Responding to Nat Sobel, Cranky-Style

December 8th, 2009 · 34 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Dear Mr. Sobel,

While I do not know you, I am impressed by your resume and the portrait of you with what appears to be a brown tabby. I generally cut cat lovers more slack — and brown tabby owners…they get a free pass, as a rule — but I cannot do so in this instance. You are wrong.

You have “challenged” publishers to hold back e-reprints (I presume you are making the case for the ebook as a secondary market of some sort), and you make no bones about, as Richard Curtis states, “giving hardcovers their moment in the sun”. This sounds like fetishism to me. We must worship the all-mighty hardcover, without worrying about the actual impact to overall sales. Without even considering the reader. Of course, why would publishing ever consider the reader?

[Part Two: A Long, Detailed Look At Distribution Windows]

You draw a correlation between the apparent increase of sales of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm and withholding the ebook, though none exists. Is it possible that sales would be higher if the ebook had been released? Why, yes it is! Consumer awareness and publishing marketing efforts were at their peak in September. This was the rare event book. They don’t come around all that often.

There seems to be an assumption that the ebook customer will shift formats when their preferred format isn’t available. I suppose some will, but most will simply skip the purchase. I am not entirely sure lost sales are good for business, but then publishing does many things that make no sense in the real world.

Let us be frank here: when we talk about “saving” publishing and withholding ebook rights, we are talking about “saving” a subset of books. A way of life. An object of worship, instead of books, things people read. Your hardcover books can have all the moments in the sun they need, but we both know how many hardcover books have failed to truly shine, much less get a hint of a tan. You are trying to protect some books, not all books. You really want to pick and choose what gets “saved.”

There is an element of elitism to this approach: these books are so special they must be kept away from those people who prefer other formats. Nevermind that the book many underperform and never reach the mass market. Nevermind that people want to buy the books right now. Nevermind that the books being protected from consumers who want to read them.

I have read your letter several times, and while I appreciate the concern being expressed, I fail to see how your solution saves publishing, or, frankly, hardcover books. You know. I know it. And every person who reads both your post and mine knows it. Whatever publishing is — and it’s many things — holding back digital rights won’t save anything. It will likely mask the real problem a little bit longer, but it won’t save anything. Most especially not publishing as we know it.

Because publishing as we know it is sick. Very sick. And something’s got to give. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to read a single ebook, but the truth of the matter is that ebook sales are increasing dramatically, physical retail space is decreasing, there are serious pricing pressures being exerted, and most of the hardcover books you seek to protect don’t really earn their money back, at least not in a way that makes the format, as it’s practiced today, sustainable.

Yet you say, as if this is a bad thing:

In just a few years we have seen electronic sales of bestsellers go from 2% to 12 to 15% of total sales. Next year, they may constitute 20%. Who knows where this will end, once bestsellers are on cell phones, blackberries and the like?

Yes, who knows where this will end? Good lord, man!, people are buying and reading books. We can’t have that. Stop. The. Madness. Now.

Really, the plan is to cut off a rapidly growing market segment? As noted, I’ve read your letter several times. Trying to force a modern sort of mass market on the consumer is not a plan. It is wishful thinking. A plan would involve ways to increase book sales. A plan would involve ways to to connect readers and books in new ways. A plan would acknowledge the changes in how readers learn about, talk about, and buy books.

There are many factors that have changed over the past few decades. Readers around the world are talking about books every day, and international readers are frustrated by their inability to buy those books. Readers are constantly bombarded by non-reading choices (getting back to the inherent elitism in your thinking, what about the working mother? You’re not doing her any favors, and you know the female customer is critical to book publishing). And there are alternate channels for acquiring books. I won’t delve to much into the piracy argument, because you are surely aware that the Jordan book is freely available online.

I admit it: I am baffled by the publishing industry’s stance against piracy. On one hand, despite all the dubious numbers and lack of nuance, there is a desire to “stop” piracy. On the other, publishing refuses to provide legal options for people who prefer ebooks. This is how the pirates win — they build and maintain a marketplace because established businesses cannot be bothered to do it themselves.

While you implore publishers and agents to hold back on ebooks, for reasons that make no sense, I implore those same people to think long and hard about where book publishing is going. I can assure you this: publishing is going strong and getting strong. However, publishing as you know it isn’t.

