I grew up in a rural area with not much to offer an imaginative kid who’d much rather live in London—and, though my parents were very educated, the town I lived in couldn’t support a bookstore. Fortunately, our house was close to the public library, where I basically lived until I was 15, at which point they hired me as a page after school and on weekends.
Holding a new and different book in my room or at the base of the willow tree where I liked to read in summer was a nearly sacred feeling for me. Books were views into worlds I wanted to partake in—worlds where people spoke other languages, had other ways of living, and didn’t have to put up with boys stealing their calculators before chem class and dismantling them. Decades later, I moved from physical books to e-books, which I adopted enthusiastically to cut down on the sheer mass of books in my apartment and avoid lugging around the heavy sagas I love to lose myself in while traveling.
Recently, though, I’ve been part of the return-to-print trend demonstrated by the 3.3% rise of print unit sales in 2016, reported earlier this year by NPD BookScan. The feeling of holding the book, which mattered so much to me as a kid, was just too powerful to let go. I also need to curl up before bed with a long, immersive story—and screen glare tends to affect my sleep thereafter. The soft yellowish invitation of a page, as opposed to the harsh blue glare of a screen, seems more welcoming and soothing.
But I’ve just started a new consulting gig that has me commuting from Staten Island to Manhattan. And I’m not as young as I was—I don’t want to throw my back out carrying Bleak House around, and I’d alike to be able to adjust print size.
In addition, I spend my lunchtime walking around the city, shaking off sedentary desk life. So I’m thinking about different ways of reading, and one possible option was to combine print and digital books. Unfortunately, as Bill Rosenblatt mentions in his blog post, “The Failure of Print and eBook Bundling,” publishers are not exactly leaping to bundle e-books with print titles. And that has to do with Amazon.
Since the inception of the Kindle, publishers have agonized over e-book pricing. When e-book prices from the major publishers reverted back to the agency model, Amazon retaliated by heavily discounting the paperback versions. Thanks to the first-sale doctrine, which applies to physical products, Amazon has the right to set any price it likes on titles it’s purchased from publishers. By positioning print books as a sort of loss leader—the very way they positioned e-books to gain adoption in 2007—Amazon made it more likely that consumers choose physical over digital books.
If book publishers offered their e-books as “sidecar” products to the print versions, they would have to price the e-books at a far lower price than they are now, which would cannibalize their standalone e-book sales. With little financial incentive, publishers have not pushed bundling. With their lower costs, e-books give publishers margin in ways that physical products can’t, and publishers are enormously reluctant to cede ground on that margin—especially given that retailers in the past have instituted processes such as returns and heavy distribution discounts on inventory.
The agency model was a line in the sand; publishers informed trading partners that the days of chipping into their margins were over—which is, in itself, laudable. But in any skirmish between trading partners, it’s the consumer who pays the price. And the consumer is Amazon’s ruthless focus.
What the consumer seems to want, in terms of bundling, is an e-book–audio package. Almost since Amazon bought Audible in 2008, it has been exploring ways to pair Audible files with Kindle books. By 2013 the technology was in place, and Amazon began offering consumers the option of a Kindle-Audible bundle. Because it’s Amazon, we can’t get sales figures on these packages, but because Audible has an enormous catalogue and solid relationships with the Big Five publishers, the bundle offering is fairly widespread on the site.
This seems to be logical. You’re already reading your book on your device. If you’re driving or walking around, you obviously can’t hold text in front of your face, so just connect the device with an audio outlet (Bluetooth speaker, headphones), and pick up where you left off.
Perhaps, then, the answer for me is to curl up in bed with an audiobook.