Amazon’s Kindle MatchBook is Brilliant

September 3, 2013 by Thad McIlroy

O.K., the blog title is hyperbole. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was brilliant. Bundling print and digital books is an idea that’s been floating around. But it’s exciting to see Amazon put its heft behind the concept. Now we can declare bundling as a growing part of how we transact publishing. Newspapers and magazines have given the plan a good old college try. Each is finding some success. Are books different?

Making the comparison between the print and the digital versions of daily papers, broad-circulation magazines and books is valuable, but the value proposition differs. Something to do with the currency of news, the design value of magazines and the density of books.

It was my mistake to think that the bundling initiative would come from large publishers and then spread like wildfire. More fool I. When I Google “bundle ebook and print book -amazon” I find that only a handful of small presses currently offer print+e bundling, for example De Gruyter, which adds digital for a 40% premium over print. Waiting for the big publishers could have taken forever.

Courtesy "Just Something I Made"

Courtesy “Just Something I Made”

My other mistake was failing to consider bundling digital with books already purchased. That’s Amazon’s masterstroke. Publishers don’t know their customers by name (as has been observed with painful frequency). Amazon knows everything its customers have ever purchased.

Yes, when you look behind the curtains at Amazon’s announcement you learn that only 10,000 titles are in the initial program. This means nothing. Amazon has proven that when it finds a way to stuff a little more cash into author’s pockets the program will succeed. Remember that Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (as it was then called) launched with a library of 8,949 books (typical Amazon, no current program data is available). Kindle Singles launched with nine titles and now features over 400. Larger publishers will surely drag their feet on joining this program. Until they hear from some of their more influential authors who demand that they do so.

Besides noting that one or more of the big five publishers could have long ago found a way to match purchases of print and ebooks there’s another guilty scallywag over in the corner, left paw covering its eyes: Barnes & Noble. B&N also made an announcement today — it’s launching the distribution of college newspapers on the Nook. Fine. Good idea. I’m all for it. But it doesn’t even create a spark to light a flame that could distract us from Amazon’s MatchBook. And that saddens me.

There’s never been any mileage in the argument that print is better than digital or the opposite. Each offers unique advantages. What better way to resolve the debate than to package both, discounting the version that costs the least to “manufacture” (i.e. digital, which, because of conversion costs, is not quite free) and allow readers to enjoy the strengths of both.

September 4, 2013: I disagree, but respect Melville House Duntin Kurtz’s perspective: “Amazon to begin bundling print and digital books, to the detriment of both.

September 6, 2013: According to Publishers Weekly the larger publishers are mostly unenthused. Sigh.

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  • Michael W. Perry

    Sep 4th, 2013 : 3:24 PM

    There are downsides to MatchBook, particularly for more established publishers. Signing up means those who bought books from Amazon ten years ago can now get digital version and get rid of the printed version in a way that could mean the publisher loses a sale. Amazon should have had a ‘Not for past sales’ option. It’d retain the chief advantage of this offer. Offering a discount on ebooks will encourage sales of the printed version. That’s why I signed up.

    The other hitch is their requirement that MatchBook titles be discounted at least 50%. For pricey ebooks, that might be acceptable. Instead of getting $20, the publisher will get $10, which is still quite a bit. But for ebooks that are already heavily discounted, that steep a discount cuts what is already very little into even less. A $2.99 ebook (under $2.10 in royalty) will have to be sold for a paltry $0.99 making the royalty payment under 70 cents. It’s hardly worth signing up for that. Customers might be happier if lots of publishers sign up for a 20% discount rather than have just a few sign up for a 50% one.

    And that’s not touching on Amazon’s biggest problem, practices that mean readers who use MatchBook will almost certainly come away disappointed with their first ebooks. I just released a picture-rich ebook about my experience caring for hospitalized children with cancer. Each chapter opens with a picture, typically a stock photo of a cute hospitalized child, that lends reality to that chapter. (“These are real kids I’m talking about.”) I found that idea worked so well, I went back and revised the print version of it and a companion book on hospital embarrassment to include black-and-white pictures.

    Apple had no problem accepting large, high-quality, barely compressed images and iBooks displays them marvelously. It’d cost me a fortune to print four-color books that look as beautiful. I’m delighted by the result.

