The ghost in the machine: Does print+ebook bundling have a future?


The ghost in the machine: Does print+ebook bundling have a future?

Recently in a Publisher’s Weekly article, Alex Crowley asked why publishers are still not offering print and ebook bundles. There are many arguments in favor of including an ebook download with the physical book: it adds value to the physical book, it enables booksellers to sell digital books alongside print (and customers to buy ebooks in shops, where they discover them) and most importantly, it’s just downright convenient. Much like the music industry’s pairing of vinyl records with MP3 downloads, by bundling print and digital, publishers can meet readers’ demand to consume media in both digital and analog forms. In fact, many smaller publishers have started giving away ebook versions to each customer who buys a print book – such as Dzanc Books.

Various studies have shown that a large number of readers read both print and digital books, so why not sell them together? Overall, bundling has a lot to offer both publishers and readers, although retailers are often cut out of the equation. Publishers find out who is reading their books through the data provided by downloading, and bundles are a great way to build relationships and earn reader loyalty. In turn, readers get the books they want in multiple formats and without DRM.

Many publishers are hesitant about pairing print and digital formats because they are afraid of losing sales. Other publishers make the mistake of equating bundling with giving away the ebook, when in fact bundles can be priced higher than the print book alone. However, the risk of cheapening ebooks is a valid concern. When selling a print book and ebook as a bundle, the added value is the “experience of a bargain”, which could negatively impact the perceived worth of an ebook, giving readers the impression that ebooks should indeed be free.

However, those in favor of bundling recognize it as an opportunity to cross-market print and ebooks. Whether or not it could ‘save print’ is another question, but bundling definitely has the potential to incentivize print for readers who are still undecided about formats.

Bundles in bookstores

Despite the risks and challenges associated with bundling books, many smaller presses have made inroads selling print and ebooks as bundles. Crowley cites Angry Robot, a publishing imprint whose sales tripled in the first few weeks subsequent to offering bundles in bookstores. One bookseller’s perspective helps explain why sales were so high – booksellers were excited to finally be selling ebooks, and they used Angry Robot’s bundles as a conversation-starter to talk about digital reading with customers. This example shows that allowing bookstores to sell bundles can boost sales, as well as serve readers who might otherwise just use the bookstore as a showroom and buy the ebook online.

Selling direct

Most other presses which sell bundles only do so on their own online shops. While this unfortunately cuts bookstores out of the equation, it still has the potential to teach publishers a lot about reader demand. The Scottish publisher Canongate sold Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize) as a bundle on their website. Canongate’s marketing director, Cate Canon, said in an email interview that the response among readers and the book industry was “absolutely fantastic”, including among retailers. Yet this respected independent publisher still chose not to offer the bundles in bookstores. From a strategic standpoint, publishers are deciding between using the added value of bundles to improve their retail relationships or to improve their relationships with readers directly. The fact that most presses only sell bundles direct shows that publishers are increasingly focusing on their relationships with readers.


The Canadian startup BitLit approaches bundling from a different angle. With the BitLit app, users can buy the ebook version at a discount after proving they’ve purchased the print book. The verification process includes taking a picture of the book, writing ones name on the copyright page and submitting a photo of the page to BitLit to verify it. The process seems a bit involved, considering one still has to buy the ebook. Also, it’s a missed chance for the publishers to share pictures or book recommendations from readers. However, BitLit is still getting ready to launch, and it surely has a few creative flourishes planned for the app.

University of Kentucky Press – ebook loyalty program

The University of Kentucky Press, on the other hand, is sharing reader pictures with their ebook loyalty program. Each reader who sends a picture of him/herself holding up the U of K print book which they own receives a free ebook version of the book from the press. The press is posting a charming assortment of reader photos and anecdotes on their Tumblr account. So far, feedback about the initiative has been mostly positive.

German innovators

In Germany, several publishers have started selling bundles, such as the jointly owned presses Haffmans & Tolkemitt and Rogner & Bernhard. Inspired by the music industry, the two presses started selling their hardcover books with unique download codes in their Hardcover Plus program in early 2012. Publisher Till Tolkemitt said in an interview, “We’re not giving away anything; we’re selling a better product.” He cites an overwhelmingly positive response from booksellers, who love it because it enables them to sell ebooks without forcing readers to choose between digital and print. Perhaps the best news is that despite the danger of someone copying down the code in a bookshop and downloading the book, Tolkemitt says the presses have never been contacted by book buyers whose code was already used.

Many other German presses have followed suit and offer selected titles as bundles, including Ullmann Verlag, Rowohlt Berlin, Campus and the indie press Onkel & Onkel.

A format with a future?