P.S. — I realize your argument was predicated on a situation that arose with motion picture studios and exhibitors, specifically surrounding the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I’ll address that in a separate article. It’s time to put the motion picture comparisons into a little perspectve. Also, $30.1 million on 3,119 screens? That’s some exhibitor boycott.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

34 responses so far ↓

  • Bradley Robb // Dec 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I’m as baffled by this as you are. As I see it, the hardback is the only medium that is safe from having sales demolished by eBooks.

    Personally, the hardcover bears the strongest similarity to the vinyl LP – an item which is actually experiencing record sales since the digital shift in the music industry – is a coveted collectors item not unlike the paper back. These items have artistic merit beyond their core function, and look good when prominently displayed.

    Mass markets, and the perpetually confused trade paperback, however, can usually be replaced by the current evolution of the eBook with no real lose to the reader.

    That is, though, all looking down the road a few years. Currently, the hardcover buyer and the eBook reader are two very different groups. Ignoring one for the other will, as you’ve pointed out, only help to sow the seeds for future piracy by allowing an established and user-tested infrastructure to develop.

    Sadly, some people are having a hard time realizing that the markets are changing, and that change can’t really be avoided.

  • Bradley Robb // Dec 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I really need to stop going for a sandwich mid-comment. Please excuse the typos above.

  • Clothdragon // Dec 8, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I don’t buy hardcovers. I will not buy hardcovers — even if a book I desperately want to read only comes out in hardcover, I won’t buy it because it doesn’t fit in my hand or my purse so instead of reading it I put it on the shelf to look pretty. Which seems to be the only purpose of that style book. It wasn’t intentional, and it took me several years to recognize this in myself when I noticed my TBR shelves would be reduced to nothing but hardcovers and instead of reading them I’d go shopping for new books.

    Many of my favorite authors missed a number of sales while I blindly blamed a lack of interest in their last book on the content rather than the format. It all works better now that I’ve recognized this, but I really wish the publishers would notice as well. I wouldn’t mind if they did something like the movies where they cost more immediately on release than they did two years down the road, but I hate having to wait an extra year to get a format I will read.

  • David Alastiar Hayden // Dec 8, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Good article.

    I agree with Bradley Robb. Hardcovers aren’t going away. They’re likely, in fact, to become nice collectible volumes. Nothing wrong with that.

    Sobel is just resisting the inevitable to maintain his way of things. Well, life changes. And we’re talking about an industry that doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, look where most publishing offices are: New York. Do you know where Sax Fifth Avenue is based? Jackson, Mississippi. Simple economics seem lost on this industry.

  • Brian O'Leary // Dec 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    As I made evident yesterday (, I support Kassia and Bradley Robb on these points, but I fear we’re talking to ourselves. How do we get Richard Curtis and Nat Sobel to engage here?

  • EC Sheedy // Dec 8, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I agree about the hardcover book being around for a long time to come. Not because it will become some kind of weird protected species, but because, when produced with thought and artfulness, it is a thing of beauty, a tangible memory of reading pleasure.

    Within the last two weeks, I’ve bought two hardcovers, one trade paperback, and three mass market paperbacks. Oh, and I downloaded five–yes, I’m crazy–ebooks from the Sony store. Can you tell I’m planning a holiday.

    Mr. Sobel, don’t worry about the hardcover; it will find it’s place. It just won’t be the *same* place.

  • Brittany Landgrebe // Dec 8, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    I agree with some aspects of what you say, but also slightly – bear with me – with Sobel.

    While some, like Clothdragon, hate hardbacks, I prefer them. I can be a bit rough with my books, and if I buy one it’s because I know I’ll want to read it again and again. I hate buying paperbacks because they are flimsy and sometimes even because the covers are ugly compared to the hardbacks.

    But I’m asking Santa for a Kindle this year. I *want* eBooks, because I do have a few hardbacks on my shelve that, while I liked their story, now realize I probably won’t go back and reread them. There are times when I donate books because, as an aspiring writer myself, I don’t like taking away earnings from authors. I’d rather read an eBook to ensure I’m head over heals for the story before buying in hardback. Also, some of my friends’ published books only come out in eCopy, and I hate reading on my laptop.

    Sobel’s solution won’t last long, but if he merged the idea of hardback and eBooks, it’d be far better. By that I mean offer a 10 to 20% discount on a hardback copy of an eBook, or vice versa.

    Above all, that’s what I wish the publishing industry would do. It’s a temptation to buy two copies of the same book I’d gladly fall for. Because if I buy an eBook and fall in love with the story, I want to re-experience it in hardback – or paperback, if that’s your chosen medium.

