Strike a …

Beginning next month, Amazon will be rolling out a program called “Amazon Matchbook*”. Put simply, Amazon will let you purchase a discounted ebook of any physical book you’ve bought through Amazon since 1995. Some limitations apply; the main one is that publishers need to sign on. (Amazon promises that at least 10,000 titles will be available when the program begins.) Prices for the discounted ebooks will range from free to $3.00.

* What is it with Amazon naming its book-related hardware and programs after things related to burning? “Kindle” and “Kindle Fire”. “Matchbook”. Was Jeff Bezos traumatized by “Farenheit 451” as a child? (I hope Urban Dictionary’s definition of “burning amazon” isn’t relevant here…) Not only does it not make sense in relation to books (which was, as you may recall, where Amazon’s business started), but it shows a great insensitivity to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest via slash and burn agriculture.

What do I think? I think it’s a great idea: anything that reduces the price of ebooks and makes it easier to buy them will reduce piracy (as we’ve seen with music, we’ll never eliminate piracy, but we can cut it back). We’ve seen over and over that cheap or free availability of ebooks actually increases sales of physical books for backlist titles. That’s all good for authors.

I’d like to see the publishers take the next step and make this kind of plan common across the industry. Not everyone has–or wants–a Kindle. If I could get a similar plan for ebooks in non-DRMed epub format so I can move them freely among all the devices and programs I use to read ebooks, I’d certainly be willing to pay a couple of bucks a piece.

I’m not blind to the potential problems here. If publishers jack up the price of physical books to “cover the cost” of making ebooks available, I’m going to resent it every time I buy a book when I don’t want an ebook edition. (Note to publishers: Raising the price of the physical book and charging a fee for the ebook would be just plain greedy. Don’t do it.) Given that the cost to create the ebook edition is fixed, I would hope that the fee would be the same regardless of the format of the physical edition: I shouldn’t have to pay more (or less!) for the ebook bundled with the paperback edition than with the hardback.

There are also some oddities in Amazon’s plan. Most notably, I don’t see anything that requires a customer to show that they still own the physical book in order to get the ebook. If someone bought the book and then sold it to a used book store or gave it away, should they still be entitled to a discount on the ebook? Even if I still own the physical book, do I have a legal or moral obligation to dispose of the ebook if I dispose of the physical book later? Can I sell the physical book and give the ebook away? (My take: right of first sale should apply. I should be able to sell, give away, or destroy either or both editions.)

Interestingly, it looks like it’s steamship time: a company called BitLit is preparing to launch a discounted ebook service for books purchased anywhere just about the same time that Amazon Matchbook launches. Since they don’t have purchase records, their model requires that you demonstrate your ownership of the book by uploading a picture of your signature on the copyright page. An interesting approach. I see some significant problems with it: can they detect if you’ve signed a slip of paper and laid it on the book? Is there an alternative if you don’t want to write in your book? BitLit’s model would presumably let you purchase the discounted ebook even if you bought the physical book used — though the requirement to sign the book may cause problems: if the model catches on, there are going to be issues when books start showing up with multiple signatures on the copyright page. I suspect that just the possibility of using a used book to get the ebook will scare off more than a few publishers.

So in short: there are technical problems and unanswered questions, but on the whole I regard Matchbook, BitLit, and their siblings as steps in the right direction.

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