What problem do books solve?

We are at a fascinating juncture in the publishing industry. Penguin and Random House are merging, partly to better deal with the disruptive aspects of digital technology. Of course, Penguin publishes ebooks too — including What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (and the e-version of “regular” books like 168 Hours).

I was thrilled with how quickly and easily WTMSPD Before Breakfast was produced, and how the lower price point and length that are economical in the ebook-only format made my book an impulse buy. Convincing people to buy a $25 product that will take them hours to consume is difficult. Convincing them to spend $3 to buy something they can read (or listen to) on a commute turns out to be much easier.

That said, over the last few months, I’ve been realizing that a need for information is not the only problem books solve. Books are also a physical manifestation of an idea, and can be a souvenir or gift.

I do a lot of speaking these days to different groups. Often, these groups want to buy my books for their members and hand them out at the event. I can sign the book, pose with the book and the reader for pictures, etc. The event organizers and I have been pondering how, or whether, an ebook can serve this role. You can give an ebook as a gift (though it’s a bit less straightforward than simply handing it to the recipient) but it’s kind of like handing out a gift certificate. Nice, but not ideal. And if the organizer has the mindset of giving participants a physical souvenir of an event, then an ebook isn’t going to work at all.

We usually wind up chucking the idea and ordering copies of 168 Hours instead. That’s fine for me, but since WTMSPD Before Breakfast sold more copies than 168 Hours, I wish I had a good way to give event organizers their first choice.

I haven’t really seen other authors discussing this much — possibly because most books by authors on the speaking circuit are still published, first, in hardback form. WTMSPD Before Breakfast was an experiment for all of us. It will be available as part of a paperback eventually. But I’m curious if people have ideas for how an ebook can serve the non-information-sharing function books sometimes serve.

8 thoughts on “What problem do books solve?

  1. I gave my brother a digital book last Christmas. He got a gift card from our local independent bookseller, and I made a card with the image of an appropriate book outside and the gift card and a message inside. (He was moving to Russia so the image was of Dr. Zhivago, but he bought something else.)

    A digital book could have a physical card associated with it, with art or graphic design, where one could make notes, mark pages, or present to some one. For an event it could be distributed like a Playbill, that guests and author could pose with, have autographed, etc. Perhaps folded like a greeting card or “minibook”. Could even LOOK like a book. One thing that bugs me with my ereader is, it’s hard to tell how long a book is! Maybe a presentation card could indicate it graphically. Delivery could be digital so you print it out at home, or physically purchased at the ebookseller.

    So you’d have a physical manifestation of the book, taking up less room in the bookcase. Some people collect Playbills and LP cover art, why not ebook cards?

    Publishers already know we use visual-tactile methods when picking out a book in the bookstore. Why not apply it to the ebook?

  2. It’s super cheap to print out copies of PDFs and get them bound nicely at a place like Staples. Organizers could do that with your Ebooks?

    I do this with the PDF course materials for classes I take online. I just like having a physical copy to flip through.

    1. @ARC – That would make sense. The problem is that if you buy an ebook, you’re not usually getting it as a PDF that can be printed (for piracy reasons). There’s probably some “print once” technology somewhere…

  3. Check out the cards they have at Starbucks for the recommended song of the week. You could have something similar printed with a special free download code for the event or group. If a card doesn’t seem like enough, you could have promo items made with your book title on them and pair with the card. Padfolios, notebooks, mugs, flash drives–you can get just about anything imprinted. Or a cd with the recorded audio version. No need to print something that was intended as ebook.

  4. Natalie, I like your idea for a download code for the event. Perhaps it would include special material available only at such an event? I can’t think what offhand, perhaps an interview or a taping of the event.

  5. I like Natalie’s idea! One interesting (and extravagant) trend I’m noticing in the tech world is the delivery of the user manuals on an iPad. This generally for very expensive equipment the cost of which dwarfs the cost of the iPad, but still… it seems like an end run around anti-bribery/kickback rules to me.

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