    So, get publishers to offer discounts on eBooks when a reader buys a hardback, and/ or a discount on bookshelf versions when a reader buys an eBook.

    It looks like a win-win situation to me.

  • Ann Marie // Dec 8, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I watch the way my kids handle electronic gizmos, and I think publishers who resist e-books are guaranteeing their status as collectibles rather than mass market goods. Both their father and I work or worked in libraries, so they have more exposure to hardbacks than most. But they are completely comfortable with gizmos such as phones and DSs and laptops and have such things charged up and handy most hours of the day; they’re used to multiple modes of use. Their generation has far difference experience with what is a “normal” way to read (and what alternative activities are available).

  • Mark Barrett // Dec 8, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    I confess earlier today that I got about a paragraph into Sobel’s post before it put me to sleep. While I was out I dreamed I was a studio exec during the height of the VHS panic in Hollywood. I was 100% sure that video rentals would destroy my business model, so I fought them with all my power until sales figures showed that I and all of my like-minded peers were blithering idiots. Then I woke up.

    Wake up, Mr. Sobel.

  • Chris Kubica // Dec 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    @Bradley I think the record LP sales thing is a fad that will die a quick death.

    The only reason to want to delay eBook (or any format besides Hardcover) is to delay the inevitable death of publishing as we’ve known it for many decades. Publishers desperately need us to pay $35 for the new S. King Hardcovers to make up for losses across the board from the no-longer-working-as-it-always-did industry. It’s lame, but we’ll all just have to watch it play out like it did for the music and movie industries.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 8, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    @brian — Honestly? I don’t think Nat Sobel has any interest in engaging. Granted, I’m inferring this from the way his letter was distributed. Richard Curtis, I think we can reach. He has a vested interested in both old and new business models.

    @bradley — It’s okay, have a sandwich. I won’t tell you what I do during the actual composition of these screeds. It gets ugly!

    @clothdragon — for me, hardcovers are uncomfortable. I was not blessed with, oh, height, so it’s one of those things. I prefer ebooks, have preferred them for years, though I am format agnostic overall. Right format, right situation, I’m happy.

    @others (including David and Brittany and Chris) — hardcovers are *not* going away. They are a viable, valuable format. Just as I have friend who buy only ebooks, who buy only mass market, who buy only audio, I have friends who by only hardcover. I hardly make fun of these friends. This is about letting the consumer make decisions, and, yes, about making the consumer happy. Happy consumers buy stuff. We need to differentiate between preferred formats and artifacts. I have been thinking too much about the latter.

    @mark — Please do not make me relive the DVD battles. I was on the front lines. I took bullets for motion picture studios.

    And, @anne marie — yes! The new consumer is right now. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn them into book buying people from the get go?

  • A Long, Detailed Look at Distribution Windows | Booksquare // Dec 9, 2009 at 12:16 am

    […] This new delay relates to windowing, the concept of moving a product through specific retail channels for specific periods of time. Windowing is a concept that works really well in the motion picture industry, though studios are trying to compress those windows, while the music industry (another business prone to overpaying advances) works with simultaneous release of formats. [Part One: Response to Nat Sobel] […]

  • Brian O'Leary // Dec 9, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Good point about getting Nat Sobel to engage. Looks like his letter helped convince S&S and Hachette that the sky was falling.

    Nice picture of Sobel with the cat, though. At first I thought he was holding a book with a cat picture on it. Some weird 2-D effect that I’ll need Kirk Biglione to explain.

  • Changing the Rules | Ditchwalk // Dec 9, 2009 at 9:13 am

    […] Can anyone think of ways in which the publishing industry might change the rules in order to sell more books? Anyone? […]

  • Kevin Smokler // Dec 9, 2009 at 10:21 am

    We are in the middle of seeing how well delaying releases works for the movie and music industry. i.e. it simply makes eager fans angry and impatient and yes, as Kassia has said, allows pirates to step into the fray and give a customer what they want when they want it. That this the sad but inexcapable truth of doing business in the 21st century. The customer says what they want and you give it to them. There are more of them than there are of you. Should you choose to make it difficult for your own purposes, said customers will simply abandon what you are offering them and go elsewhere.

    I continue to be shocked about how many times we have to explain this. And I count myself as among those who wolf down content with both hands. I want to take Nat Sobol and his cohorts, shake them and say “please get out of the way so I can give you more money.”

