One of the worst-kept secrets in my household is the fact that I buy multiple copies of the same book. For myself. I am not alone in this habit, but I’ve noticed a new twist on an old concept. Last week, I observed a discussion among readers: the importance of purchasing comfort reads to store on digital readers.
Make the reader happy, and that reader will buy more books.
These readers weren’t looking for free digital copies of books they’d already purchased. No, they were discussing second or third purchases of favorite books. This time, the discussion focused on the quest to build a digital library of old favorites. To paraphrase: “I can have all my comfort reads with me all the time.”
If I understand industry parlance, these are “additive sales”.
And for authors and publishers, they are very good indeed.
So a couple things. First, of course, is availability. Authors and publishers surely know what books fall into the comfort read/multiple purchase category. They know what catalog titles continue to sell, year after year, decade after decade. They know what books readers love so much, they take the time to write and gush. They know (I hope!) what books are being discussed on blogs, forums, and listservs (hint: this would be a lovely book to have with me as I wander the world…alas, it is not available).
Here’s another indicator, though it falls into the unscientific category. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did an article on digital piracy, opening with the fact that author Ursula LeGuin had discovered that a book of hers, published in 1969, had been pirated. Rather than noting that this indicated a level of reader demand. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how often this book was downloaded and why? Were the “pirates” fans of the book, owners of another copy? Or were they just random scavengers on the Internet, grabbing all the free stuff they can…with no intent to read?
My guess is there’s a mix of reasons, but the first, the fans who had no ability to purchase a legal copy of the book, is the most compelling to me. There is much anecdotal evidence of readers doing this. It’s a book from 1969. Weeks later, there is still no Kindle edition of The Left Hand of Darkness (but if you look even a little, oh, those pirated versions are there!).
Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than making the effort to buy a book, only to discover the book is not available. It’s frustrating when you go to a physical bookstore, it’s frustrating when you discover the book you want is out-of-print (or “temporarily unavailable”), it’s frustrating when you go to buy the book, but a digital edition doesn’t exist. Especially when you just want to get your hands on a comfort read.
A second thought. Just as we move our physical libraries from home to home (to garage!) over the course of our lifetimes, maybe moving once, twice, five, a dozen times, we are moving our digital libraries from device to device. It is not inconceivable to estimate at least a dozen device moves for some people.
As with paper books, some books will be archived or even deleted (the digital equivalent of donating a book to charity — since we have no other way to pass on ebooks when we’re done with them). But those comfort reads? They will shift from reader to reader, taking up a relatively small amount of space. They will be there during waits in the emergency room. When a plane is stuck on the tarmac. In the middle of the night when a baby decides sleep is optional. When days are just too much and that old favorite read is what gets you through.
Of course, this means the consumer must be capable of porting her books from device to device without hassle. It means that publishers need to be proactive about ensuring readers know any and all limitations imposed on their purchases (Amazon says these limitations rest squarely on the shoulders of publishers; if these limitations are imposed, the consumer needs to know what they are). It doesn’t preclude the idea that this consumer, over time, will purchase additional copies of the same ebook, for many reasons. Unlimited portability of a legal purchase and additive purchases are not mutually exclusive concepts.
Or, it’s about the reader. It’s all about the reader. Make the reader happy, and that reader will buy more books. Make the reader unhappy…