My weekend book purchase.

April 5, 2015
Do you think we are living through a golden age of books? Or does the dominance of Amazon in digital books, with Kindle and Audible facing seemingly little competition in e-books and audiobooks, a development that has you deeply worried? Maybe both conclusions are justified.
As evidence for the “golden age” hypothesis, I’d like to share my book buying actions for Sunday, April 5th 2015.  
This day, like every other day, I received an e-mail from BookBub. Are you a BookBub subscriber? Here’s how it works. You sign up for BookBub and select your preferred categories (such as history, general nonfiction, mysteries, literary fiction, etc). What is great is that BookBub sends a very limited list (7 or so books) of e-books that are limited time deeply discounted or free. BookBub deals are available through Amazon Kindle, Nook (does anyone buy Nook books anymore?), Kobo, Apple iBooks, and Android.
The genius of BookBub is the discipline reflected in the length of the daily e-mail.  Too many books on the list and I’ll just delete the e-mail. Just few enough books, as long as I get a good match every now and again, encourages me to open and read the BookBub daily e-mail.
One of the books listed on my 4/5/2015 BookBub alert is Killing Hope by Keith Houghton. The Kindle price is $0.99. I try to keep my Kindle stocked with low-intensity books. Books that I will read if I’m too tired to really think. Books that I’ll read at the end of the day, on the weekend, or on vacation.  Books that if didn’t have at hand I’d instead turn to Netflix, or Hulu, or just mindless surfing.  Killing Hope seemed to fit my “as mindless (in a good way) as video/surfing” criteria. 
The blurb for Killing Hope on BookBub reads:
"In this action-packed ride with over 300 five-star Amazon reviews, homicide detective Gabe Quinn races to find a serial killer while confronting powerful moral questions. Get ready for twists and turns that will keep you guessing!”
What really sold me on Killing Hope is that the Kindle book is Whispersync enabled, and the accompanying (synced up) Audible audiobook is only $1.99.   
So if I’m doing my math right, my Kindle/Audible purchase of Killing Hope is about $3 bucks.  
If the book is any good (and I have both high hopes and low expectations), then this seems like a good deal. Not as cheap as if I had checked the book out from my academic or public library, but digital books from libraries is another story.  
What is even better is that the $3 bucks that I’m spent on the e-book and audiobook version of Killing Hope seems like a good deal for Keith Houghton, the guy who wrote the book. If you go to Houghton’s website, you learn that he has been self-publishing on Amazon for 3 years. We further learn that Keith Houghton lives in a small town in northwest England with his wife and a cairn terrier named Jake. Happily, Houghton reports that self-publishing on Amazon has allowed him to earn a living as a full-time writer
As with everything about Amazon.com, the story is complicated. The advantages that digital books and self-publishing bring to some groups (cheap book buyers and some self-publishing authors), must understood against the costs to the larger book ecosystem.
Tony Horwitz, author of the Kindle Single BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever, has written about the dark side of the digital book revolution.  In a NYTimes op-ed piece I Was a Digital Best Seller!, Horwitz relates just how difficult it is for professional authors to make a living in the new Amazon dominated digital book economy.  Boom is a terrific little book (117 pages). If you are interested in the Keystone Pipeline, oil, money, cowboys, or strippers (and really - who wouldn’t be interested in at least one of those things), then you should immediately give Amazon (and Horwitz) your $2.99.  As of today, Boom sits at 43,120 in the Amazon Best sellers Rank (Killing Hope is 11,712) - I’m hoping that this blog post nudges those rankings up.
Are services like BookBub the missing piece of the digital book puzzle? Can BookBub simultaneously enable authors to make a living, and readers to find great deals on books that they normally would not have purchased? BookBub, a startup based in Boston, sends out over 5 million of the types of e-mails that got me to buy the Kindle and Audible version of Killing Hope.  Apparently I am not alone in clicking on the BookBub links, as last year the service drove sales of 10 million e-books. In May (2014) BookBub received $3.8 million in Series A funding.
BookBub is great, although I do have some wishes for the site. All of my wishes for BookBub come down to data. Currently, the way that BookBub lets me know about books seems to be mostly (totally?) based on the categories that I check-off. It would be much better if BookBub let me know about book sales based on my book buying and browsing behavior.
Some suggestions for BookBub:
  • It would be great if BookBub could tie into my Amazon and Audible Wish Lists, and alert me if one of the books on these lists is going on sale. (Why Amazon does not do this I’ll never understand).
  • BookBub should have categories for Whispersync books, as I really want to know when a Kindle/Audible book combination goes on sale.
  • I wish that I could give BookBub the ability to look at all my past digital book purchases, so the site could utilize these data predict when I’d be interested in a book that is coming on sale.
My digital book buying behavior is highly elastic, as my propensity to buy is strongly related to price. I’d buy many more digital books if the prices were lower, and I’ll buy low-priced books (like Killing Hope) that I would never otherwise buy at the regular price. More data should allow BookBub to offer personalized pricing, getting the book price as close to what I’d be willing to pay. Since the marginal cost of each additional digital book is zero, every book that I buy at a low price (that I would not have otherwise purchased at the "regular" price) is a financial win for the sellers.  
This of course assumes that buying cheap digital books does not crowd out purchases of regularly priced books, or does not re-set my book buying equilibrium price to the new low level. In my experience, low priced digital books are additional book purchases, and if anything they free me up to spend more money on the digital books that I really want. 
I’m not sure if we really understand the economics of digital books, or the place of services like BookBub in the new book economy. The answer is in the data, and I’m distressed that Amazon has a monopoly on its analysis.   
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