  • Facing the Future « …Never Satiated // Dec 9, 2009 at 10:51 am

    […] Book Square’s Kassia Krozser responds to the backwards business logic of “protecting” the book by restricting formats. And Infectious Greed’s Paul Kedrosky argues against an argument blaming new technology for the dearth of IPOs. Both address arguments that somehow the decline, stifling, or death of an industry is defined by the emergence of new technology and new ways of doing things – not those industries abilities to define themselves and their functions in terms of the new ways of doing things. […]

  • Theresa M. Moore // Dec 9, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    As an author and publisher I projected the cost to print and promote a hardcover book and decided a) it’s too expensive, and b) the reader will vote which format to buy with his/her wallet. I used to buy hardcover books but yes, they are not that easily portable, and they are heavy. Since I knew these two things I avoided the headache associated with producing the hardcovers and only publish paperbacks and ebooks. And, where possible, I make sure they are issued at the same time. (I used to put the ebooks up on Kindle, but not any more. But that raises another issue entirely.) The fact is that in this new century S&S and Hachette Books will lose the argument. They should not expect the readers to fall in line with their expectations. There are more readers buying ebooks and softcovers now than will ever buy enough hardcovers to justify releasing them to the mass market. They should become collectible, and to those who would like to have them to line their library shelves.

  • Pam van Hylckama Vlieg // Dec 9, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    It’s not like the ebooks are any cheaper than the hardback although no trees died to give you the copy, no printing press, no middle men. Just a digi copy.

  • KatG // Dec 9, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    I totally agree with you on this one Kassia; it was a stupid argument, borne mostly it seems on the fact that authors get the biggest royalties on hardcovers and the fear that electronic books will replace hardcovers. If that were really the case, it wouldn’t matter if you delay the e-publication or not. E-books are very expensive for publishers because of the different formats and vendor issues, but very soon, they won’t be. And prices should then come down, which is going to mean lots of sales, not fewer ones.

    I also agree with Brittany that publishers should bundle hardcovers with e-pubs. I’ve been saying this for the last two years. If there are great concerns about print editions, this would be the best way to go.

  • Judith Weber // Dec 11, 2009 at 7:49 am

    These comments seem to ignore the fact that Mr. Sobel never suggested that books not be released in electronic format, only that their release be delayed beyond the period of the initial hardcover release. When the mass market paperback business was thriving, millions of readers waited to buy books when they came out (usually a year later than hardcover release), but they didn’t refuse to buy the books they wanted to read. If readers today don’t want to pay the higher price of hardcovers, they will, similarly, wait a few months until the books are available electronically, or a little longer until they can find them in paperback reprint. To cite the movie analogy again, many people wait until DVDs are released, rather than paying the high cost of a night out at the movies, but they still see the movies they want to see.

  • nat sobel // Dec 11, 2009 at 8:49 am

    The news that Amazon is dropping the price of their bestsellers to 7.95, should encourage many of the readers in their complaints about my position. Books have gotten even cheaper. What could be wrong with that?
    Well, ask yourselves, then why have three of the major publishing groups just agreed to withold many of their bestsellers for 4 months after initail publication in hardcover?And in many of the other houses publishers are moving in that direction. Do you think that they, like myself, are not interested in the consumer?I love electronic books. I have a Kindle. And use it.
    The story behind all of this is fear of survival.
    All publishing people see the possibility of a ruinous scenario. At the moment, Amazon is paying the publishers their full share of income on every book sold. Everyone is making money-Amazon and others are losing money on every sale of a bestseller they make. As their share of all sales has grown, it is inevitable that once they control a significant share of this market, the pricing will change dramatically. It happens in every business.
    A big price change will destroy the standard royalties and advances paid to writers.Some nonfiction books that take years to complete will no longer be subsidized by the publisher. And will cease to be. First novels and all fiction will be affected.The economy of all publishing is at stake here for both publisher,agent and author. Keeping hardcover books alive[ we are the only country in the world with a viable hardcover market,] is essential to the intellectual health of this country.
    I don’t expect buyers to read the handwriting on this wall, that is the responsibility of publishing professionals like myself. I’ve spent 50 years in publishing, I don’t want to see it destroyed, that is why I have spoken out.
    I ask all readers to wait a few months, if they don’t want to buy the hardcover. If you can wait 4 to 6 months for the DVD, why can’t you wait for the electronic book.? The DVD saved the movie studios, because they didn’t let it compete with the exhibitors. I am asking for the same patience for the electronic book.
    Nat Sobel

