It’s 2am, and I’ve just finished a great novel. My significant other went to sleep hours ago. My best friend, who lives across the country, would love this book, so I make a mental note to tell him about it. If we talk in a day or so I might remember, and it’s possible he’ll be intrigued enough to buy it. If not, maybe in five months I’ll get it for his birthday, if something else hasn’t come along by then.
In all likelihood, this was a one-shot deal: I bought a book, I liked it, I’ll tell a few people, and at best there might be one additional sale.
Now imagine it’s 2am and I’ve read this book on my second-generation networked digital reader, maybe the Kindle 2.0. As soon as I’ve finished the book, the device prompts me to rate it (4 stars!). It also knows about my social connections. It asks me if I’d recommend it to my friend, who has enjoyed similar books, and I say yes.
The next morning my friend wakes up and picks up his e-reader. There’s a recommendation from me — and a 20% discount to purchase this book immediately. This $5 digital book is now just four bucks, and it’s instantly on his device.
Once he accepts, I get 20% off my next purchase too, and a “karma point” in my profile for a successful recommendation.
People overwhelmingly buy books based on personal recommendations. Reading is normally a solitary activity; the only way to share the experience of a book is to urge friends to read it too. It’s curious that Amazon.com has hardly any social component, whereas Netflix (which loses money every time I rent a movie) has a very useful but underpromoted “Friends” area. I rent movies directly off my friends’ queues all the time, but I still buy books from Amazon after speaking with someone or reading anonymous reviews.
The combination of social networking and instant media transmission on devices like the Kindle can revolutionize this experience, by motivating readers at the moment they’ve read the book, and pushing high-value content directly at other consumers.
(Social patterns do not need to be two-way. Twitter has established the convention that people can “follow” others without the expectation of being “friended” back. So while I might “friend” people I know, I may also want to “follow” the reading habits of favorite authors, or books promoted on The Daily Show, or books disproportionately read by people in my geographic community.)
I call this an “anti-DRM” pattern is because DRM is unnecessary here. Libraries are full of free books and yet books are still purchased. A lot of that is convenience. The more convenient a service is, the more value it has. Even if it were possible for me to grab that digital book off the device and email it to my friend for free, would I bother? Most likely I’d forget before I ever got around to it. My own discount is a nice bonus, but the primary motivator would be the desire to share the experience combined with negligible personal effort.
And let’s suppose that people did send around free digital books. If I didn’t have an e-ink reader, what would I do with them? After I got a few freebies from friends I’d probably go buy a Kindle, and then that seductive “share this book” button would take hold. The existence of some free books is an incentive to move up to a specialized device. They create the necessary ecosystem and will ultimately motivate, not destroy, publishing sales.
High-volume readers are not the same demographic as high-volume music consumers. They are older, they are well-educated, they have better things to do with their time than email free books. (Not to mention that most readers probably know a writer; few teenagers know a rock star.) Nearly everyone who gets a Kindle says that they make more purchases, and the current Kindle store is technologically and psychologically primitive. To compete in a networked world, digital books need to come alive, and enlist readers to promote them.