Buy One Book, Get One Free

With the Amazon Kindle capturing more of the reading market, is there a future for traditional books? Peter Osnos suggests that publishers start selling paper and digital books together, so readers can enjoy the best of both worlds.

05.19.09 5:46 AM ET

In elections, it is (usually) safe to project from expert exit polling what the final results will be. Something like that is happening with the still-early numbers for the sales and use of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. It looks like a winner. Since its launch in November 2007, and despite being out of stock for long stretches, about a million units of the two versions have been sold, according to the best estimates I’ve seen, barely more than a dent in the gadget marketplace. Yet, I am consistently surprised at how many people I encounter who are enthusiastic Kindle users. At a board dinner of the International Center for Journalists last week, easily one-third of the 85 people there raised their hands when the question was posed, although many fewer said they used it for newspapers and magazines. With prices starting at $359, Kindles are expensive, even if Amazon is deliberately underpricing most books, and my anecdotal survey supports the conclusion that Kindle readers tend to be older and find it especially useful for travel.

Buy a printed hardcover or paperback book for, say, $25 and then you could activate it as a digital file or downloadable audio. Ergo, the book becomes a multiplatform object transferable wherever the reader wants to go.

At the recent launch of the large-screen Kindle DX, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose numbers about Kindle matters are expansive rather than precise, said that Kindle sales are now 35 percent of the total when there are both Kindle and print editions available, which is much higher than his earlier estimates. Michael Cader, who through his daily blog Publishers Lunch is both a detailed chronicler of Kindle’s progress and a beady-eyed skeptic, reported after checking “a wide variety of publishers” that “in many cases, the data has confirmed the general range of Amazon’s report.” His findings also prompt the conclusion that the new free Kindle iPhone application, which allows use of books on both devices, is a major factor in sales growth.

Let’s stipulate, therefore, that the Kindle and the Sony Reader, a very good alternative (but with fewer available titles and functional doodads like wireless downloading), are on their way to being a significant factor in books, along with the Apple and BlackBerry applications and PDFs available from a variety of outlets. So what comes next for e-books? There are two ways to look at the issue, from the perspectives of readers and of publishers, authors, and booksellers.

For readers, the ideal development would be to make books portable. In this scenario, you would buy a printed hardcover or paperback book for, say, $25 and could then activate it as a digital file or downloadable audio from an embedded password. Ergo, the book becomes a multiplatform object transferable wherever the reader wants to go. For example, the new Kindle “Whispernet” feature allows you to go back and forth to the iPhone at the same place in the text. Once print-on-demand machines reach a stage of widespread availability, readers could start by buying a code for the digital file at a bookstore and decide later whether to keep the book around in its print version also. At least one publisher is experimenting with this concept, offering an e-book add-on for a few dollars over the cost of the book alone. Clearly consumers would prefer if the book in all its formats were sold at a single price for the bundle.

For the publishers, authors, and booksellers, the scenario as I’ve envisioned it above would doubtless be considered, at least initially, as a terrible idea. Each format for a book now comes with a separate pricing and royalty structure and it would be damnably hard to come up with a model that would assure revenue splits that would satisfy everyone in the chain from author to retailer. There was a glimpse of how contentious a problem this would be when Amazon said the Kindle 2 had a digital or mechanical voice that would read books out loud, a feature known as text-to-speech. The Author’s Guild, among others, protested that the loss, in effect, of audio rights was a serious challenge, and the feature was modified to require specific authorization of its use. So, as it now stands, you can buy a book in many different ways—hardcover or paperback, e-books, audio, and large print—but each version is separate with, in principle, its own audience and its business margins. In his analysis of the Kindle sales patterns, Cader of Publishers Lunch said it is not clear whether these are additional readers for the books or the same people who would have bought the print version (for which they invariably paid a higher price). The related question is whether making books portable by formats would increase readership or just divide the existing numbers in a different and potentially less profitable way.

The capacity to make books available in multiple versions is now widely accepted and technologically no big deal. But it will be some time—in today’s world that might turn out to be only a few years—before a business model acceptable to everyone gives readers the considerable convenience of having books they own convertible into all the formats that fit their needs and schedules. That will happen though, and in the meantime, Kindle and the competing digital devices, those already out there and the ones in development, are clearly making headway. And anything that enables reading earns my vote.

Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House, and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post.