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 11, 2009 at 11:18 am

    @judith and @nat I appreciate both of you weighing in on this conversation. As you might have gathered from various conversations around the web, decisions to delay ebook releases are angering the readers who are publishing’s best customers. They are not the readers who buy one or two books a year; they are the readers who buy many, many books a year. Just yesterday, I bought three books, two based upon recommendations, one pure impulse. Had those books not been available to me in the format I prefer, well, I have other choices for my money. Now I’m happily reading a book that has been praised by people I trust. That’s the real challenge facing the publishing today — the myriad of choices and challenges facing today’s reading consumer.

    Judith — I don’t know if you read my detailed breakdown of motion picture windows (, but the movie analogy is not a good one. The publishing industry, with rare exceptions, doesn’t maintain the kind of sustained marketing (efforts borne by both the studio and “retailer”) to keep consumer awareness alive during the windows. Publishing also does not, generally, benefit from the repeat viewings/purchases, both direct and indirect that motion pictures do. It is the rare book that gets any sort of marketing, beyond the basics, at initial release, much less when (and if) it moves through various formats.

    Your argument that someone will be aware of the ebook release is dependent upon a few things: sustaining consumer interest in the book and making sure the consumer is aware of subsequent format releases. The current, extremely inconsistent methodology employed by the publishing industry (even those houses who are holding back ebooks are doing so selectively) does nothing to help the consumer buy books. I admit I’m not an expert on these things, but really, it does seem like a lousy way to make sales. And it’s a lot of burden to place on your customers.

    Nat — I agree the economics of publishing are changing, and, frankly, they need to change. In some ways, the economic challenges are not the fault of publishers, per se. They report to corporate parents who have requirements that have nothing to do with the business of selling books (talking primarily about the so-called Big Six). I sincerely doubt these changes will destroy the intellectual health of this country. If we were to be brutally honest with each other, we would agree that the vast majority of authors, released in any format, do not make a living wage off their work. It is only a select few who either, via advances or genuine sales, can survive on their writing alone. I wish more agents were pushing for better deals for their authors vis a vis ebooks, but I also understand it’s difficult. If ever there was potential to bring in new readers, it’s ebooks (I am noting an increase in male fiction readers — readers who weren’t print book purchasers — who use the iPhone as a device, I hope this trend continues and grows). And if we were to be brutally honest, we’d have to agree that many of the books being published today, particularly in the hardcover market, are not worth the price being charged. Nothing angers me more than spending my money on books that are poorly written and poorly edited, yet priced over $20.

    For years now, the publishing industry has staggered along with a false sense of economics. That is not to say the publishers don’t understand the situation, but they’ve been largely insulated from the reality of consumer purchasing behavior. *Most* people do not buy their hardcover books at list prices. The retailers have been subsidizing discounted consumer prices for a long time (who was it before Crown that was going to destroy publishing with low prices? I recall someone, but no name). Already the price of books is a lower dollar figure in the minds of most consumers. The $9.99 ebook — and good on Amazon for making it so clear that ebooks are not cheap nor are they free — is, in the mind of most readers, the right price point for what the consumer actually receives, and it makes sense when you consider the price they actually pay for hardcover books. This is the third or fourth digital transition for these consumers (music, movies, games), and they are far more aware of how digital media works than most of us realize. Why do you think they laugh when they see the digital list prices set by publishers?

    However, the “waiting” argument, well, what does windowing an ebook really do? There are three major kinds of ebook customers who engage in this subset of the book market (we are only talking about *some* books, not all books): former hardcover readers who have made the switch, former mass market/trade customers who are buying earlier because the price point fits their mental barrier, and digital-only readers who are pleased that selection has increased after all these years (the commercial ebook market has been alive and thriving for well over a decade, without major publishers playing a huge part). Some of the hardcover customers who’ve switched *might* be compelled to buy the print version if it’s a must-have book. There are few of those. The mass market customer will forego the purchase, as will the digital customer. I don’t see how withholding the ebook stimulates hardcover sales to the point where it makes up for the gap caused by people who really do prefer to read digitally (me: hardcover reading is not comfortable for me, never has been).