There are several other types of bundling, such as the sci fi publisher Baen‘s “bundles” of digital advanced reader’s copies, or the Humble Bundle initiative, which lets readers choose how much they’re willing to pay for selections of e books, with the proceeds going to charitable causes. In a Bookriot article, Felice Howden argues that these types of bundles make a lot more sense from a reader perspective. Offering readers a selection of ebooks, such as a collection of books from one author, or a similar ebooks from the backlist, can help them discover books they might not have otherwise read.

For now, print+digital bundles still have the potential to offer added value. That’s because reading is still a hybrid experience. While many people prefer the tactile experience of print, they still want an e-version for traveling, for easy search and highlighting, or for social reading. As the field of ebook design continues to develop, we will hopefully be seeing more beautiful, intuitive, and user-friendly ebooks and apps appear on the market. And as these formats mature, there may be less reason to supplement the digital version with print. Hopefully, more publishers will take advantage of bundling in this period of transition. While print still appeals to our sensibilities, why not give readers the best of both worlds?


Here are some other publishers which offer bundles:



On publisher branding, geekdom and not trying too hard



“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.  Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.” -Aldous Huxley

Yesterday morning, I stumbled upon an interesting discussion about publisher branding. It was triggered by ‏@missdaisyfrost’s question: “Does WHO a book is published by have ANY influence whatsoever on whether you buy it?”

The responses covered the whole spectrum, but general consensus was that while people recognize genre or niche publishers (ie romance, comics, scifi, even poetry), they are pretty clueless when it comes to trade fiction or nonfiction. Some people from the book trade insisted “normal” people don’t pay attention to publisher names, while others said publishers need to work harder to create consumer brands. All the while, people were dropping names of their favorite presses, which showed that yes, even without a slimy corporate “brand strategy”, presses CAN leave a lasting impression. When the conversation split off into side discussions, people started thinking about other media: relationships between gamers and game studios, film nerds and directors and of course music fans and band labels.

@pressfuturist: it was always a niche part of the audience who appreciated labels, I think: indie rather than mainstream

@Louiestowell: My rule of thumb = the geekier/more obsessive the consumer, the more the brands matter. …Sort of like food nerds and local butchers 🙂

These two comments get to the heart of indie press for me, about who pays attention and why it’s worth paying attention to publisher insignias. Much like in the music scene, with books it’s also the nerds and geeks among us who pay attention to publishers, since we want to keep up with what is being released in our niches of interest. And although the biggest book nerds are often writers, there are plenty other book lovers who can geek out about different book covers or new releases from their favorite presses. These are the people who pay attention when genre or indie presses which blog about interesting, niche-related stuff. Think Melville House or Open Letter’s Three Percent blog, which are great for keeping abreast of news in independent culture and literary translation, respectively.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for implicit branding, which literary magazines pretty good at. By “implicit” I mean it’s not all about the logo or getting in people’s faces, it’s more about a certain aesthetic or taste that gives a litmag a certain personality, along with regular columnists that set the tone. It’s all about editorial decisions, the details. Like [PANK], which features gutsy, pretty hard-hitting prose and poetry. I like that there’s no bells and whistles, the editors don’t feel the need to dress up this writing. Or Largehearted Boy, which is a great example of a “niche” magazine – it explores the junction where books, music and comics meet. In Book Notes, my favorite section, authors are interviewed about how music has influenced their writing. You end up getting to know a lot about the writers’ books and their writing process, but all through the lens of music. In LB’s case it’s more the original concept which carries the “brand” – I’m definitely more likely to remember this blog than the umpteenth book review site I read.

The takeaway: an implicit brand is like coolness – either you have it or you don’t. Trying too hard just makes things awkward. Lightly, children, lightly.

Postscript: If you made it this far and I haven’t lost you in my ramblings, you might be interested in a poll I’m conducting. It’s about reading habits and which litmags, authors and publishers you pay attention to. The survey’s short, and I will definitely sum up the results here, so please take a few minutes to add your “two cents”. Thanks!

For the love of books (and their creators)… A survey

Do you love books? What about off-the-beaten-path, in translation, experimental, hybrid genre or just plain unclassifiably good books? If you do, there’s a good chance some of what you read is from an independent press, and I’d be honored to have your perspective represented in my survey.

It’s one of the final flourishes for my Master’s thesis on how independent literary presses & other lit. organisations are connecting with readers (or how they *could* do so). After all is said and done, I’ll post some of the results here, and each press I interviewed is getting a copy of my research, which will hopefully inspire them with more ways to find the right readers for their books. I can’t offer any tangible thanks, but lots of good book karma – and even more if you spread the link around. Thanks a lot!


Here’s the link:

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

A postscript on Emily Books

After posting my last article, Emily Gould (from Emily Books) wrote a piece in which she talks about the much broader spectrum of lit she’s discovered since starting the project:

“what happened instead as we read in search of new picks to share was an alternate literary history of the last half-century: a history in which the women and gay men with unconventional, scary, strange, funny, bold and transgressive ways of looking at the world had spoken and had been heard. There have been a lot of conversations lately online about the obvious and pervasive sexism in all our culture industries, including book publishing. …It’s important and good to name the problem, but it’s more important not to stop there.”

