The Rules Of Harkaway Club: everything I think I know about ebooks, but probably don't
You broke it, you bought it.
There is nothing more irritating to me than someone who pokes holes in an idea and then refuses to supply solutions. Having posted on the awfulness of the DE Act and the inutility of DRM, I think it's incumbent upon me to start making some positive suggestions. So let's assume that someone insane gave me a publishing house to play with: if I had my druthers, and the numbers could be made to work, here's how it would go.
First Rule of Harkaway Club: Make As Much Content Available As You Possibly Can
One of the major points of digital is instant gratification. When I am in ebook buying mode, I do not want to hear excuses. "You haven't digitised it yet? Why not? You're holding it back because you want to increase hardback sales? You're a crazy person and you are IN MY WAY!!!"
Yes. It is unattractive and irrational. That's fine, so long as that piranha hunger is urging people to buy books. In fact, it's ideal. I had flu earlier this year, and I sucked down the entire Charlie Huston urban vampire corpus (secretly believing that my flu might actually be vampire flu. I practiced my death-whisper of "good eeeeevening" quite a lot. Mrs Harkaway is a very tolerant woman).
Perfect ereader experience: hear about, buy, read; want more, give money, get more, want more, give money, get more, want more, give money, get more. Repeat process ad infinitum; everyone happy.
What you don't want is for the ebook shopping experience to be frustrating. "Your Search Has Found (0) results..." is very bad. Why? Because as soon as that happens, all I have to do is turn my browser to a search engine and I can get the whole thing free of charge in a few minutes.
Second Rule of Harkaway Club: Price Wisely, Do Not Mess Around
Recognise this: a straight port of the text with the errors and botches I see in many ebooks at the moment is the equivalent of a poorly-produced glue-binding pulp paperback. Customers quite accurately perceive it as a lesser entity when they compare it with a hardback book. They are not impressed when they find it is priced at the same level. However much you want to preserve the value of books, there's no point in doing this. Why? Because if they sense for a moment that you are not playing fair, they will also not play fair, and in this case 'not playing fair' means running off to the torrent sites, and there is a limit to the number of chances they will offer you before that becomes what they do first.
So I'd say there are three logical pricing levels for three distinct products:
1. The All Singing, All Dancing Digital Edition
Be it an app, or be it a file which works within a framework like iBooks, this is the hardback equivalent and you can price it at the (actual, not notional) hardback price - a bit less than £15, say, but more than £10 - and release it at the same time. You could even put it out slightly before and generate some digital buzz to help the paper along. It might not be a crisis if the actual HB gets steeply discounted and ends up at a lower price, so long as this product is really good and the price on it is below the price printed on the cover of the HB edition. It comes with things like background info, author interviews, Layar layers, synchronised audio, a photo album, whatever works. Enhanced Editions' sumptuous version of The Death Of Bunny Munro is the state of the art right now, but even that is just the beginning of what you could (should?) be looking at.
That said, be a little cautious. I'm not a huge fan of the Vook concept (not yet, anyway); I think video production is harder than it looks, and more expensive than one might wish. There are nimbler, more creative possibilities which don't require the reader to adapt to a new concept in crossover media. And of course, video files mean longer download times.
2. The Goldilocks Edition
Nicely presented, with some of the features of the first edition, but not all - say, you get the audio but it isn't synched to the text. The key thing is that it's a decent edition but leaves you slightly wishing you had the more expensive one. To go out at the same time as the paperback at a comparable price.
3. The Vanilla Edition
Just the text, well presented, sold at a very low price. For release to the Long Tail - use this when the book has basically stopped selling, but you want to increase the author's profile. Obviously, you have the option of releasing this free - which some people have found is an effective way of selling paper copies. It might even help sales of the higher grade digital editions, you won't know until you try. Or you could go completely nuts and turn the whole thing on its head. I can see you staring at me in horror, but we won't know until someone tries it with a mainstream book: what would happen if you released this edition before the hardback?
Note carefully how many ebooks presently on sale at hardback prices do not make the grade as tier 3. That is not going to work out well if we keep doing it. Our customers are, by definition, not stupid.
With all these editions, there are opportunities to be very clever, and opportunities to drop the ball.
Third Rule of Harkaway Club: No One Wants To Pay Twice - And That's Okay
There's a natural resistance to paying for the same product twice, and this is perhaps the underlying shift in perception which is taking place with regard to books and ebooks - and actually to consumer media in general. Time was, you bought the object. Now, you buy access to the information. You don't then expect to pay for it again just because you want to use it in another setting.
So, depending on how the numbers work out: can we bundle digital editions with paper? Can we sell the hardback packaged with the vanilla edition free of charge? Can we give substantial discounts on the paper edition to anyone who has bought either of the first two digital ones?
If these things can be done, they have a rather attractive consequence: they introduce the readership directly to my notional publishing empire which means I get an idea of who is reading what. That could turn out to be insanely useful data when it comes to deciding what new books I'll publish next year. It also means I can sell my customers things I have in the same vein, and hook them into my thriving online social community. Even if I'm not making an appreciable profit on the second copy they buy - maybe even if I'm making a notional loss - I'm getting the opportunity to sell them something else.
Take a look at the Ether iPhone application. It's interesting for itself, of course, and the decision to restrict what Ether does to text-only makes a degree of sense to me. Ether has a very clear, very defined function and a logical premise ("snacking" on story on the move) and I rather like it.
What surprises me, though - and maybe it's coming - is the lack of a community structure around it. Combine Ether with something like the Amazon reviewing system or GoodReads, and you have a situation where people can recommend books to one another, discuss what they like, even buy them for each other. You can have a Barnes & Noble Nook style 'lending' culminating in an option to buy. You can create a rewards system for reviews, recommendations, and purchases. The ebook world is the crustacean of your choice.
Make something like that available, and hook people into it, and you've got an audience to play to.
And before all the booksellers in the room throw up their hands in horror... there's no reason why you can't do these things too. In-store wireless, a polite request that it not be used to buy books from other sources, some kind of barcode or RFID system so that a customer can point at a paper book and see the digital versions... You have options too, and they're quite exciting.
Before this long post becomes titanic, I'm going to stop. As ever, feel free to call me a twerp below...
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