    Right now ebooks are 5% of the market. Higher for some books, lower for others. When that figure reaches 10%, that’s when you’ll start to see serious and sustained impact on the hardcover market (again, we’re only talking about a subset of books here). If it hits 20% or more, then how does publishing handle that? Do they really argue for windows with a straight face, especially in light of piracy? You note that consumers don’t really understand publishing economics, and I’ve argued to no avail that publishers have done a lousy job of explaining themselves. Silence fuels anger and resentment, and if you’re paying attention to consumers, they are not happy about these decisions, and they vote with their dollars. (And yes I know, the consumer is not the traditional customer of publishers, making this that much more complex.)

    My point is that right now the market is small (while the marketing is great, have books ever been talked about so much in the media?). Right now is the best time to start making shifts in publishing economics. Amazon is forcing the pricing issue, and if Apple enters the market, they are not going to be less aggressive than Amazon (I have doubts about Apple). Barnes & Noble is going to be a huge player in pricing, and they know they need to compete seriously with Amazon. Borders, I don’t know what to say. Costco and other big retailers will likely stay out of the ebook game, though they may get into the reader market because they do good business in electronics. And we know that we will lose additional independent booksellers in the coming year.

    A wise man recently said that publishing will never be stable again, but if publishing stops thinking about protecting the business that was and starts building the business that will be (including the potential for reaching new, truly new, readers because the technology will allow ebooks to be sold in places where there has never been physical book infrastructure), then it will do far better for itself than at least one of its entertainment counterparts. Right now, we have a *growing* culture of reading, not a shrinking one. The challenge for book publishers is to remain relevant in that culture.

    (As you might have guessed, I know far too much about motion picture distribution and finance, and the “waiting” 4 – 6 months is a bit of an overstatement. Some of those who are “waiting” have already paid for the movie in the theater, others have had the opportunity to see the film on airplanes or via pay-per-view. The windows are shrinking because theatrical revenues just aren’t covering costs the way they used to, and the faster the DVD hits the market, the more likely it is that those costs will be recovered. There is tension with exhibitors of course.

    I would argue that the DVD didn’t really save movie studios, but it and its predecessor the videocassette certainly boosted revenues as people made a concerted and eager effort to build home entertainment libraries, some buying both video and DVD versions of favorite movies and television programs. The heady early days of DVDs, in particular, were bound to end, and now we’ve seen a settling of the market as consumers libraries are built and they’ve settled into a buying pattern. The return of the rental market is of more interest to me at the moment because I can’t determine if it’s just a trend or a true shift in behavior. I suspect the latter, but this doesn’t mean sales won’t continue to happen.)

    Again, I appreciate both of you weighing in here. I don’t believe there’s one right answer to this problem, but we cannot even begin to transform publishing if all conversations are held in their respective bubbles.

  • The Format Wars Part Two UPDATE! | The Naughty Bits // Dec 11, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    […] Responding to Nat Sobel, Cranky-Style Booksquare: A Long, Detailed Look at Distribution […]

  • Brian O'Leary // Dec 11, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    It seems pretty clear to me that those favoring a delay in release of digital versions are concerned with preserving a business model. Good luck with that.

  • M.J. Rose // Dec 11, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    Kassia, am totally with you on this. Kevin Smokler’s point is 100% on target. Publishers must stop trying to preserve the past and embrace the future.

    From where I sit people who read e are the first to twitter, FB, blog and otherwise write about a book and so each ebook sale is an ad for the book . No faster way to get WOM going than this.

    There’s more but I’ll be blogging about it next week in the meantime congrats KK on a cogent argument.

