September 4, 2013

Amazon to begin bundling print and digital books, to the detriment of both


Poor warehouse workers, these boxes are so much heavier now that they have print AND digital books inside.

Amazon rolled out a new ebook bundling program on Tuesday, one which will, in true Amazon fashion, burn down the orchard to help them reach a few more apples.

Amazon’s MatchBook is designed to institutionalize ebook bundling, a retail tactic that, though a fan favorite, almost always undervalues ebooks in price and, more importantly, in perceived value.

In his announcement of the program, Amazon VP of Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti called bundling one of the most requested ideas from Amazon customers, and the response to the announcement online bears that out. Indeed, we and all publishers field frequent requests for bundling.

Ebook bundling is the idea—more commonplace with music—that when a customer buys a physical copy of the book, the digital copy should be made available for free. In the case of Amazon’s MatchBook, customers who’ve bought a new book through Amazon any time in that company’s history will be given the option to download a matching ebook at prices ranging from $2.99 down to entirely free.

It is a measure of our comfort with ubiquitous surveillance that the idea of a single company having, potentially, a record of every single book we’ve bought since 1995 does not seem to have given anyone pause in online discussion of MatchBook.

Grandinetti estimates that Matchbook will have ten thousand books included in the program when it begins in October. The majority of those will be from Amazon’s library of self-published books, many of them already priced—unilaterally by Amazon—at $2.99 or below. Amazon is automatically enrolling these books in the program and will pay those authors royalties based on the MatchBook price—authors have no say in the matter other than to opt out of the Amazon self -publishing program entirely. But Amazon plays cruel games with self-published author royalties all the time. Indeed, the company’s willingness to use the author as grist is of a piece with their misuse of precarious labor or state infrastructure: it is, we are, all materiel in their quintessential late capitalist drive for expansion. That, also, has not even risen to become a point of contention in online celebrations of MatchBook.

Publishers will have to opt in to the program, and it seems only HarperCollins has signed on thus far. It can be assumed getting one of the big five on board was a prerequisite for Amazon announcing the program at all: without the draw of marquee authors like Neil Gaiman from the start, MatchBook would seem too much like the salvo against publishers that it is.

Amazon may well get other publishers on board, too. Bargain basement ebook sales are better, in some lights, than no ebook sales. Every publisher has been slowly working to lock down the digital rights for their backlist, and it is hard to scoff at the potential for a new revenue stream from books in that fifteen-year-old doldrum. Some will surely sign up, at least for select authors, at least as an experiment.

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.

Bundling ebooks entails, at least in the MatchBook model, slashing the price of ebooks. More importantly, however, it means teaching consumers that ebooks are worth very little, that somehow the value that goes into creating a book is seared away if those words are formed of pixels rather than dyed tree fiber. Bundling can make sense in many contexts, and indeed may become ubiquitous very soon, but on the large scale and at the prices that Amazon is using, it is disdainful of the work that goes into every book published. It devalues labor and skill, and is disparaging of the abilities of a discerning reader.

But then, Amazon has never been a company that cares much about the price of labor, or what is between the covers of books.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.