    With Amazon, the results were more mixed. Apple only limited the size of internal images to 3 megs. Amazon insists that each must be under 127K. For some of those pictures, I had to crop and compress the daylights out of them to get them under that limit. The result is about what I suspected. On some Kindle platforms, the result is acceptable. On others, it is dreadful, tiny pictures with about one in ten squashed vertically. Unless they view it on an iPad’s Kindle app, the Amazon version isn’t going to turn many people into fans of ebooks.

    Strangely, I was quite impressed with just how well Amazon’s CreativeSpace handled those same pictures in the print version. Amazon not only warned me when I did my upload that some pictures needed better resolution (300 dpi), the result, once I corrected those photos, was most impressive. The pictures on ordinary paper look almost as good as those specially printed on photo paper and inserted into traditionally printed books. Bad color pictures in Kindle books, good b&w in print books.Sometimes Amazon makes no sense. I thought Amazon was pushing ebooks.

    Compounding the insult, Amazon charges me a fee to download each ebook to a customer while Apple doesn’t even though their files are larger. If I had my druthers, I’d send a clear message to readers that the iPad version is preferred by pricing it $1 lower. About half that fee would be justified by that ridiculous download fee. The other half by the spotty quality issues.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  • Thad McIlroy

    Sep 4th, 2013 : 9:04 PM

    Wow: quite the comment! Thanks for writing. I’ll focus mostly on your remarks about MatchBook:

    – You note that there are circumstances that “could mean the publisher loses a sale.” Sure, that -could- happen. But in most cases when you own a printed version of a book you would never consider subsequently buying the ebook. And a big reason why is that the discounted paperback prices on Amazon are generally very close to ebook prices. I’m convinced that these ebook sales will be largely accretive. The publisher has a chance to get 70% of $2.99 or nothing at all.

    – I agree with you that the mandated 50% reduction from the existing ebook price may sometimes be extreme. But Amazon is generally responsive to issues such as this. If it learns that major publishers are avoiding MatchBook mostly because of this restriction it will likely adjust the percentage.

    – The issues of ebook quality has become ridiculously complex. EPUB 3 (of which Apple has created a variant) and Amazon’s KF8 are “next generation” digital formats that largely address the quality problems you encounter with both EPUB 2 and Amazon Mobi. But format adoption is all over the map in part because E-Ink monochrome e-readers are limited in their display capabilities and partly because the digital resellers are seeking a competitive advantage in specialized formats. It appears that publishers of all stripes are going to have to deal with this mess for some time to come.

  • Vonda Z

    Sep 5th, 2013 : 4:56 AM

    “I agree with you that the mandated 50% reduction from the existing ebook price may sometimes be extreme. But Amazon is generally responsive to issues such as this. If it learns that major publishers are avoiding MatchBook mostly because of this restriction it will likely adjust the percentage.”
    What you have to remember here, is that the real intent behind the program is to get people who would normally just buy the ebook version, to invest more money in a paper version plus a little more than that to get the ebook, too. There are a lot of people who like to have paper copies, but who prefer to read digitally. As one of these people, I end up just buying digital versions. Offering the paper version at regular price plus just a little bit off the digital copy is no incentive to change anything. But seeing that I could have both for just a little more than the paper copy is something people would easily buy into. Amazon knows this and that is why they are asking for this – they know their customers well.
    So when you are an author and you are just looking at what you get in roylaties from the discounted e-book – you are looking at it wrong. You need to see that you are not just getting that little e-book royalty payment – you are also getting a royalty payment on a paper book you likely would not have otherwise sold. It is the combined effect that makes this a good deal for both authors/publishers and readers.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Sep 5th, 2013 : 11:07 PM

    A very good point. I’d not thought through that perspective on buying print. It creates a large incentive for the myriad self-published authors who don’t currently offer print versions of their books to team up with Amazon’s CreateSpace.

  • Toby Green

    Sep 4th, 2013 : 10:52 PM

    If I may say “Finally”! Since 1998, at OECD Publishing, we’ve been offering our readers the choice of print plus e-book or just the e-book for 30% less (which means we don’t offer print-only via our e-bookshop!). So, we’re delighted we can extend this service and choice to those of our readers who prefer to buy through Amazon.

    Toby Green
    OECD Publishing

  • Thad McIlroy

    Sep 4th, 2013 : 10:56 PM

    Kudos on your prescience, Toby.

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