Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holiday Product Management and the Hardcover Ebook

The product development team responsible for Christmas should get an award. I can imagine the brainstorming sessions: "Let's have a holiday where travelers get stranded and get to sleep with smelly animals!"

"No, that won't work. How about a holiday where poor people visit maternity wards in hospitals?"

"Crackpot. Wait...I've got it... How about if everyone gets PRESENTS!"

Positive reinforcement can go a long way towards creating success. E-books these days are sort of like the current state of my Christmas tree. Beautiful, smells good, but no decorations or presents. In my previous article discussing copyright enforcement, I stressed that if publishers really want to fight off piracy they need to find ways to positively reinforce the ebook purchase experience. In other words, decorate your Christmas ebook and put lots of presents under it.

Step one. It should be completely painless and hassle-free to buy and use a piece of content. Duh. Amazon has figured this out. Apple has figured it out with iTunes. If it comes to a choice between secure DRM (which will get cracked anyway) and making it easy for customers, always do what the users sending you money want you to do.

Step two. Decorate! When someone gets an ebook, it should be customized with the purchaser's name and a pretty frontispiece that says "this book is being lovingly read and cared for by PURCHASERS NAME HERE", and every ebook file would have a unique serial number. For gifts, of course the message would be different. If the e-reader marketers and developers were really attuned to the publishing ecosystem, they would hardwire a cryptographic signature reader into their devices that would be able to tell a "genuine" ebook frontispiece from a fake one. It's not technically hard.

Step three. Give out presents! The wonderful thing about ebooks is that the reproduction cost is zero. You can afford to give your customers free stuff! Once they register their unique ebook serial number, send them a "personalized" thank you note from the author. Give them a free book from an unknown author that they would never, ever have bought on their own.

Step four. Give out more presents! If you want to reward genuine ebook purchases in places like China, turn ebook registration into a raffle. Put a golden ticket in every millionth ebook, and a silver ticket in every thousandth. Give something to everyone who registers, even if it's just a virtual badge, or "frequent-reader" points. People may start buying ebooks just for a chance at a payout. Other people will try to register fake serial numbers, and for free, you will get both marketing and pirate tracking data.

Step five. Regifting! If someone has paid you good money for an ebook, let them give it to a friend after six months or so (as long as they've registered it!) If they're a platinum-level frequent buyer, let them keep their own registered copy, too.

If ebook publishers get really good at adding value to their products, they could consider rolling out the "Hardcover Ebook". Current practice in the print book industry for "trade" books is to initially offer only a hardcover version. A year later, the same book is released as a softcover at a substantially lower price. The effect of this is to partition the market and capture revenue from more potential purchasers. Consumers accept this partitioning partly because they assign some value to the hard cover- they assume the hard cover is more expensive to produce.

Recently, there's been much discussion about publishers holding back titles from the ebook market to protect hardcover sales. An ebook with enhanced value comparable to a hard cover print book could be offered on the intitial release date at a higher price so as to prevent pirates from having a monopoly on the ebook.

Is there a Grinch preventing the ebook Christmas party? As long as ebook publishing is captive to distribution platforms, innovations in ebook value may be difficult to implement. Amazon's interests do not always align with those of publishers. In particular, ebook serial numbers that register with publishers a not going to be high on the Kindle development queue.

Even the Grinch learned what Christmas is really about. You won't get hardcover ebook in your stocking this year, but have a great Holiday anyway!

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