In the smartest move in years by the troubled book industry, the Thomas Nelson imprint announced a series of new titles it is releasing this year in the "NelsonFree" format. Buy a title at the regular hardcover price and you'll get a free audiobook AND free electronic book version included.
Imagine if you bought a DVD and had to decide at the store whether you wanted to watch it on your TV or your laptop. If you wanted to do both, why you'd have to buy it twice. Imagine if you bought a CD that could only be played on your home stereo. If you wanted to play it in your car, you'd have to buy another copy. And if you wanted to play it on your iPod, why you'd have to buy yet another copy. So instead of paying $15 for an album, you'd have to pay $45. Crazy, right?
But that's exactly how most publishers treat bookbuyers, even though the internet has made the distribution of ebooks and audiobooks wildly inexpensive for them. Do you like John Grisham? If you want a hardcover of The Associate to put on your shelf and share with your spouse, that's gonna cost you $27.95. Want to listen to it on your iPod or in your car? Well, the audio version will cost you $44.95. Is your mother living with you but has poor eyesight? You can buy a large print version also for $27.95. Oh, but you just bought the Kindle. I bet you'd love an electronic version. That would cost $10 for the Kindle version...but it's not available in that format yet. Me, I prefer reading Grisham in the mass market paperback format (the small, easily portable version sold at airports). That will be probably $8 or more -- when it comes out in a year or two. So just to read the new John Grisham any way you want, you would pay about $120. Of course, no one is going to do that, but being forced to choose what way you want to read a book is crazy.
The book world has idiotically followed the disastrous lead of the music industry, which killed the single -- the cheap inexpensive way to start collecting music that turned teenagers into lifelong music consumers. The result? Collapsing album sales softened somewhat by the return of singles via iTunes (which record companies fought every step of the way). Similarly, the book industry has decided you HATE to buy cheap paperbacks at $7 and would MUCH RATHER buy $14 paperbacks in the bulkier trade paperback format, which is a lot heavier and harder to carry around. You also have to wait a year or more to do so, even though in other parts of the world the paperback is released the same time as the hardcover.
The book world has sadly imitated the movie industry by haplessly trying to emulate the DVD. They thought that meant including an author interview at the end of a paperback as an "exciting" extra.
In truth, Nelson is the first publisher to recognize the lesson of DVDs. DVDs succeeded because they offered far superior quality than VHS, provided extras like commentary tracks that were previously impossible and -- this is important -- were the same or cheaper than videotape. Now, taking advantage of the internet and cheap distribution methods, Nelson has dragged the book world into the 21st century. Buy the right to read a book and they'll give it to you in every format possible -- a print edition, an audio edition and an electronic edition so you can read it when and where you want. And they did it without raising the price. If Random House and Ballantine and Simon & Schuster and the rest have a brain in their heads, they'll follow suit immediately.
UPDATE: In related news, Amazon -- the maker of the Kindle -- has wisely agreed to begin selling ebooks for the iPhone and iTouch. Personally, I'd never read more than a poem or very short story on the iPhone but selling people books any way they want to read them is the right thing to do -- and even better if a version for the iPhone were bundled with your hard copy!