  • nat sobel // Dec 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Do you have any idea of where publishing will be in a year or two years? I don’t. I do know that if two or three companies control the distribution of electronic books, the economic impact will be irreversible.
    You may know a lot about film distribution, but do you know what killed the mass market paperback? And how quickly that event came about?
    The mass market paperback was the economic engine that drove the publishing busines. The sale of reprint rights was frequently the difference between profit and loss for many books published.The audience was huge and in every small town drugstore. That paperback usually came out 9 months to a year after the hard cover
    In my letter I mentioned that my first job in publishing was for Dell Paperbacks. That company almost no longer exists.In 1959 when I first went to work at Dell, there were 700 distributors in the US and Canada whose job it was to distribute magazines and paperbacks in every town and city. These companies had trucks, warehouses and people who knew their customers interests. Westerns, as an example, sold very well with about 100 western distributors.
    They are almost nonexistent today.
    What killed the paperback was that the method of distribution changed dramatically. These wholesalers had, for years respected each others territory. Then some got greedy. Each month brought news of one company buying up several of their competitors. Some wholesalers were forced into bankrupcy.
    .Eventually, this market came to be dominated by a couple of companies. The whole method of distribution had been destroyed. These few companies made demands on publishers for a greater share of the income. The whole economics of paperback publishing changed. and so did the business.
    What happened to the millions of customers who bought mass market paperback books? They didn’t die, but the business did.
    It is with that in mind that I fear the economic changes that a huge growth in the electronic market will bring. The last thing most of your readers are concerned about is the death of that old fashioned concept of the hard cover book. Why should I? We want what we want ,now.
    Waiting is for an older generation. Instant gratification has come to dominate our culture.
    If you have ever worked in a bookstore you would recognize the smell of a just opened carton of books fresh from the printer. It’s ambrosia.But who cares, right?
    I’m a Luddite who cares.
    I worry what will happen, when Amazon, clearly on a path to destroy competition, effectively drives the market so they can tell publishers that they no longer want to sell electronic books at a loss.We can only guess. But history tells us the publisher will cave in and give Amazon everything they want.
    Since we are both arguing a theory about the future, I hope you are right, but publishing history says that won’t be the case.
    I want to save hard cover as a viable alternative to the electronic book.My fear is that won’t be the case, and the economics will dominate. I love hard covers. I have surrounded my life with bookshelves of the books that both Judith and I have read. My request that the electronic version be made available 4 months after first publication, may let those of us who love the book as a thing to own, continue to have them.
    It seems like a fair way to let everyone have what they want, if not when they want it.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 12, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Nat — I understand all aspects of your argument completely, but I still fail to see how an exclusive hardcover window is going to achieve anything except lost sales and increased piracy. I assure you all my readers, who range from publishing professionals to people who buy and read books, want publishing to succeed. I want publishing to succeed. There are many opinions about how this can happen, but not one person participating in this conversation — and it’s happening in many places — believes the publishing industry can continue with business as usual. Try as I might, I cannot see how holding back the ebook release will save the hardcover.

    You love hardcover books. I am less fond of them because I find them physically uncomfortable to read, always have. Why is that you get the format you want when you want it while I have to wait? What is it about your money that’s better than mine? Let’s say I were a blind reader and used text-to-speech functionality to read, something not possible in a print book. What is the justification to make me wait for the accessibility window? What is the reason for one customer being favored over another?

    There really isn’t one. Except the fact that my money highlights the fact that the industry is facing hard change. I’m serious about these questions, and the answers point to protecting a business that more likely than not needs serious revamping. The hardcover market isn’t going away because I buy ebooks. It’s going to change, without a doubt, but it would have changed regardless. The economics would indeed dictate the change. With ebooks, at least there’s a chance to introduce new authors and new experiments into the marketplace at a lower overall cost (which is not to say there are no costs associated with producing an ebook, there are).

    Ebooks have been the next big thing since forever. Right now, though, they really are the next big thing, and they’re a growing segment of the market. Amazon accelerated this market, but publishers didn’t help themselves by sitting on the sidelines. There was every opportunity for publishers to take the lead on the development of this market, especially after they saw the experience of the music industry and Apple/iTunes. Amazon clearly learned from Apple, and they stepped in. And like Apple, they are exerting market muscle. Even now publishers aren’t doing much to create competition for Amazon because they insist upon structuring the ebook marketplace just like the print marketplace. Only Barnes & Noble can compete, and given their relative market share, they may be far more formidable.

    Price is the main battle here, and Amazon is certainly forcing the hand of publishers (they are not alone). While the industry was focused on Google, I was wondering why nobody was worried Amazon, a company that made no bones about its goals and how they’d be achieved. They’ve created an extremely customer-friendly infrastructure, and that is attractive to people who buy and read books. However, despite all the hype, hardcover remains the preferred format (in the specific situation we’re discussing; the mass market paperback and trade paperback markets have their own dynamics). My ebook purchase is not eliminating your hardcover purchase, and right now, the overall ebook customer base is small enough to let the industry transition with some grace (there will be good, bad, ugly, surprising, and unexpected bumps).

    A year from now, everything will be different, and either the publishing industry is prepared to face that or it’s not. Maybe that’s where my real source of disagreement is. Your proposed window doesn’t really protect your hardcover books and doesn’t really punish Amazon, it doesn’t even offer possible solutions. It does mask the fact that publishing needs to rethink its fundamental economics for a bit longer, but that leads me wonder how long this can continue before the industry faces true disaster. There’s a point where kicking the problem down the road makes things worse. Is that point now?

