Bundle Selfishly

From about the age of ten, I spent most of my pocket money on records. I spent some money on books too, although most of my reading came from school libraries. I can’t even remember how much a long player was, but suffice to say it must have been a significant investment, given the kind of dough I was making at the time and the number of discs I still have from back then. These days, I’m still buying long players. Mostly I get them from the US because, even with exorbitant postage, it’s still cheaper than buying them locally. Where I can, I buy them directly from the artists. And when I take delivery of them, I frequently find a surprise card hidden inside with a code to download the same album as mp3 files for free.

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The overall package is more expensive than a CD or just downloading the files, but not a lot more and the perceived value is much greater: the sound and packaging of the vinyl (see, I’m not immune to object fetishisation) at home and the convenience of digital songs to drop onto my phone when out and about. Really, it just updates what I used to do, which was make tapes of the records I bought to listen to on my Walkman.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve often thought the same approach would be a good one for print books: buy the paperback or hardcover and receive a code to download an epub file. And it seems I’m not the only one who's made this connection. Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows) posted exactly these thoughts to his blog a few weeks ago.

Don’t you hate it when a better writer elegantly articulates what you’ve been merely grunting about for ages?

Though he notes a few (extremely minor) difficulties in putting such a plan into action, Carr frames the idea as a way to help publishers and physical bookstores broach the divide between physical and digital and annoy Amazon in the process. It’s no panacea for the digital age, just a way for the old guard to engage in a little of their own industry disruption.

I’m not so sure it could achieve such disruptive heights; even Carr's modest goals still seem a bit far fetched. Vinyl in 2012 is, after all, an incredibly niche market. The Economist last year predicted US sales of 4 million, a far cry from the global sales of 1 billion estimated for 1981, and only 1% of overall sales. To put that in context, five times as many cassette singles were shifted in 1988 than LPs last year. But vinyl's popularity is increasing with listeners who actively engage with artists. Musicians themselves play up to this, ensuring that the vinyl editions of their work are of high quality and deliciously collectible. This is certainly a great technique for writers to employ (and many do to great success), but it's not (nor is it intended to be) a replacement for an entire industry.

The broader context of change in writing and reading doesn’t fit into a neat print/ebook dichotomy.

Nevertheless, I’m glad someone of Carr’s influence has brought up the idea of bundling free ebooks with print purchases, because such a discussion might convince publishers large and small to experiment with the idea.

Experimentation of any kind is valuable and welcome at this point. But really, my reasons for encouraging this idea are entirely selfish. I suspect the way I listen to music now is very similar to the way I would like to read. I just haven't had the opportunity yet. This is really the reason I've resisted making this point earlier. One of my pet hates is people who opine how books should be made based on  how they personally like to read. Jonathan Franzen went so far as to claim ebooks were destructive to society, based on little more than his own distaste and a bit of creative hyperbole.

So I'm breaking my rule just this once, suggesting that print/digital bundling would be a great idea, based on nothing more than my own preference. Well, mine and Nicholas Carr's.

So that makes two of us.