Media Strategy

Amazon’s Matchbook Program: A Glimpse of Media 3.0?

Andreas Pfeiffer | September 06, 2013

Major Points

E-books are not so much a replacement for “real” books, but a complement that adds convenience.

Analog and digital formats of media serve different purposes, and will increasingly coexist.

E-Books should be bundled with physical books, and customers of e-books should be offered the possibility of “upgrading” to the physical copy.

Amazon made headlines recently announcing  the  “Matchbook” program. Just to recap, the on-line retailer announced it would start offering cut-price e-book (read: Kindle) versions to customers who had bought printed copies of books, and that—within the limits of the participating publishers and titles—for orders going back to the very beginning of Amazon’s activity. In a comparable move, Amazon now retroactively adds downloadable music-files to customers accounts for many CDs purchased on (Ironically, in some cases, for older titles, the bundle of CD + free MP3 file is actually cheaper than MP3 downloads on their own. Go figure…)

But lets not get sidetracked. I think that Amazon’s announcement is not so much interesting for what it says, but for what it implies, namely, that there is a market for physical books, and, more importantly, that physical and electronic books could and should co-exist in readers’ lives.

I actually presumed that something akin to Matchbook would come much faster. I have been wondering for years: why has no-one come up with the obvious thing: the “real” book-ebook bundle, which, for a slightly higher price than the printed copy alone provides the ease of electronic reading as an additional benefit to readers who may not be ready to go all-out digital in their reading habits.

In a way it is not so surprising that it took Amazon so long: the company is geeky enough to believe that electronic reading is better than reading of a physical book. E-books have some very positive sides, and so do physical books; neither one can beat the other at it’s core strengths. And, most importantly, neither format can replace the other in a fully satisfactory way. The truth about e-books is that they have expanded the notion of reading considerably, but without necessarily outmoding the more old-fashioned yet oh-so-pleasurable aspects of old-style books.

But there is a much more interesting question lurking here. What would happen if Amazon also started turning Matchbook on it’s head and offered the opposite service: to let customers acquire a printed copy for a reduced price once you have purchased a Kindle book? That would be a truly interesting move, at least as an experiment, although in commercial terms it would of course be  much harder to pull off: margins on printed books are far more reduced than those on e-books, and delivery of a physical item is incomparably more costly than sending a download link to a customer or pushing a file to digital device.

Yet the question of the value and coexistence of content in different formats for the same customer is one that deserves to be explored: we live in a media world that has become so fragmented and diversified that we are more and more often pushed to use different sources and formats of the same piece of content.

And the market clearly shows that there is room for a variety of formats. Look at music, for instance: some physical music carriers continue to exert a strong attraction for some listeners: vinyl records have staged an interesting come-back recently. Even the much-maligned CD has its place in the market: it is all nice and fine to download “near-CD quality” music from iTunes, Amazon or Google Play, but if you want to hear the latest Daft Punk opus (to pick just one example) in its full night-club-rattling glory, there is still only one way to go, and that is a CD.

To which one may retort (and rightly so) that I’m a dinosaur: adolescents and young adults do not care about hi-fi. Which is true: most of them don’t. Yet. Because, guess what: music consumption is something that never stands still. One you start appreciating music, you also will appreciate hearing the music you like in finer detail. When the iPod started shipping, the market for high-quality head-phones was minute – and nowadays you get high-quality in-ear headphones bundled with many smartphones. We always want more, and better. There is just no stopping to that trend, and that means that sooner or later, a lot of people who are happy with their iPhone headsets will want better… and better… and better… (Even Apple implicitly acknowledged that – today’s ear-buds are a far cry from the lo-fi white earphones that shipped with the first iPods.)

Now think a bout books: Is it really that different to compare an eBook to a printed copy? Is it really that outlandish to see a physical, nicely printed and bound volume just as the “HiFi” version of an electronic file?

We are just one step away from the moment when every book will come with a download-code for the e-book – or when the e-book of your printed copy will magically show up in your Kindle library. It will happen. Inverting the process is just one more step along the same line. It may take a little longer — but who can say that it won’t happen?