An American Editor

March 18, 2010

eBooks & pBooks in Tandem

It appears that Barnes & Noble and some publishers plan to experiment with giving pbook buyers a discount coupon to purchase the ebook version of the purchased pbook. I’ve been wrestling with this idea for quite some time and I’m still undecided about how valuable such a system will be to me.

There are several considerations. Will I need to buy the hardcover or can I buy the paperback pbook? Buying the hardcover pbook isn’t much of a problem for me as I only buy hardcover pbooks. But where it does have some effect is on which books will come with the discount coupon and how recent will those books be: Will they be brand new releases still on the bestseller lists or will they be part of the long tail only? The answer also affects the price I would be willing to pay (or maybe it doesn’t; let’s see how the discussion unfolds) for both the p and e books.

Considering the state of pricing today, I also wonder if pbooks that come with the discount coupon will be priced differently than pbooks sans the coupon? This hasn’t been raised yet, but considering the shenanigans that currently occur with pricing, I could see publishers choosing to sell what would normally be a $30 pbook for $35 as a way of covering the discount. Unfortunately, we would never know. I could also see Barnes & Noble, whose reputation has taken some pretty heavy hits since it entered the ebook business, telling B&N members that hardcover pbooks without a discount coupon get a 20% member discount; those with the coupon get a 10% discount. The one thing that can be said for B&N is that it cares very little about how it treats its book buyers, especially its members.

Also of concern is whether the tandem books will be just fiction or both fiction and nonfiction. This matters greatly to me because I rarely buy fiction in pbook form. There are a few fiction authors — e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove — whose new releases I buy in hardcover, but these authors are still read-once-then-shelve authors, so I would be disinclined to pay twice for one of their books. Conversely, my nonfiction reading runs largely to history, biography, English language, and philosophy, and these books not only grace my library shelves but they are referred to regularly and sometimes reread in whole. These books I would be interested in both p and e versions if the price and quality of the ebook was right.

My fourth concern relates to the quality of the ebook. If the ebook has the typical quality problems we see today, I am disinclined to spend twice for the same book — especially when those quality problems come wrapped in DRM. We know that ePub works pretty well for straight text, which is typical of fiction, but what about the more delicate needs of nonfiction, such as foot-/endnotes, intricate illustrations, and detailed tables and graphs? Will publishers enhance quality control or remain haphazard in the quality assurance department?

When I buy a nonfiction pbook, the typical price ranges from $30 to $40; occasionally a book costs less and sometimes more than that range indicates. On average, most of the books I purchase cost about $35. So the important question is how much more am I willing to pay to have the convenience of reading an ebook of the purchased pbook?

I admit that if I could, I would gladly read any book I purchase on my Sony Reader. I generally have a hate relationship with electronic devices, especially my computers, but I love my Sony Reader. But it isn’t well suited for reading complex nonfiction. So I’m looking to upgrade my device and the tandem idea might be an incentive — if the price of the ebook part of the tandem is right.

And that’s the kicker — What is the right price? Currently, when I buy fiction ebooks I am unwilling to spend more than a very few dollars — never more than $5 and rarely more than $3 — because quality is so low. Because I buy nearly all my fiction in ebook form, it means there are a lot of fiction authors published by major, traditional publishers whose work I never sample. I will not pay Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any publisher $9.99 for an ebook whose quality may be poor and which is, for me, a read-once-throw-away product, especially not when I can buy the same book in paperback for less than $7 at a bookstore or in hardcover for less than $7 either as a remainder or in a used bookstore. If I’m going to read it once and then toss it, I want toi go the least expensive route possible, unless I am collecting the author, in which event I don’t want anything but hardcover.

So what is the bright line, that magic number that would encourage me to use the discount coupon and buy both the hardcover and the ebook version of a fiction book? I guess that if the pbook cost no more than $30, I would be willing to pay a maximum of an additional 15% for the ebook version. Anything more than that and I would either just buy the hardcover or not buy the book at all

My bright line for nonfiction, however, is different. I buy and use nonfiction books differently, consequently I would be willing to pay more for the tandem ebook version. For me, buying the hardcover is a given; if I don’t buy the nonfiction book in hardcover, I simply am not interested in the book and will not buy it in any form. Well, if the ebook was less than $5 by itself, i.e., no need to also buy the pbook, I might think about buying some nonfiction in ebook only, but that level of pricing isn’t going to happen. But for a nonfiction book that I am buying in hardcover, I would go as high as 25% of the hardcover price for a well-done ebook version in the tandem deal. Anything more than 25% I would pass on.

But let me add this caveat as far as B&N goes: Given the choice between a 20% minimum member discount on a nonfiction hardcover or a 10% plus ebook discount coupon member discount, I will always opt for the 20% discount and forsake the ebook. But I’ll bet B&N won’t survey active members about their buying habits and opinions on this subject any more than it surveyed members before introducing the nook or its ebook product line. If ever there was a company working hard to dig its own grave, B&N is it.

Update

Since I wrote the above, two things have happened: First, I began reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, and second, C-SPAN has made available hundreds of thousands of hours of past broadcasts, which hours include the Clinton impeachment proceedings and trial in the House and Senate. Because of my interest in the impeachment process and proceedings from a historian’s perspective rather than a partisan’s perspective, I would have gladly bought a high-quality ebook that included videos of the proceedings and perhaps interviews of the main players — but only if I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. I would have gladly bought an enhanced pbook that included a DVD with videos of the proceedings and trial. And I would have readily bought both the pbook and a discounted ebook of Gormley’s book if the ebook was enhanced — and I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now — even if the ebook’s discounted price was 75% of the pbooks price.

My point is this: Certain books lend themselves to tandeming and can command a high price for the tandem. I don’t think fiction can command that high tandem price, but a book like The Loss of American Virtue could if the ebook were enhanced because the enhancements would flesh out and put in historical context the content of the primary text. Something to further think about.

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