Happy Union of Print and E-book

Last December, The Scholarly Kitchen’s Joseph Esposito and O’Reilly Media’s Joe Wikert conducted a survey about people’s reading habits. This was an online survey, announced on the websites of Scholarly Kitchen, O’Reilly, and Forbes. So while the total number of around 500 respondents is rather small, we can reasonably assume it’s not biased towards technophobic luddites. With that in mind, the newly released survey results (with Esposito’s comments) are quite surprising:

  • Although respondents are twice as likely to buy books online as at brick & mortar stores, the latter are still nearly as important as online stores for discovering books (32% vs 39%). “The challenge to traditional publishers is not the switch from print to digital books but the loss of the physical retail discovery channels, which online bookselling, whether of print or ebooks, makes possible.”

  • When it comes to book discovery through publications, print falls further behind but remains significant, at 22% versus 27% for online publications and 14% for social networks such as GoodReads. “What would have happened if The New York Times Book Review […] had a vigorous plan to dominate the online conversation about books as it historically had done in the print world?”

  • Print is the preferred medium for books themselves, at 40% versus 26% for e-books and 37% for a combination of both. “While the share of ebooks is growing, print continues to play a large role in this industry, and it would play even a bigger one if anyone could figure out how to make money operating a physical bookstore.”

Truly, print books are alive and well, although customers really seem to prefer a mix of online and offline reading. Nicholas Carr and Michael Clarke have suggested how publishers and retailers could profitably exploit this mix: emulate record companies who bundle free digital recordings with their LPs! With a single purchase at the same price, buyers get to enjoy their music on whatever device they wish, along with a big beautiful LP cover.

Accordingly, each print book would come bundled with its electronic edition – a happy union of digital convenience and tactile pleasure. The tricky question is how to protect that e-book from unauthorized redistribution. As Carr points out, books are normally sold unsealed, so any printed download code could easily be obtained without buying the book. Moreover, the e-book would have to use a standard format without DRM so as to fight Amazon’s Kindle monopoly without otherwise limiting the audience, and that implies trivial copying over the Internet.

That, however, puts the book publishers in no different position than the music industry – which eventually just gave up and dropped all DRM, relying on low prices and customers’ goodwill instead. The same trend is evident in book publishing; O’Reilly itself does not use DRM protection. And indeed, delivering a nice print book along with each e-book would be just the thing to generate goodwill and the feeling you’re getting something for your money. This wouldn’t be the default for all books and buyers, but it should help retain an upmarket audience, along with the B&M stores that are so valuable for book discovery.

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