I tend to focus more on what we can do to enhance new product offerings and not so much on the backlist, particularly when it comes to books that are now several years old. This is partly due to the fact that I work in the technology area, a sector where only a small percentage of titles sell beyond that first year or two. It's the classic long tail effect Chris Anderson preaches, but the tail is often cut short by a new software release. After all, when WhizBang 5.3 becomes available it's highly likely that demand for books on WhizBang 5.2 will fall off a cliff.
Remaindering and fire-sale reductions are usually the retailer's and publisher's only way to exhaust inventory of those 5.2 books when version 5.3 arrives. Or at least that's the case in the physical book world. But what options exist for this older content in the e-world?
As a customer in search of WhizBang 5.2 information, maybe you'll get lucky and find the 5.2 edition in Google Book Search (or Microsoft's Live Search) and you'll be able to access the critical information you need. Given content access limitations though it's unlikely you'd be able to access every page of the book using either of those services.
At this point in the 5.2 edition's life very few people (if any) would be willing to pay full retail price for anytime/anywhere online access to it. Rather than author and publisher getting 100% of zero dollars, why not create an online model where customers can add it to their digital vault for only a few bucks? I'd be much more inclined to add dozens and dozens of books like this to my virtual shelf if I was only paying $2 or $3 for each one. Think of it like Amazon's Upgrade program but without the requirement to buy the print edition first.
Would this cannibalize sales of the physical book? Quite possibly, but if it's already flirting with zero unit sales on the outer banks of the long tail curve what do you have to lose? What about a book that's still selling modestly well and can still be found on store shelves? You'd definitely risk cannibalization there, but here's where our lack of a killer e-book device becomes a strength: How many people are really going to save a few bucks and deal with the inconvenience of reading the book on their computer, cell phone, etc.? Some, but not many.
I can think of plenty of examples where I'd like to try this out, and not just with technology books. The broader audience you're likely to attract could very easily offset the lower amount you earn from each customer. For example, let's say the physical book retails for $30 and you're offering the unlimited e-version for $3. You now need to sell 10 e-versions for every lost physical book sale. That doesn't sound like an unattainable goal. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find that plenty of books far exceed that level. Either way, this sort of experiment is much better than simply letting the content collect dust.