In a potentially major gain for the ebook-bundling concept, BitLit today is announcing its first deal with a Big Five publisher. HarperCollins (US) has entered what is being described as a pilot programme with the Vancouver-based BitLit to offer discounted ebook editions of print books that readers already own.
"This is not, obviously, HarperCollins' full list," Peter Hudson, BitLit co-founder, tells The Bookseller's The FutureBook. "This is a limited set of titles and it's going to be rolled out reasonably slowly over time, with new titles coming on board on a weekly basis."
The first HarperCollins titles to be bundled in the programme are to include Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Jeaniene Frost's Halfway to the Grave, Kim Harrison's Black Magic Sanction, Gregory Maguire's Wicked, Jack Canfield's The Success Principles, and Andrew Gross' 15 Seconds.
New titles coming into play are to be promoted through HarperCollins' Bookperk newsletter and on HC.com, as well as at the BitLit.com site, each bundled ebook costing the reader between $1.99 and $2.99.
"We're going to start experimentally trying to find which titles will resonate," says Hudson. "What kind of books are going to bundle well? We know that technical books and other nonfiction do quite well. We know that reference books do quite well. But when it comes to fiction and trade, we don't know exactly which books are going to do best. So we're starting out with a few to see which ones resonate."
Prior to the beginning of the HarperCollins pilot programme, BitLit's catalog of ebooks that can be bundled with print has totaled some 20,000 titles. Its primary publisher relationships to date have offered users titles from the catalogs of O'Reilly Media, Osprey's Angry Robot, the Chicago Review Press, the business-oriented Morgan-James, Baker Publishing Group, the independent publishers of IPG, and more.
The startup, a little over a year-and-a-half old, has also signed a distribution agreement with ePubDirect, which works with clients including the Osprey Group and Bonnier.
In moving to integrate HarperCollins' trade offerings, however, BitLit will find itself introducing its ebook-acquisition process to readers of trade fiction. And that process, while framed in one of the digital era's most experimental elements -- the idea of offering an ebook to the buyer of that book's print edition -- includes a strikingly non-digital step: You grab a pen and write your name on the copyright page of your print edition.
From BitLit's material: "To claim an ebook, readers write their name in ink on the copyright page and snap a photo using their smartphone. BitLit uses computer vision technology to verify authenticity and avoid the need for receipts or point-of-sale records, thus allowing readers to retroactively bundle their books."
This process, involving only the reader and BitLit, is the basis for a hope that the concept will be supported by booksellers.
If a bookshop has to do nothing but point readers of its print books to BitLit -- and those readers with their smartphones do the job of acquiring ebook editions -- then the shopkeepers, so the theory goes, can continue to focus on print.
By way of demonstrating this bookshop-friendly stance, BitLit has teamed up with 13 prominent Canadian bookstores between Vancouver and Toronto in a Summer Reads programme that offers a selection of ebooks free to readers who buy the print editions. The applicable books are marked in participating bookstores with stickers that offer a "BitLit.com Free eBook with purchase of print book."
One of the reasons for the measured release of a few titles at a time from HarperCollins, is that the publisher is handling the ecommerce element, itself -- a departure for BitLit. With other publishers, Hudson says, whole catalogs have been made available at once, comprising thousands of titles that became available almost immediately on signing a deal with BitLit.
"In each of those publishers' cases," he says, "we're actually handling the ecommerce," meaning that BitLit collects the price of a discounted ebook from a reader and pays the given publisher.
"HarperCollins wants to complete the sale of the ebook, themselves," Hudson says. "And I think one of the big reasons for that is that they get a direct connection to the reader. As we talk about in all these conferences we go to, the goal is that direct connection with the reader."
The upshot of this is that a reader claiming a discounted ebook copy of a print book he or she owns will be validated by BitLit and then will get an email with a coupon code.
"The reader will then go to the HarperCollins site" on a link from the email, "and they'll go directly to checkout with the book they've bundled and the coupon." The transaction is then completed at HarperCollins, which of course has then captured the customer data involved.
"I think they're doing the Adobe-DRM-ed ebook," Hudson says. BitLit's own stance on DRM, he says, is to provide ebooks for bundling with whatever DRM status and format the publisher requires. "When we do the ecommerce ourselves," he says, "we give the person every asset the publisher gives us...Over 80 percent of our publishers offer their titles DRM-free." There is more from Hudson in a blog post at BitLit on the company's stance on DRM.
For its part, HarperCollins is again showing a leadership role in digital innovation with the BitLit programme. As The Bookseller's Philip Jones put together a list of publishing innovations at The Futurebook, 10 Things Publishers Have Been Doing We Should Celebrate, his mentions of HarperCollins activity included an online romance festival; The Chatsfield immersive storytelling venture from Harlequin Mills & Boon (which HarperCollins has agreed to acquire); participation in June's FutureBook Hack project in London, and more.
In a prepared statement, HarperCollins' chief digital officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, lays out the logic of the arrangement for the publisher in this pilot programme: "BitLit offers readers another way to engage with the books they've purchased so they can read in various formats as they choose. It provides added value to consumers at a discounted price, and additional sales for our authors."
Hudson says he's unable to confirm at this point whether other major publishers are coming aboard, themselves, to bundle ebooks with BitLit, "but we're talking to everybody, of course."
And when asked if we'll see the day when the buyer of an ebook can then apply to BitLit for a discounted print edition of that book? Hudson: "Stay tuned."