A new BC startup hopes to help readers digitize their libraries and help publishers sell multiple formats of titles to a new breed of consumer. As a fan of cloud storage and user of ebooks and print formats, my interest was piqued.
A variety of apps and platforms have been described as the “iTunes for ebooks”, but these services have tended to focus on the parcel-ability function or the capacity for sampling and discovering new artists. When I logged into iTunes for the first time, it wasn’t to buy a single or hear a new artist, it was to upload my entire CD collection so I could sync the music I already owned to my devices. The ability to take my entire music library with me anywhere was what made iTunes initially so valuable to me. Now if only I could do the same with my book library. Enter BitLit.
Digitize the Print Books You Already Own
A new mobile app in development called BitLit proposes to be the solution for people who own large libraries of print books, and want to read them how they want, when they want, and where they want. Users validate and register their physical book, then download the ebook edition for free or at a discounted price, at the discretion of the publisher. From there users will be able to download files for their choice of e-reader or access them through a smartphone or tablet app.
How It Works
The British Columbia–based founders, Peter Hudson and Dr. Marius Muja, considered multiple options for validating ownership of a physical book, from a unique code printed on the book by publishers, to a digital serial number registered by book owners. But printing a code on a book would require extra effort and cost for the publisher and doesn’t address books already on readers’ shelves. Using sales receipts as proof of purchase also fails to account for books purchased in the past.
Consumer research conducted on behalf of BitLit revealed that book owners didn’t like the idea of writing a number on their book to prove ownership, but didn’t mind writing their name on the copyright page. With this knowledge in mind, the team developed a computer vision algorithm that uses a photograph of the physical book and a photograph of the copyright page with the book owner’s name written in a designated place. It is a surprisingly analogue solution to digitization, but considering the challenges of the alternative methods, it seems viable.
Potential for Piracy?
The simple nature of the verification system BitList uses may agitate publisher concerns about losing sales to piracy. Peter Hudson, CEO of BitLit, addressed this by noting that their computer vision algorithms can verify that the physical book is real (i.e., not a picture of the book on a screen) and that the particular physical book has not been previously registered with BitLit. They also plan to manually audit a portion of registrations to prevent gaming of the system. The fact that BitLit requires a person to write their own name, matching the name on the credit card they provide for purchase, should also alleviate concerns from librarians and booksellers that people will be “claiming” copies not actually owned.
Though piracy concerns are real, it is likely simpler to download an ebook from a torrent site than to falsify ownership of a print edition to purchase a discounted ebook from BitLit. Entrepreneurial readers could also pick up a cheap used copy just to get the discounted ebook edition, but the effort involved means it is likely not a lost new print book sale, but rather a bonus ebook (and used book) sale.
Challenge: Critical Mass
Once users have registered the print edition they own, they have the opportunity to purchase a discounted companion ebook—if the publisher has registered with BitLit. This is one of the big challenges for any new search/discovery/purchasing platform for books and ebooks. Without a critical mass of title availability, consumers will be disappointed. However, BitLit has piqued the interest of a number of publishers, and they are working with eBOUND and digital asset management systems including DeMarque CanTook, Ingram CoreSource, Firebrand, and Constellation to integrate the delivery of ebooks through existing service agreements.
Another challenge was the metadata necessary to convey the discounted companion ebook price. Lucky for BitLit, ONIX Codelist issue 21, released in April 2013, includes a new qualifier in list 59, code 09, Linked Price, which allows prices that are dependent on ownership or purchase of a separate but related product.
Who Benefits from Bundling?
Readers, publishers, and even print retailers stand to benefit from the bundling of ebooks with print editions.
There is consumer demand for bundling. In a survey conducted for the The Canadian Book Consumer 2012, 20% of respondents said they would choose one print book over another if it also came with a copy of the ebook. Another 12% said they would pay a slightly higher price to get both the print and ebook editions. With the BitLit app, readers would be able to check on the availability and price of a companion ebook prior to purchasing the print edition.
Retailers may find print book sales increase. If a reader has the opportunity to purchase a print edition and receive the ebook at a free or discounted price, they may choose to purchase a print edition rather than just an ebook.
Publisher benefits include a potential increase in print book sales, additional revenue derived from the discounted ebook companion, and incremental revenue from backlist books. Titles long sold, read and gathering dust on a bookshelf can generate new sales through BitLit ebook companion sales.
Bundling of print and ebooks isn’t new—but experimentation with it has been hampered by the logistics. Most independent bookstores don’t have the ability to provide an ebook file with purchase. Some publishers are doing it on their own, including ECW who are providing ebooks directly to print book purchasers. This requires a staff person to receive the request, verify the purchase, and deliver the ebook, but it also provides the publisher with a direct relationship to their print book readers, something many publishers have been trying to develop and risk losing if they allow a third party to provide the companion ebook edition to the reader. But for publishers who don’t want to deal with the logistics of providing the e-side of the bundle themselves, BitLit could be their bundling solution.