NelsonFree test could be dangerous to ‘old-style’ publishers; smacks of desperation

An article in Publishers Lunch e-newsletter tells of what might pose a serious threat to the largest publishing houses. Here’s part of their news item, under the title of NelsonFree Bundles Audio and eBook with Print Purchase:

Thomas Nelson will provide buyers of selected hardcover books with access to an MP3 audiobook version and several types of ebook files (including ePub, MobiPocket and PDF) at no extra charge under their NelsonFree program. “After readers purchase a book with the NelsonFree logo, they will be directed to a website where they must register and answer a simple security question.” Once approved, they are able to download the files.
CEO Michael Hyatt says in the announcement, “I believe that the industry is shifting and we, as publishers, need to explore new methods of getting our content into the hands of customers. NelsonFree will give readers a new level of value and flexibility. It will enhance their literary experience and allow greater employment of the content without breaking the bank.”

My prediction — made over two years ago at a presentation to the Association of Canadian Publishers — was that multiple editions would each be bringing in additional revenues (what I referred to as “multiple long tails”). This move by Nelson, if followed in time by other publishers, instead gives away free the other editions to shore up sales of the main (hardcover, in this case) edition.

Might this bundling of editions introduce some of those hardcover readers to the experience of eBooks and audio books? If so, doesn’t it also present the unfortunate perception that the “cost” of audio and eBook editions is “free” (and the “value” is “nil”)? Seems a bit of a muddle, and no guarantee of not “breaking the bank”. Once a value precedent is lodged firmly in customers’ minds, it can be hard to change.

I’m reminded of how some publishers tested “returnable” books to their bookstore clients back in the panicky initial period of the first Great Depression — and began the financial disaster of “returnable books” that is still with us today — and is costing the industry billions each year.

Is this test an act of desperation from the executives of a gigantic billion dollar corporation in danger of becoming an anachronism? Are the buyers of the hardcover edition very likely to buy eBooks or audio books? My friend, author Major General Val Pattee, says, “Seems to me that Nelson is mixing apples and oranges. And why would a single reader want the same book in several versions? I think that the readers of different versions are different people. My 13-year-old granddaughter is using all three mediums, conventional print, electronic, and audio, but not for the same book.”

Certainly we won’t have to wait too long to find out if the NelsonFree test sets a financially-crippling precedent, or is merely a desperate muddle — or, proves to be sheer marketing genius! We won’t need to wait long because the rate of business change is accelerating as we move ever further into the speed-of-light digital age and begin experiencing the near-collapse of conventional capitalism. If that seems too scary, don’t forget to go outside often, and to hug your loved ones. Remember: the most important things in life won’t change.

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