But now the ebook retailers are getting into the game. Over the past week both B&N and Kobo have announced deals to give away free ebooks on mass transit. B&N is offering complimentary access on Amtrak, while Kobo announced on Tuesday that it is taking flight on Southwest.
The two retailers are joining Booklive, which announced a deal late last week to partner with a Japanese airline, and Amazon, which has a deal with JetBlue to sell content (this does include free ebooks).
Setting Amazon aside as the outlier, when we look at the Booklive, Kobo, and Nook deals we can see some surprising similarities. According to the announcements, the 3 partnerships offer access, but not free downloads or the option to buy.
- Kobo has partnered with Global Eagle Entertainment and Bauer Communications to offer complimentary in-flight access to its ebook catalog. Passengers can read either excerpts or entire books on their mobile devices. There's no mention of an option to buy ebooks or download freebies, but there is a mention of a post-flight email where Kobo will pitch the ebook a passenger was reading. This program kicked off on 6 May, but was just announced yesterday.
- Barnes & Noble has partnered with HarperCollins and Amtrak to offer a similar program to train passengers. Starting 9 May and extending through November, Amtrak passengers can enjoy access to HarperCollins titles as well as public domain classics, titles distributed through Nook Press, and single magazine issues. At launch the program will include Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, HarperCollins titles Spy Catcher by Matthew Dunn and This Will Change Everything by Jared Diamond, and indie titles such as On a Night Like This by Barbara Freethy and The Wedding Gift by Lucy Kevin.
- Booklive is letting All Nippon Airlines passengers read manga on ANA's Tokyo to Munich route. Rather than support mobile devices, the ebooks can be accessed through the in-flight entertainment systems. That doesn't strike me as an appealing way to read, but it is free.
These three retailers aren't the first to make a bid for a passenger's time, of course. Many airlines have offered reading material both before a flight (in airport terminals) and during. In fact, the free ebook idea has been around since at least 2010, when Virgin America debuted a new in-flight entertainment system which included a "Read" button as an option. According to a source which flew Virgin America in late 2014, that option has not been enabled,but it shows how long airlines have been thinking in this direction.
But now the idea of reading in-flight is being turned in a new direction. Now the retailers have cottoned on to the marketing possibilities, and that is potentially a very good turn of events for readers.
If the retailers start vying to offer free reading on more flights, readers win. Passengers get free entertainment, and the retailers pick up the tab.
With luck, we could even see the retailers start giving away the ebooks, rather than just letting you read them. On the other hand, that would require far fiercer competition than we have seen so far.
So far I can only show three retailers (four, counting Amazon) on a train service and 3 different airlines. The major US airlines haven't gotten involved yet, so it is a little early for the feverish speculation.