Test Driving BitLit

Yesterday, I came across this article from TechCrunch, which talks about a new mobile app called BitLit and their recent partnership with HarperCollins for an eBook bundling pilot. The impetus is simple - you have a print book, but what if you also want a digital copy of the same book that you already own for easy access while on the go? I've been in the process of slowly going digital with my media consumption, and (confession time!) I have not read a physical hard-copy of a book since becoming an Kindle addict in December. All of my reads have been digital, and my electronic TBR stacking is piling up quickly.

Unfortunately, I also have a ton of physical books in TBR stacks atop the bookshelves and lined up on tables in the basement. I enjoy reading on my lunch breaks at work, but sometimes lugging around a physical book can be a bit too cumbersome, particularly if it's a monolithic epic like the kind Stephen King has a tendency to produce, or one of the A Song of Ice and Fire books from George R.R. Martin. It's much, much easier to carry around a Kindle and have a massive, weightless library at my disposal.

Redemption across the format divide has been tricky and, more often than not, lackluster. I was heartened when Amazon launched its Matchbook program, but can't help but think that has gone by the wayside. Although I have purchased numerous physical books through Amazon, I'm hard pressed to find many of them listed in the Matchbook catalog. I also have plenty of books not purchased on Amazon that would thus be ineligible for the Matchbook program, and having only the option of repurchasing the same title as an eBook.

I've been dissatisfied with the Matchbook program, but I'm not if that's the result of a lack of internal support for the program within Amazon, or a certain reluctance on behalf of the publishers at large. All I know is, all of the titles I'd be keen to obtaining a digital copy of are unavailable, and I'm not willing to shell out an extra $5 - $15 to double-dip and repurchase, particularly for those unread titles that, at this point, I'd be far more likely to read sooner on my digital tablet than in dead tree format.

Recently, Marvel and DC Comics have been giving hard-copy buyers free access to digital copies of the same title. Buy a monthly comic or a collected trade hardcover and get a redemption code for use on their website. It's simple, easy, convenient, and gives readers full access to their title in whichever format is preferable to them at any given time. Say you want to read AvX but don't want to lug around a ton of monthlies or bulky over-sized hardcovers and companion volumes - cool, no problem. Just plug-in a code and hit the road with your tablet and read at your leisure through an app. I'm a huge fan of that.

Which is why I instantly fell in love with the BitLit app when I found out about it yesterday. This Vancouver start-up is a great idea, and may help ease some traditional publisher's recalcitrance when it comes to the digital domain by offering an alternative to Amazon and affording readers more options in how and when they can access purchased materials.

There's a number of smaller publishing houses signed up with BitLit, most notably (in my opinion) Angry Robot (listed under their parent corporation of Osprey Publishing Ltd). The HarperCollins pilot program is a big first step, but the titles are incredibly limited. At the time of this writing, Halfway to the Grave is the only eligible HarperCollins title, but five more titles are expected to land soon.

If successful, I'm hopeful it will pave the way to more big-name publishers signing on and offering cheaper alternatives than repurchasing a particular title as a full-priced eBook. I'm even more hopeful that some will follow in the footsteps of Angry Robot by offering their electronic titles to owners of the physical copy for free.

The process of obtaining the electronic copies are ridiculously easy (you can see how it works at their site), and since Angry Robot was currently the only publisher whose titles I own that were eligible, I was able to give the app a bit of a test drive.

Once you register the app and log-in, you just hold the book at arm's length from your camera-equipped mobile device - BitLit is available in both Apple and Google app stores - and line it up between the guide bars, and take a picture.

photo-4The app then verifies the image and matches it against their catalog. This can take a little while, and the better lighting available to you when imaging, the better. I ran into a number of failed attempts when trying to convert Ramez Naam's Nexus, due to the cover's color palette and being in my dark, dingy unfinished basement. Oddly, I had no trouble with the darker color palettes from Wendig's The Blue Blazes and Mockingbird, or Chris F. Holm's Dead Harvest.

I should note here that because BitLit is still a small company, each scan is supervised, and when they recognized I was having lots of trouble with Nexus, they reached out to me immediately with advice and I trotted the book upstairs to our well-lit kitchen table and the problem was solved instantly.

I also want to note that I was pretty darn impressed with their unobtrusive vetting process. I really respect and appreciate that they're looking out for their partners and authors, and helping to make sure the app isn't being used by some delinquent scanners in a bookstore, or preventing the book from being returned by doing a little minor defacing and claim of ownership to the copyright page.

Once the image is verified, you're asked to write your name in all-caps on the copyright page and snap off a scan of that, too. Again, the image recognition kicks in and registers the physical book to your name, and dispatches the electronic copy to your e-mail address.

I suspect that the deliverable files will vary in formats used depending by the publisher, and that readers will receive either a PDF or universal ePub edition (or both, according to an image on BitLit's website). Within seconds of completing the scan, I had the electronic copies in DRM-free ePub format and did a quick Calibre conversion to create mobi files to send to my Kindle. The digital files looked perfect, and the conversion did not cause any funky formatting issues, so I'm quite content with the experience!

BitLit makes for a welcome change in the ever-evolving landscape of publishing, and could prove to be the kind of innovation readers will need and want in the digital world.

Unfortunately, the app is still in its early days and content is pretty lacking at the moment. I searched for a handful of titles, both on my app after downloading, and on their website prior to, but couldn't find much in the way of titles stocked in my own personal catalog. Hachette has not signed up with them, so you'll not find digital copies of James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series ready for claiming (which I really, really, really want!), and you won't find any big names like Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Marcia Clark, or James Patterson. No George R.R. Martin titles, nor Tom Clancy, nor John Grisham, either. While the Angry Robot titles were enough to hook and draw me, they're not enough to keep me around long-term until more publishers sign on the dotted line.

That said, I am genuinely interested in how BitLit performs long-term and to see if they can clear the hurdles that Amazon Matchbook has, thus far, seemed incapable of. I'm hoping their catalog of titles and publishers expands considerably in the near-term.

The app makes for a welcome challenger to Amazon's Matchbook, particularly in the realm of open accessibility for non-Amazon users or books purchased elsewhere. And the app's mobility and use of pre-existing, built-in technology gives it a significant leg-up. Once BitLit has grown a bit more and both readers and publishing houses become aware of its significance, I suspect quite a few weekends will be lost to scanning.


Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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