Packing for a four-city/five-person family trip this summer, I reluctantly plunked Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in the not-going-to-make-it pile. Weighing in at nearly two kilograms, that brick of a book was an impossible sell up against the stuffies, travel-sized board games, airplane snacks and iPads already squeezed into my carry-on. The Pulitzer Prize-winner was reshelved, unread.
This is the kind of problem BitLit was invented to alleviate. The idea behind the app, released earlier this year, is that if you already own a physical copy of a book, you should be able to get an e-book version for free, or at a deep discount.
To date, more than 200 publishers have signed on, with more than 30,000 titles available. Last week, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the company's founder was busy signing more deals.
"A lot of people at the fair are extremely interested in this because it's print and digital. It's always been one or the other, and finally there's this elegant way to bring them together," said Peter Hudson, BitLit's Vancouver-based CEO. He was speaking from Germany, where he was also promoting the latest upgrade to his app – the shelfie.
The spark for BitLit came over dinner, two years ago. Hudson was at a restaurant with a friend, discussing, as one does at a Boston Pizza, the nature of free will and the advent of D-Wave Systems' quantum computer and how quantum superposition may affect the multiverse. During this conversation, a disagreement erupted. Hudson's friend said he had a book at home that would prove Hudson wrong; he could envision the citation and even the page number – if only he had access to the book.
"And I said, 'that's the thing, Dan. You should be able to get the e-book for free or a really, really cheap price if you own the physical copy of the book,' " recalls Hudson. If you can take a CD you own, rip it, store the information in iTunes and have the tracks accessible on your smartphone, why shouldn't you able to do that with your books too?
And now you can. Here's how BitLit, which has been available since January, works: You download the app, take a photo of the cover of the book, write your name in pen on the copyright page and take a photo of that (this ensures that you don't buy the book from a store, take the photo, and then return the book), and you get a link to a download. Hudson has now launched the shelfie – which is just out this week on iTunes (it's been available for a few weeks on Android devices). You take a photo of your bookshelf, the app inventories it, giving you a list of all the books, and then a list of your BitLit eligible books.
Beyond the engineering challenges of creating the technology, and raising the necessary capital (Hudson appeared on the first episode of this season's Dragons' Den Wednesday night, looking for investors) getting publishers on board was a monumental task.
"I spent the first 29 days picking up the phone and cold-calling publishers leaving messages and e-mailing people before I got one person to tell me that this was not a terrible idea," says Hudson, now 34. That publisher was the Toronto-based independent ChiZine Publications, which specializes in "dark genre fiction."
This first bit of interest was fundamental in BitLit's big turning point this summer. Bestselling author Joe Hill was at Comic-Con in San Diego when he learned about BitLit over Twitter. Hill, who has more than 200,000 Twitter followers (and who is also the son of Stephen King), downloaded the app on the spot and tried it out on the one book he had with him – which happened to be a ChiZine title.
What luck. "At this point we had like 15,000 titles in the catalogue, so the odds of this working are .1 per cent chance," says Hudson.
It worked "flawlessly," Hudson continues. "Within 15 seconds he's got an e-book for the print copy." Hill tweeted out a link to the app, called it "officially cool," and then worked with his publisher, HarperCollins, to offer owners of his book Heart-Shaped Box a free e-book download (in the U.S. only). He went on to promote the heck out of his deal – and BitLit.
But HarperCollins has piloted with only seven books (including Heart-Shaped Box) and only in the U.S. Meanwhile none of the other so-called big five trade book publishers – Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan – are on board.
Yet. From Frankfurt, Hudson reported interest from the other companies but said they are being cautious in light of the recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation around the pricing of e-books. He's also in talks with HarperCollins about expanding the pilot – more territories (including Canada) and more titles – thousands, Hudson says.
So I wouldn't have been able to get my free or deeply discounted e-book version of The Goldfinch to read during my travels this summer anyway. I'm also hooped by my choice of technology: The app is not available for the BlackBerry and you can't take the picture with your iPad – you need an iPhone or an Android device for that. When I tried BitLit using my husband's iPhone this weekend on the random pile of books by my bed, we received a succession of non-recognition messages. "We couldn't identify your book!" None of the books in my stack was available. So I never did manage a successful BitLit download.
"That's a big reason why the shelfie is so important, because if you have to try the books one at a time then you're going to get disappointed and quit," says Hudson, now back in Vancouver. "That's why the shelfie is so critical for what we're doing."