Macmillan US partners with ebook bundling BitLit

Macmillan US partners with ebook bundling BitLit

Vancouver-based BitLit has added a second Big Five publisher to its partners in ebook bundling, with a major round of titles from US/Canadian Macmillan.

"It looks like we're going to get most of TOR/Forge and a handful of things from St. Martin's Press and FSG (Farrar Straus and Giroux)," says BitLit c.e.o. Peter Hudson (pictured), estimating that some 95 percent of the TOR catalog is included in this new deal.

The TOR books will be DRM-free, Hudson says, while Adobe DRM will be applied to the others. BitLit's publisher-clients decide what DRM constraints, if any, to have BitLit apply to ebooks being offered for bundling. 

A uniform price of $2.99 is being applied to these titles, now going live on the BitLit site. Like DRM, pricing is a publisher decision in partnership with BitLit, in some cases meaning free ebook editions of books that readers own in print.

As BitLit amasses a library of "just over 100,000" titles, Hudson says, his company is now able to account for "roughly 10 to 15 percent of the titles on shelves today. If I could get JK Rowling on the phone, I could move my number up by 1 or 2 percent. And next is Stephen King. He has about 0.8 percent of the titles out there. And it's interesting to see that No. 1 (Rowling) and No. 2 (King) got there very differently. King has a massive canon while Rowling has massive sales" but of far fewer titles.

Patterns among readers applying for bundled ebooks are beginning to emerge, Hudson says, sometimes in surprising ways. 

"Prior to signing Macmillan, Pride and Prejudice was the most commonly requested book that we had from our publishing partners. As soon as we intersected our list with the new titles from Macmillan, Ender's Game became Number One" among titles being requested by readers for bundling.

As covered at The FutureBook, the process by which BitLit fulfills requests from readers for ebook copies of books they own in print is generating new data for publishers. Readers who may have bought print copies many years ago now resurface, using BitLit's process of reading "shelfies" -- images that readers take of their bookshelves and send in to BitLit. Once a reader has approached with a request for the ebook edition of a print book, that reader is a source of previously "lost" data. 

What Hudson notes now is a surprising mix among leading readers who are savvy about BitLit's offering of free or low-cost ebooks to bundle with their print copies: "Pride and Prejudice and Ender's Game shows us an interesting mix of reader. This person may not fit into [standard] reader personas."

Hudson says that BitLit was in talks with Macmillan for close to a year. HarperCollins entered a pilot programme with BitLit in July 2014. Talks are in progress, he says, with other major publishers, and the company now has deals to supply ebooks from more than 330 publishers, overall, including Wiley, Elsevier, Baker Publishing Group, Andrews McMeel, and Verso. 

"It's certainly helpful to have another Big Five onboard," Hudson tells The Bookseller. "We're becoming fairly entrenched now. 

"We've now hit that 'digital plateau' of adoption, with 30- or 40-percent share of the markets" engaged to some degree in digital readership. "And it's clear that the paperback isn't going away. So we should find ways to increase how we monetise digital. And also use digital as a way to support print."

Bundling, in Hudson's model, does this by creating a kind of after-market for ebook editions of books among print-copy owners. And it supports print, according to the BitLit philosophy, by allowing print owners to enhance their collections with ebook editions at no or low cost.

Whether a reader starts by sending in a "shelfie" picture of a bookshelf or simply wants the ebook edition of something in his or her collection, the process of claiming an ebook is the same. The reader uses the BitLit app (Android or iPhone) to take a photo of the book's copyright page on which the reader writes his or her name (or shows a bookplate or ex libris stamp). As long as BitLit can identify a mark of ownership on the copyright page, it can release an ebook copy of the book to the reader, either for cost or free, according to the publisher's wishes.

And Hudson says he believes that more major houses are going to work with BitLit in the future, not least in cases of publishers that don't have direct-to-consumer initiatives of their own. 

"Even for publishers like Penguin Random House that have made a point they're not retailers," he says, "there's value in being able to market to people who have bought their books." And BitLit, in effect, accesses that standing body of consumers who have already purchased content from a publisher — which can be expected to perform as a ready consumer base for e-editions.

Trends in ebook-bundling adoption

Hudson stresses that he sees the BitLit model as "inherently non-cannibalistic." While subscription models are feared by some to cannibalise a publisher's list, he notes, BitLit's model provides "net-new revenue, net-new data." By this, he means that a new sale (or free provision, if the publisher opts for that) is created when a print-owner/reader approaches to claim an ebook. And a new round of data is generated where none may have existed whatever on that reader in the process. 

"We know now," he says, "that people who own a book in print are extremely unlikely to buy the ebook at full price. And so we're talking about net-new money" generated each time a discounted ebook is claimed by a print reader.

Macmillan's list of titles that become available at BitLit this week is quite deep. There are classics including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Robinson Crusoe to modern-era stalwarts Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century and The Magic Engineer

There may be a particularly good fit with the TOR/Forge catalog coming in this week from Macmillan. Among the readiest users of the BitLit service, Hudson says, he sees "a natural affinity here for the early adopter -- tends to be male, tends to be a phone user, tends to be a sci-fi reader. And this holds true on the publisher side of things, too. One of the first publishers we signed was Angry Robot. On both sides of the market — both those who publish science-fiction and those who read it — are the ones we've seen adopting this technology first.

"Science-fiction, technical books, and Christian books" are the sectors "we've seen real success in" so far."