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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Amazon Pairs Print and Digital Books With New Program

For most readers, print and electronic books are an either-or proposition. There just isn’t a compelling reason to buy both editions of one book, at least not at full price.

Amazon is about to test how much appetite there is for combined print-and-digital book purchases if it cuts the price of Kindle books to less than that of a Starbucks latte.

On Tuesday, the company plans to announce a new program, Kindle MatchBook, that lets its customers buy the electronic versions of books they have already purchased in print form for either $2.99, $1.99, $0.99 or free. That’s far less than the $11 or more that Amazon typically charges for standalone purchases of the latest Kindle titles.

One benefit of MatchBook is that Amazon will let its customers buy Kindle editions of books that they purchased in print as far back as 1995, the year Amazon opened for business. The discounted Kindle edition prices apply to book purchases made in the future on Amazon too.

In an interview, Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Kindle Content, said one of the most common requests Amazon receives from its Kindle customers is a way to build parallel print and digital book libraries, which hasn’t been practical at full retail prices. He said many print lovers will enjoy Kindle features like text searching of books, especially reference books. Kindle fans, meanwhile, still want print editions of books as souvenirs and art objects.

“A lot of people are really attached to the idea of sticking books on a shelf,” Mr. Grandinetti said.

There’s little doubt some book fans exist who are as enthusiastic about the benefits of e-books as they are wistful for the sight of colorful book spines on their walls. The question is how many of them there are.

The success of the program will be determined partly by whether book publishers embrace it. So far, Amazon has agreements from only a couple of major publishers â€" HarperCollins was the only one Mr. Grandinetti was willing to name â€" to offer their titles through MatchBook.

He said Amazon hadn’t told most publishers about MatchBook yet and hoped to sign more up to join the program, which will begin in October. He predicted there will be more than 10,000 books available for purchase through MatchBook, including “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving, “I Know This Much is True” by Wally Lamb and “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough.

Although publishers have shown discomfort with Amazon’s outsize clout in book retailing, Mr. Grandinetti said he doesn’t expect a lot of resistance, because MatchBook represents an “incremental revenue stream for publishers and authors.”

Even if Amazon gets widespread buy-in from publishers, it isn’t clear whether a discounted combined price will be compelling. In some cases, the price for Kindle editions of older books is already very low (the Kindle version of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is $2.99, for example). MatchBook will make little difference to a print buyer of that book unless Amazon drops the Kindle price to almost nothing.

For the latest bestsellers like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” the value could look better. Amazon currently sells the print and Kindle editions for standalone prices of $12.81 and $10.99, respectively. Assuming that Ms. Sandberg’s book becomes available through MatchBook and that Amazon doesn’t jack up the print price of the book, an e-book and print package for “Lean In” would cost $15.80 or less.

Does the nostalgia for print run deep enough among Kindle users to justify the extra price, though, and is there really much hunger for digital editions of long-ago print purchases?

Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, is fiendishly good at selling people things they didn’t necessarily know they needed. If he can’t sell two books for the price of a bit-more-than-one, then it’s unlikely anyone can.