About a decade ago one of my bosses proposed the idea of giving buyers of any of our books a free ebook along with the hard copy, but it was suggested more as a joke than anything else. But is it a joke? Why not include the ebook edition with any book purchase? After all someone who has just bought a hardback or paperback edition of one of your books is not likely to be a customer for another copy in whatever format, so you’d not really be losing a sale; you’d be providing a service to your customers. You could probably justify a small price increase on that basis too! Lots of people (myself being the one I mainly have in mind here) will happily read a book partially in print and partially as an ebook if they have access to both formats. So having both as one purchase could be an attractive benefit: it’s hard to read a hefty hardback in a swaying subway car; the iPhone becomes much handier vehicle.

I suppose some people could buy a hardback for their mother’s birthday and keep the ebook for themselves. But this isn’t really anything new: one of the commonest situations with books is that you read your copy and then pass it on to someone else urging them to read it too. (You buy the right to give it away when you buy a p-book — but not when you “buy” an ebook.) Are we really so hung up on the possibility that our customers might indulge in low-level birthday gifting fraud, or that having lost their copy of one our books they might not be forced into buying another because we had given them an extra (digital) copy already? No doubt both things will happen but probably not a lot. Better sharing, in any case, will eventually lead to extra sales: the more there are who like a book, the more there are to tell others about the discovery. Publishers have been doing this sort of thing with textbooks for years: a code printed in the book gives the purchaser access to supplementary material, which can only be accessed by one person. (Of course college textbooks now show every sign of disappearing down that electronic rabbit hole — maybe textbook publishers will have to issue a code which will allow their ebook customers to get a hardback copy too!) Focussing on the downside, means not focussing on sales expansion.

Ebook sales appear to have stabilized (at least for the moment) at about 20%. The days when we all worried about readers abandoning print altogether have passed, and perhaps we should spend a few moments looking at the overall picture. I’m not suggesting publishers should just kiss goodbye to the ebook sale. If a customer wants to buy an ebook, they should of course still be able to buy an ebook. If they want a physical book only, maybe we should allow that too. Lots of periodical subscriptions nowadays offer you three options; digital access for $X; print-only for $X + $Y; and both print and digital for $X + $2Y or something like that. What would be so crazy about pricing books along similar lines? You might envisage the ebook costing $15, the physical book costing $20, and both together costing $21.

One problem: royalties. If the ebook were to be given away for free the author would obviously not be getting any royalty. Contracts will specify a discount level below which royalties will not be payable, and in my pricing example about the ebook “given away” for $1 with the print book the author would get no royalty for the ebook, though a royalty could be paid on $21 rather than $20 to give some compensation. But if the ebook sale would never have taken place anyway — because a person who has bought a p-book is not really a potential customer for an ebook — to what extent is the author suffering? And of course if this sales model were to be accepted, contracts for new books would rapidly be negotiated to take account of the change. If a publisher gives away books at an event, or even if they put a table on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway and gave people books, no royalties would be payable. The hope and idea is that promotion will increase sales not replace them. Similarly here.