Well said, Emily! The whole interview – including a 20% discount password for their ebooks – can be found here:

Part 2: On women writers, book marketing, VIDA & some paradigm-shiftingly-good lit. blogs

GetOut_Front 2 collage

Images from:,,,

I promised this list some time ago. Since then, Wendy Davis successfully filibustered an anti-abortion bill in Texas, DOMA was overturned, Turkish protestors stopped the memorial construction in Gezi Park and Egypt had a second revolution. Oh yeah, and it turned out the US really is spying on the world, surprise surprise.

What actually sparked my interest in finding more platforms for women’s writing, however, were the recently released VIDA statistics (about how few women are represented in the books sections of the largest newspapers and magazines). Then there was this powerful response by Dr. Kathryn Heyman, and the comments section got me even more riled up that so many writers had been ignored by these publications – seems like the “complicated” problem would be quite easy to fix (she has posted a great update with a list of suggestions, too). And FINALLY I stumbled upon an article by Deborah Kopaken Coplan in the Nation, which confirmed a lot of my suspicions about the differences in marketing books by women – the pink covers, the changing titles to be more “feminine” (Newswhore becomes Shutterbabe, Suicide Wood becomes From Here to April) – and also exposed further demeaning treatment of authors in the media.

So I started reflecting about where I discover new writers, and which of these forums work towards tipping this gender bias in the other direction. There are tons. In fact, what would happen if VIDA were to compare their dismal results with the numbers of women contributors in online magazines and blogs, such as The Rumpus, the Hairpin, Barrelhouse, the Awl, the Nervous Breakdown, PANK, Hobart Pulp, ROAR (online content coming soon), Failbetter and many others? We would probably see that women writers fare much better in online publications.

Come to think of it, considering the wealth of online magazines and websites dedicated to every possible identity or perspective, these online platforms are the new trailblazers when it comes to diverse voices in literature. It only makes sense – the internet vastly extends the reach of independent culture, and makes radical thinking accessible for free. So why wouldn’t the internet be the new hub of indie publishing?

In the spirit of celebrating progress in these historic times, here is a list of forums for diverse perspectives. These blogs, magazine and book publishers stand out for curating women writers or LGBTQ writers whose writing is amazing, highly literary and takes lots of risks. May they go forth and multiply!

Any other suggestions of paradigm-shifting blogs and online magazines which focus on women, queer or feminist writers? Check out my blogroll at my WordPress site for more unmissable blogs.

Book cover trouble: On gendering book covers and reading between the lines (pt 1)

Top-10 fems

In the process of researching the publishing world, from sifting through the profiles of midsized to micropresses, to wandering through bookshops and talking with book people, I stumbled upon a variety of opinions and resources that have gotten me thinking about gender equality lately.

It started with book covers. A few months ago, after a few hours of browsing in Rand McNally bookstore I realized how seldom I pick up a book by a female author I’m not already familiar with. But why? Do books written by women have such blatantly ‘girly’ covers, or does the back cover text reduce the books to stereotypical female themes so much that I quickly put down the books in favor of books which seem edgier and ultimately less female?

In May, an author who was tired of the gender stereotypes appearing on her young adult book covers did an interesting experiment. Maureen Johnson called upon her followers to “flip” the covers of favorite authors and reimagine how they would have been designed if the author had been of the opposite sex (or a different sexual orientation, etc). Huffington Post picked up the “Coverflip Challenge” story and it went viral, with thousands adding their own coverflips to Tumblr and Twitter.

Many bloggers used this opportunity to discuss the problem of gender stereotyping on book covers, in particular when it narrows the potential audience of the book. A lot of women writers and bloggers said they were also turned off by overly feminine covers and would prefer more gender-neutral covers with graphic design elements (opposed to photos). While this experiment only scratches the surface of how a book might be marketed based on gender stereotypes, it still provides lots of food for thought about why gendering books (as well as their potential readers) could be problematic.

Rachel Stark, from Simon & Schuster, wrote an incredibly incisive piece on the Coverflip Project, which addressed both how the “flipped” covers largely stayed within the gender binary. She also pointed out the insidious misogyny at the heart of people’s discomfort with covers they associated as being “feminine” (for example, one Tumblr user kept pairing the terms “girly and vapid” in her description of the feminine covers). In Stark’s words, “devaluing the feminine and those who embrace it is not the answer to sexism; it is a part of it”. Here’s the whole article.

