choice for publishers and authors who will now be able to earn more from each book they publish.”

First of all, even if you did buy it when Clinton was in office do not buy the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus ebook no matter how cheaply Amazon makes it via this program. Please. Save yourself.

Now, there are a number of angles to this announcement, but let’s start with some obvious, pro-reader ones: FINALLY WE HAVE BUNDLING. This is something most people with an e-reader and a love of physical books have wanted for a while—and something that music labels have been offering. In terms of music, if makes total sense (to me) that if you buy the vinyl of an album, you get a code so that you can download the mp3 version as well, allowing you to listen to the music while sitting on your couch, or while running at the gym. Basically—and this is a very important point—the music manufacture is selling you the content not the container.

As things currently stand in the book world, if you bought a copy of Javier Marias’s The Infatuations because you love Marias and are willing to shell out $20 for the hardcover version, and then, say, you wanted to take this with you to read Iceland, but, due to the fact that you’re schlepping other stuff, you don’t necessarily have the room for more than your Kindle, you’d have to pay an additional $12+ to get the eversion. Essentially, publishers are treating these two different “containers” (the physical book, the ebook) as separate items to be purchased separately.

But that’s madness. Putting aside the fact that basically no one reads these days anyway, it’s crazy to put your customers in a position where they have to choose between buying either a print version or an e-version of a book when the fixed costs to you (the publisher) are accounted for in the purchase of either one of these. Instead, offer three options: the print book for $20, the ebook for $15, or both for $23. I’d probably choose $23, or maybe $15, but I would NEVER choose to pay $35 to get both. And when a customer has so many other entertainment options, it seems like the smartest thing to do is to make things simple and keep them happy.

Dustin at Melville House disagrees with me, pretty much disagrees with me:

We’ve discussed this before, and indeed, our own Dennis Johnson is less averse to the idea of bundling ebooks than I find myself. but it bears repeating: the problem with ebook bundling is that consumers have no real sense of what a book should cost. Readers don’t know what, specifically, they are paying for when they buy a book. If you tell them, as Amazon has repeatedly done, that ebooks are worth a dollar or less, of course they’ll believe that. After all, there is no paper to pay for.

Unlike the ever-astute readers of MobyLives, the general book buyer might not imagine, for instance, that the price of materials—the weighty stuff of a book, paper etc.—for an average hardcover book from a major publisher will rarely make up more than 15% of the eventual price of the book. Books cost what they do because the services to produce them are expensive, not the paper. Editors, designers, even marketers like myself, all cost money. And while people can and certainly have argued that publishing is broken and all of those professionals that make a book attractive or worth reading or help you find it in stores are essentially obsolete, it is impossible to argue that the value they add to a book is somehow moot if that book is digital. Ebooks from publishers benefit from the hand of an editor as much as their print editions, and that benefit is reflected in the price.

The problem I have with his logic is that he’s not taking into account the fact that this discounted ebook version is only available to customers who also buy the print version. If Amazon was reducing all ebooks to $2.99 or free, then he’d have a point. As things stand, there are like 10 gazillion $.99 books available on Amazon—the vast majority only slightly better than Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus—and that’s not even what we’re talking about. Instead we’re talking about Amazon providing a benefit that a lot of high-volume readers are going to value greatly.

Let’s look at this from a publisher point of view for a second though: We (meaning Open Letter) just looked at the royalty rates for signing our books up for this program. If you decide to enroll a title into MatchBook and sell it for $2.99 or less (with the purchase of the original), you the publisher receive either 70% or 35% of each sale depending on which royalty program the ebook is already enlisted in. That’s not bad at all . . . So, if we sell a copy of Inga Ābele’s High Tide, which retails for $15.95, and the Amazon customer decides to get the ebook for $2.99, we receive an additional $2, $.75 of which goes to the author/translator, and, more importantly, one more copy of the ebook is out there, and one reader is happy that they can read the Kindle version on the subway and the print version at home. (Or, because people are devious like this, that person could give away the print version as a gift, meaning that we lose a potential—emphasis on potential—sale and gain a second reader.)

There’s always an anti-Amazon tack to take on things like this, but personally, as a reader and a small press publisher, I’m totally on board. The one area in which I think this will have a negative impact is on independent bookstores and their agreement with Kobo.

Not too long ago, as a way of getting into the ebook and ereader market, the American Booksellers Association signed a deal with Kobo that let indie stores sell Kobo devices and receive a percentage of sales made through the devices they sold. I’ve heard good things about the devices and the small, but semi-significant, stream of money coming in from this. (I’ve also heard booksellers tell me that this has fuck all to do with their core business, and that indies should focus on their strengths instead of trying to get a piece of Amazon’s ebook pie.)

Anyway, unless Kobo works out something soon—be it an app or a special code or whatever—it’s going to be that much more difficult for your average reader to go with a device/system that doesn’t allow bundling, compared to a very ubiquitous one that does. Hopefully they will figure this out ASAP though, since it only makes sense that you could buy the book in person, pay a couple extra bucks at the register, and download it to your device immediately.

One last thought about “content” versus “containers”: Amazon is extremely good at viewing things from this angle and finding ways to integrate the reading experience in all of its forms. Starting this October, for some titles (I assume), you’ll be able to buy the print book, then add on the ebook for $2.99, and add on the Audible audiobook for an additional $2.99. Then you can listen while you exercise, have it sync with your Kindle version for the subway ride home, then pick up the physical book when you want that (superior, in my opinion) experience. All the same book, the same content, for one reasonable price, in contrast to having to buy three full priced versions (totaling what, $45?) for the opportunity to better integrate reading into parts of your daily life.

1 When I first saw this “MatchBook” terms showing up in my email, I thought that it was some new discovery tool, and if not that, some sort of Amazon dating service: “Seeing that you gave Death in Spring five stars on GoodReads, you might like to meet Carrie, who gave Satantango five stars. LOVE AT FIRST BOOK.”

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