E-Card Handouts at BEA Weigh Little But Promise Tons

Publishers Weekly reports that his year’s Book Expo America looked and felt smaller than any in recent memory. Was it a predictable dip caused by the economy? Or the first shovelful of soil dug in the graveyard, as book industry prophet Mike Shatzkin recently speculated?

Notable in their scarcity were advance reading copies of forthcoming books being pushed by exhibiting publishers. Traditionally, experienced convention-crawlers line up at the gates early in the morning and, like Black Friday shoppers, the moment the green light is flashed they charge to booths with swagbags agape, scooping up any and every bound galley they can get their hands on whether they’re seriously interested in the titles or not. This year, however, there were far fewer ARCs on display, as PW’s Lynn Andriani reported, and trophy-hunters had to be satisfied with downloadable simulacra. But one of these has seized our attention and given it a good shake. “Traffic moved freely at the HarperCollins booth,” writes Andriani, “where the publisher was giving out Symtio cards carrying digital versions of its galleys.”

You might want to commit the word “Symtio” to your memory, as I suspect you will be hearing a lot about it in the near future. Craig Morgan Teicher, another PW reporter, explains it:

The concept: stores stock and sell Symtio cards, which are good for downloads of particular e-books or audiobooks from the Symtio site. Consumers can access the site only by entering the code from the card bought at a store, but once they’re logged on, they can buy more books, and the purchases are credited back to the store where the card was bought, meaning retailers can make more sales following the sale of a single Symtio card.

Symtio was created by Verne Kenny for Zondervan, a religious imprint of HarperCollins. More than two dozen publishers and hundreds of retail locations signed up after market tests indicated strong support for the concept. We support it too: in theory it provides a critically important bridge between brick and mortar bookstores and the digital sphere.

The company’s website details the operation:

Symtio is the easiest way to buy digital media in a retail store. Digital books, both eBook and audiobook, are released the same day as print books and available for immediate download. That means you’ll always be able to get the latest releases no matter how you choose to read them. Plus, we keep track of your purchases in a media footlocker. If your computer crashes or you accidentally delete your downloads, we’ve got backups that you can re-download at no extra cost.

Among the benefits users get when they create an account:

  • A “Media footlocker” where you can store your Symtio purchases.”Think of it as backup protection—your purchases are safe if your computer crashes or your hard drive fails.”
  • Re-download—”You can come back to symtio.com at any time and re-download your digital purchases.
  • Order history—The service keeps track of your purchases and provides you with historical data such as date, time, cost and number of times you’ve downloaded your purchases.
  • Product Gift Cards – “Giving a Symtio digital product card says you’ve thought about your gift, much as when you used to give bound books or music. While Symtio products have the feel and convenience of a gift card, the difference is that you’ve hand picked and purchased a specific product with the recipient in mind.”
  • DRM-free – To download an e-book, you select your device from a drop-down menu, then choose the appropriate file format. For audio you can use any MP3 player or supported media program to download digital products.

Of particular interest was the procedure for downloading e-books. Though not wireless, it is largely device-agnostic, and that includes (choirs of angels raise their voices) Macs.

Once a Symtio eBook is downloaded to your computer, transfer it to your digital media reader such as a Sony Personal Reader, PDA or personal computer as you would any other file. Or, if you prefer, you can read Symtio eBooks right on your Windows or Macintosh computer as long as you have a program that reads the format you purchased.

Supported hardware includes:

* Windows computer
* Macintosh computer
* Sony Reader Digital Book (PRS-505 and PRS-700)
* Amazon Kindle
* Palm based PDA or Smart Phone
* Windows Mobile based PDA or Smart Phone
* Symbian Smart Phone (Nokia and others)

Supported software includes:

* Adobe Digital Editions (.epub)
* Adobe Reader (.pdf)
* Mobipocket (.prc)
* Microsoft Reader (.lit)

Will consumers go for it? According to PW, they have done so in spades: Symtio sold “thousands of products in the first 10 weeks,” Kenny told PW. “Not only were people finding the bestsellers but they were browsing to find the backlist.”

“Retailers are obviously concerned about the loss of traffic to online stores,” Kenny, noted in the grandest understatement to come out of this year’s BEA. “I thought, what could the consumer do inside a retail setting to buy digital content. Out of that grew the idea of Symtio.”

You can visit the firm’s website and read up on the Symtio cards FAQ. The site also has a store locator. We entered our zip code a few others at random and for now the bookstores are pretty much all dedicated to Christian literature. But it’s hard to believe the product will expand not just to other HarperCollins imprints but to other publishers as well.

And why limit the products to books and the stores to bookstores? Let your imagination soar. Mine is working overtime.

Richard Curtis


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