Yesterday, I got an email from Amazon. It read:
Dear Steve Skojec,
We thought you’d like to know that eligible songs from 3 CDs you have purchased from Amazon are being added to your Cloud Player library. This means that high-quality MP3 versions of these songs are available for you to play or download from Cloud Player for FREE. You can find your songs in the “Purchased” playlist.
In addition, we’re excited to announce AutoRip. Now when you buy any CD with the logo, the MP3 version of that album will instantly be delivered to your Amazon Cloud Player library for FREE.
I don’t know if I squealed in excitement like a girl, but I probably should have. This is a major development in intellectual property distribution, and it will undoubtedly influence any number of other decisions in the ongoing debate over who owns content, and in what form.
It doesn’t matter whether you buy a CD or a digital version of music, you bought the music. Having Amazon recognize this and ensure that you have access to both after purchasing the physical medium is a logical step. First, because it’s likely to curtail piracy. Think about it: have you ever lost or damaged a CD you bought and downloaded the album illegally to replace it, figuring that you already owned it? Don’t lie.
Secondly, it’s undoubtedly a strategic move to shift more content in the direction of digital and away from physical media as painlessly as possible. This will win over many of Amazon’s customers who like having actual CDs of their favorite albums on their shelves and aren’t yet ready to move to digital. Many of those people probably still buy physical albums out of habit, or even distrust of new technology. Once they become familiar with the ease and convenience of non-physical media, any number of those individuals may make begin making future purposes of digital media alone, thus alleviating shipping costs for Amazon, reducing overhead and fulfillment center staffing, and increasing profit margins.
This needs to happen with books. You may recall that I wrote something a while back about this very topic, albeit from a different angle. My proposal was intended to give print an extended lifespan by providing free ebook copies of any work to a person buying the hardcover. I wrote:
I got a Kindle Touch for Father’s Day, and I absolutely love it. The compact size, the convenience, the built-in book light in my case, the ability to store hundreds (or thousands) of books all on one tiny device – all of it is very appealing to me. Since I got it, I haven’t picked up one of the many, many physical books that are piled around my house.
At the same time, I wouldn’t dream of replacing them. Books that are worth owning are worth displaying, and if I read a good ebook I want a physical copy on my shelf. I want to know that when the EMP strike comes that will take out the American power grid and all of our devices, I can still read. Books are a status symbol. Books should be seen by the people who visit your office or your home. There’s nothing like the smell, feel, and heft of a book. When you have your head buried in the pages, everyone else gets an advertisement about what’s inside by looking at the cover.
But they say the print industry is dying, and the sales numbers I linked to are hinting that this is more than anecdotal. So here’s my proposal to book publishers:
With every physical copy of hardcover book you sell, package a free copy of the ebook as well.
That’s it. Simple. No magic there. It doesn’t cost anything to distribute an ebook. You can charge more for a hardcover. But if you’re like me, you want the hardcover on your shelf or for your lazy afternoon Sunday reading, and you want the ebook for the plane, the train, and the trip to the beach. I want to know that if I’ve purchased a book, I can read it in whatever format I damn well please. That doesn’t mean I think I should get a free hardcover if I buy an ebook; I understand that there’s a cost to produce something and that it needs to be covered. But if every hardcover came with an ebook version free of charge, I guarantee it would shore up the print industry in a real and immediate way.
Interestingly, my opinion on physical books is beginning to change. Now that I’ve had a Kindle for half a year (and with a recent upgrade to the new Kindle Paperwhite, I’m moving even faster in this direction) I am losing the impetus I had to keep buying physical copies of books just so I can display them on my shelves. It starts feeling like a waste of space because I now absolutely prefer, every time, to read on my Kindle. That said, I still like to display the cover art, be able to hand someone a copy (I’m no fan of DRM – I want to be able to loan books I own to anyone, even if they are in electronic format) and to know that if the power goes out, S.M. Stirling-style, I still have a library of good reads at my disposal. There’s a real value to physical books in a way that there isn’t to CDs. CDs still need a power source to be used. Paper books will be good even after the bomb.
But I do believe that regardless of whether print is doomed or you want to keep it alive, the idea Amazon is applying to music simply has to also be applied to books. The time has come. And honestly, if you give me an ebook with the hardcover, I’m probably going to spend the extra dough on the hardcover more often than not, because I’M GETTING TWO THINGS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. Decision: made.
I doubt the product strategists at Amazon are reading this, and if they are, they probably already know this is an inevitability. So get to it! Let’s make it happen. And if that just means that people transition away from print (thus fulfilling the profit motives I intuited above) and toward digital, well, that’s a consequence I’m prepared to deal with. There will always be a market for paper books, even if it’s small. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.