Which brings me back to my bookstore browsing and my own aversion to book covers or blurbs that charactize a book as being too feminine for my tastes. Is it an aversion to the gender stereotypes, or the female perspective in general? As Rachel Stark says, it’s just as problematic to discount the so-called “feminine” as inherently inferior to the gender-neutral or masculine. Then again, this language is still firmly rooted in a gender spectrum, if not binary. But why can’t we acknowledge this spectrum of preferences and values without assigning them to certain genders? Or if one insists on gender categories, still acknowledging we all have elementsfrom both sides? Each person is a unique expression of these various possibilities. There is no black and white, just endless kaleidoscopic permutations.

In terms of book marketing, what could the answer look like? In a day and age where we have realized that identity is fluid, and gender identity is likewise a variagated spectrum, it seems terribly reductive to create marketing strategies aimed at men or women readers – not only because this excludes potential readers, but because it doesn’t acknowledge the real diversity of these audiences. At the moment, every publishing house is eager to get more nuanced information about readers – HarperCollins even has a new department dedicated to consumer research. I think categories such as gender have functioned as poor stand-ins for real data on readers, who can be grouped in a myriad of specific ways, such as fields of interest, profession, hobbies, media consumption, etc, all of which tell much more about readers’ tastes than their gender does.

I’m not saying one could or should remove all gender associations from a book’s cover or marketing texts, after all, the narrator’s perspective is ususlly a gendered one, and that can play a significant role in stories. But the idea that a certain aesthetic will especially appeal to women or men seems antiquated in an age where the the idea of “gender” is increasingly associated with “trouble”.

HAPPY PRIDE WEEK, to people everywhere on the spectrum!

PS: This will have to suffice as part 1 of a series on gender, women writers and the book world; I actually meant to write about the VIDA statistics, but a lot more has been on my mind. But soon I’ll be adding a link list of exciting projects focusing on women’s, feminist and queer perspectives.

Special Mentions


This is the first in a list of posts about innovative independent presses. In the book world, many speak of the “disruption” and transformation which trade publishing is experiencing. But by remaining dedicated to quality literature, taking risks on offbeat debuts, and increasingly engaging with reader communities (on social media, blogs & Goodreads), many independent presses are ahead of the curve in terms of innovation:


Nouvella takes a very unique approach. Each book release starts with a LAUNCH week, when readers can buy the first 200 “shares” of a book. These early supporters receive limited-edition, hand-signed copy of the novella, a letter from the author, and an e-book version. Afterwards, print and ebooks are sold on the website and in stores. I love this combination of bundling limited editions with ebooks, as well as the approach of releasing one book at a time – that way, each book has a chance to shine, and as a reader I don’t miss out on any new releases from my favorite presses. And it’s more fun to support a book than “preordering”.


Publerati is a “socially responsible digital publishing”company which releases ebooks without DRM. Their model is interesting for many reasons: a publisher of literary fiction, Publerati still sells its ebooks for a mere $2.99. The organization advocates for fair author payment, which is why it only only takes 10 % of the book revenue. Another portion of the proceeds goes towards helping fund Worldreader, an organization which makes free ebooks and ereaders available in Africa – they also work with many local and regional presses. A quick look at Worldreader’s long list of partners is encouraging, but raises the question: why don’t more publishers donate ebooks?


Unbound funds its books through crowdfunding and aims to involve readers and reward them for recommending books. This project gives me limitless hope about what publishers can do to contribute to book culture. Yes, the cute little sketches on their Website don’t hurt, but what Unbound does best is connect readers and writers. When you subscribe to an author’s project you get access to their “shed”, get regular updates on the book’s progress, you even get £1 credit for each time you successfully recommend a book to a friend. They release ebooks and print simultaneously, and they also distribute to bookstores, but the heart of their endeavor is the interaction between author, reader and fellow fans.

Book tip: “As I Died Lying” is a fascinating Unbound project which 15 writers are working on together. Each writer composes the voice of a different character (a la Faulkner’s polyphonic original). I’m interested to watch the book develop, see ideas cross-pollinate, and hope that all of the coordination snuff out the spark of inspiration. But wait, they’ve already written half the book!

Coming up: Roaming bookstores, ebook clubs, free PDF books and what book subscriptions have in common with sushi.

In Praise of Indie Presses

A teensy tiny excursion into my small press obsessions, among other things.

Ever since I began exploring the work of independent presses in the US and abroad, I’ve discovered lots of presses and literary organizations which not only support great books, but which are also contributing to literary culture in fresh ways. That’s why I’ve set aside this space to house a growing list of indie presses and related organizations doing exciting things with books. Have any tips? If so, please get in touch!

This space will feature the occasional review or recommendation, and I will most definitely post non-sequiturs on Berlin life, good food and everything else which forms a backdrop to my bookish excursions. But the printed, pixelated, and shared word will form the red thread as I hop skip and jump through this labyrinth of presses, authors, and champions of good and overlooked books.