    No, I don’t know what will be happening a year from now. But there are many indicators about the health of the industry, and they are not pointing to recovery if business as usual continues.

  • nat sobel // Dec 12, 2009 at 9:25 am

    You can’t win me to your point of view. And I can’t agree with yours. Since we both don’t know how things will turn out, let’s reconvene in 6 months. You can write to me directly at any time. This is not a battle I can win with the readers.
    It’s a bit like asking any group of 100 people if smoking should be permitted in bars. The only place where I might enjoy a cigarette once in a while. We know how that vote would turn out, just we know how your readers would vote on this issue.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 12, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Nat — Fair enough. In the meantime, I will continue to do the one thing I can: buy books.

  • Mark Barrett // Dec 13, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    “The DVD saved the movie studios, because they didn’t let it compete with the exhibitors. I am asking for the same patience for the electronic book.”

    If someone can explain to me how a hardcover book (or paperback) is equivalent to an exhibition, I’ll bite. Otherwise, this doesn’t work.

    A movie at a theater is an experience — like a thrill ride at an amusement park. People go to movie theaters for that ambiance. If they don’t want that ambiance, and they only want the content, they wait for the DVD. Yes, this practice protects the theater market, but it also stays true to the historical spirit of movies, which were meant for, and generally play bigger and better on, big screens. In effect, a DVD is a crippled version of the original product.

    None of this applies to a hardcover book, or even a paperback. Books are objects, and have always been objects. They have always been owned and possessed by the end user. There is no experience a book owner can have separate from the purchase of the portable object we call a book. A digital book is simply another kind of portable object which provides the exact same content experience. A digital book may lack physical properties that one finds enjoyable, but it is not a crippled version of the original product. It is an electronic version of the original product.

    I sympathize with the motive behind the formulation of this argument. But the argument fails.

  • Week in Review: Dec 13-19, 2009 | On The Edge // Dec 19, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    […] that take sides on the matter, but Nathan Bransford’s post is a good place to start, as is Booksquare’s look at the letter from Nat Sobel that sparked this move. There are strong supporters on both […]

  • E-Reads: Publishing In the 21st Century » Blog Archiv » Kassia, Nat Sobel Debate Delayed E-Prints // Mar 26, 2010 at 12:27 am

    […] You can read their remarks in full, plus many more incisive comments, on Booksquare here. […]

  • The Radical Patron – Bizarro blogs from publishing & libraryland – // May 17, 2010 at 4:15 am

    […] week, Kassia Krozser at BookSquare responded to Nat Sobel, Cranky-Style about his idea to delay publication of ebook titles to preserve hardcover prices. The Annoyed […]

  • jackson bliss // Aug 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    I definitely see what everyone is saying, but at the same time, as an aspiring fiction writer myself, I agree with Nat Sobel completely. Look, every writer is different, every reader is different, but for me, I want hardcovers to have their day before everything becomes digital. It’s already hard enough living in this virtual world of ours where we can now buy entire albums at the iTunes store without knowing what an album is, or what the cover looks like even thought it’s right there in front of our face. I want readers to touch my (future) novels, to bend the pages, smell the ink, write snarky marginalia, underline key passages, to FEEL the weight of words in their backpacks + personally, I feel like distributing kindle versions of a novel when the paperback version comes out seems okay. There are many people who will wait until then anyway, even if they love an author, because they DON’T want that weight of a hardcover, which I can completely understand. But I feel like people in this forum are treating Nat Sobel like he’s an elitist, a short-sighted, antediluvian arts and letters tangibility snob, which he’s not. NS is fighting the good fight. He’s not trying to deny the kindleposse the right to read their favorite authors, he’s simply trying to stick up for the world of tactile art. And to be honest, I want him to fight this fight as long as he’s willing to, simple for all of my (future) readers who will not only read my (future) novels, but feel them every time they walk up the stairs, or plop down on a couch, or sit at a café window. Digital is here to stay. Everything ends up digital anyway. Why not let someone fight a tiny fight for the world of tangible objects? For some people, it’s the only ballast that keeps them pinned to reality, whatever that is. Also, isn’t this forum just as guilty of (digital/vector/tech) fetishism as the rest of us that prefer to interact with world without the mediation of a computer screen? And by the way, I love computers, I’m just saying . . . there IS merit on both sides here. Affectionately, -j1b