After several years of stellar growth (albeit from a low base) the eBook boom was widely heralded as having hit the buffers in 2013. In the relatively mature market of the US, eBook market share and revenue have stalled at 30% and 15% respectively, according to a BISG report. Meanwhile in the UK, a recent report published by the communications regulator Ofcom and Kantar Media suggested that while 13% of the population consumed eBooks in some shape or form between March and May 2013. This represented no change on the figures on its previous survey, which covered November 2012 to January 2013, though Ofcom/Kantar did report a small drop in eBook downloading activity from 13% of the UK population (Nov-12 – Jan-13) to to 11% (Mar-May-13).
It’s currently too early to tell whether this apparent plateau represents a blip, seasonality or is part of a longer trend, but already there are signs that retailers and publishers are taking action designed to 'shock' the eBook market back into growth. So far one of these has taken the form of proposed solutions to a problem that has dogged eBooks since they first became a consumer proposition: bundling.
Bundling, otherwise known as the process by which a license to download an eBook is included in the sale price of a print book, has until now been a sales strategy that retailers and publishers seemed keen to evade. While enthusiasts saw it as the ideal fillip to get consumers to buy more books, critics saw the automatic bundling of physical and digital formats as destructive to the value of the eBook and difficult to implement or police.
Bundling has, of course, been capably implemented by a handful of smaller publishers for some time, such eg Osprey Group’s Angry Robot. Now, however, it seems like major publishers are interested. The news that HarperCollins had teamed up with Foyles to offer print and eBook bundles on selected titles follows perhaps the biggest bundling story of all, Amazon MatchBook (even though it isn’t technically a bundle for tax reasons). This service, which launched in the US in October, offers Amazon customers the chance to download eBooks of the physical books they have already bought from Amazon for $2.99 or less. Matchbook launched with the support of publishers such as HarperCollins, Macmillan and Wiley and a choice of 70,000 titles which can be ‘matched’ across formats.
What all of these bundling initiatives do seem to have in common is a growing realisation among publishers that a sale is a sale. In particular, the adoption of bundling as a sales promotion tactic on new frontlist titles, suggests that publishers think of a bundle as something that offers sufficient added value to customers to persuade them to make a purchase. Amazon’s Matchbook proposition is different from this in that most of its catalogue is backlist. But from a trade publisher’s point of view every ‘match’ represents free money. Writing on Digital Book World around the time MatchBook was first announced David Wilk projected a net revenue of $0.86 to publishers from every $2.99 match sale. This might seem like a relatively small amount of money per download, but given that every ‘match’ represents an upsale to a customer who has already bought the book at a higher price, it’s a good deal for a publisher.
Just as importantly though, if you’re a publisher under pressure to lift eBook sales in a pretty static market, the ‘matches’ a backlist-focused bundling service delivers represent sales without incurring marketing or promotion costs.
When he wrote his blog post about the possibilities of Matchbook, Wilk may very well have put his finger on why bundling has so suddenly become popular. According to Wilk, “Bundling the MatchBook way is profoundly conservative, supporting the primacy of the printed book over ebook”. Even just a year ago, when projections indicated that eBooks would soon account for over 50% of the market, it didn’t make any sense for publishers to consider giving the format of the future away for free as a way of getting more people to buy the legacy format. Now, as we face a future in which print looks likely to stay the majority format for a few more years at least, bundling looks more attractive. If it can indeed increase sales conversion on the frontlist and the profitability of the backlist at the same time, then why shouldn’t a publisher want to engage with bundling?