BitLit has announced a pilot program with publisher HarperCollins in which owners of selected paper editions of HarperCollins books can purchase and download low-cost ebook versions of those titles. The cost of the ebooks ranges from $1.99 to $2.99. At the start, the program offers only six HarperCollins titles, but new books are planned to be added to the program, initially at one per week.
Obviously, this is a just a very small pilot program, but it’s an interesting development. HarperCollins is the first of the “Big Five” publishers (a group including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) to sign up for what BitLit calls its “ebook bundling” program — it’s really more of an ebook upgrade program.
The Big Five generally have been somewhat chary of engaging with ebook retailers and subscription services: though HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, for example, have partnered with the Oyster and Scribd subscription services, the deal is only for books in their backlists. Furthermore, none of the five are currently participating in Amazon’s new subscription-based Kindle Unlimited program (for more on that, see “FunBITS: Kindle Unlimited Is Pretty Limited,” 1 August 2014).
In any case, BitLit offers an unusual proposition that distinguishes it from subscription services: rather than providing an all-you-can-read book buffet for a monthly subscription price, BitLit targets readers who want ebook copies of books that they already own in paper. And, while it’s true that Amazon has created a program similar to BitLit’s, called Kindle MatchBook, MatchBook applies only to paper books that customers have purchased through Amazon. Kindle Matchbook is perhaps most attractive when buying a physical book as a gift; you can keep the ebook for yourself.
Unlike Kindle MatchBook, readers can get digital versions of their paper books regardless of where or when they originally purchased those books. The BitLit program works like this: you write your name on the copyright page of your paper book by hand and then take a photo of that page with the BitLit app on your smartphone (versions of the app exist for both iOS and Android). Once BitLit verifies your paper book, you receive an email with download links for the ebook.
BitLit (and to a lesser extent, Kindle MatchBook) raises an important question: Why would anyone want to buy a book that they already own? Is that a market worth pursuing?
As a likely member of that target market, I’m intrigued. I love my paper books, but I love my ebooks, too, and I can imagine wanting ebook versions of many titles that I own in paper — heck, I already have a fair number of such duplicates! Sometimes I got the duplicates to complete a book series that I owned half in paper and half digitally. But I’ve never done it for a series I owned completely in paper. If I could cheaply fill out my digital collection to include other series I own in paper, it would scratch a small, but very real itch for this bibliophile. It would also be nice to have ebook copies of those few paper books I return to regularly until their covers have begun to fall off.
The ebook upgrade idea makes some sense for publishers, too: the opportunity to sell the same book twice to the same customer, even if only for a fraction of the original retail price, is compelling. But it all depends on whether there are enough people like me to make it more than just a tiny niche market, served, if at all, only as an afterthought. For me, a successful ebook upgrade program would have to go deep into a publisher’s backlist, and cover a broad range of titles. I have no idea if that makes good business sense.
It’s early days yet. BitLit’s ebook upgrade concept is intriguing, and much more enticing to someone like me than “all you can read by no one you ever heard of” book subscription services like Kindle Unlimited. Can such a concept thrive? Maybe we’ll have a chance to find out if the BitLit pilot with HarperCollins expands significantly beyond the tiny handful of titles it currently offers.