Why don’t they give e-books free with print books?


As people living in the 21st century, we are used to big brands giving out products for free with another product. The best examples would be the toothpastes that come with free toobrushes, body washes that come with free scrubbers, or cigerette packets that come with free funeral services. Ok, the last one may not be likely but you get the point.

This makes us wonder why booksellers aren’t indulging in such offers. After all, e-books cost next to nothing to be created (publishers will raise eyebrows, but we are talking of the readers’ perspective), unlike print books. Why don’t booksellers throw in the e-book version for free or at a low price along with the print book?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Forces that work against book-bundling:

  • If you own a physical copy of a book, you can read and/or sell it. However, unless the book is under a liberal CC license or is in the public domain, you don’t have the right to make copies of the book- physical or digital. You can’t sell or distribute the e-book – not even for free. Copyright laws are like a double edged sword. On one hand, they protect the interest of content creators. On the other, they often create situations where what looks natural to the reader is not possible to do. So just because booksellers are selling the print copies of the book, they can’t create and sell the e-book versions at an arbitrary price.
  • What about when the booksellers have both print and e-copy of the books for sale? This is the case with many modern titles with online retailers like Amazon. What we need to understand is that the print book and e-book are separate products. Hence, authors have separate royalty sharing arrangements with the publishers or distributors for them. Unless the booksellers are ready to take a hit on their profit, they can’t just bundle e-books for free or at a low price. In some countries even the laws might stop them from arbitrarily pricing the e-books low.
  • This leaves the option of striking a deal with publishers and authors. And striking a deal, dear friends, is not an easy thing. It gets even more complicated, because many a time that same entity may not have the rights for print books and e-books. A publisher might only have the print book rights; the author or some other publisher might have e-book rights for the same book. Even if a publisher has the right to both print and e-book, his/her contract with the author may not allow him/her to arbitrarily discount the e-book as he/she might be obliged to pay a certain royalty to the author for each sale.

E-book creation, when one doesn’t exist, is the technical challenge, but compared to the above, it is a minor one. The only question is if there is an economic sense in creating e-book.

Forces that work in favor of book-bundling:

While it is unlikely that you will start getting e-books for free or cheap with print books for all the books any time soon, efforts are underway to make this bundle a reality..

  • Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook ProgramIf you are an Amazon customer who has ever purchased a print book from them, you can buy the Kindle (e-book) version of the same book for a discounted price of $2.99 or less. The Kindle version could even be sold for free by the author or publisher using the Kindle Matchbook program. They have a large number of books ranging from new books to books that Amazon began selling when it first opened in 1995.
    The Alchemist (novel)

    The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

    The drawback of this program, however, is that the books listed on Kindle Matchbook are very limited. Although quite a few big names in the publishing industry have signed up this program, they have listed just a few selected titles. You won’t be able to find the latest bestsellers like Gone Girl, Personal, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Not That Kind of Girl, etc., on Matchbook. Moreover, some of the older bestsellers like the Song of Ice and Fire series, Norwegian Wood, The Da Vinci Code, etc., are not listed on Kindle Matchbook. The closest we came to finding bestsellers was when we stumbled upon The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho in the listings.

  • Several individual publishers have come up with similar bundling programs. HarperCollins and Ingram teamed up with BookShout for a bundling program. PM Press was the first book publisher to bundle free e-books with nearly every one of the physical books purchased on its website.
  • BitLit is a free app that allows readers to purchase the e-book edition at a discounted price when they already own the print book. This Canadian start up has signed up about 80 publishers, including O’Reilly, Other Press, ECW Press, Osprey Group, Greystone Books, Berrett-Koehler and Although Bitlit claims to have around 30,000 books listed on its app, like Kindle Matchbook it doesn’t have a lot of bestsellers listed. For example, even a big player like HarperCollins has listed just 7 of its books.

Hopefully, there will come a day when all publishers will give out e-books for free with the print books. After all, content is the king, and we should be able to get away by paying for it in only one format.

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