This week’s publishing industry debate started when the Wall Street Journal covered Sourcebooks’ release strategy for Bran Hambric: The Fairfield Curse. The article contained some blunt discussion about why the publisher chose to delay the ebook and why others are doing the same. This peek behind the curtain didn’t sit will with readers, exposing tensions that really do need to be exposed.
As I write this, I am loading my Kindle in anticipation of a cross-country flight. American Airlines apparently wants to charge me for every bag I check (and, whoo hoo!, I got to use my own ink to print advertisements on my boarding pass), so, yeah, I’m doing everything I can to make sure I don’t exceed carry-on size. I don’t have the luxury of packing books for the flight there in my carry-on bag while books for the flight home are stuffed in my checked suitcase.
Three books I wanted to buy aren’t available in Kindle editions. Only one of those is a book I really feel I must have. The others are nice-to-haves. For the authors and publishers, those are lost sales. Robert Gottlieb, literary agent, says “he doesn’t allow any of his authors’ books to be published simultaneously as an e-book when he can prevent it.” (WSJ article, via Publisher’s Lunch due to WSJ paywall)
In the same article, agent Richard Curtis is just as blunt, saying, “We don’t want to undercut the sales and royalty potential of the printed hardcover.” This makes me wonder: does withholding product from the market actually help sales? Are Curtis and Gottlieb assuming the ebook customer will shrug and purchase the print book?
At least they’re being honest about it. They’re worried that ebook sales will negatively impact the potential for this title to hit a bestseller list. They’re worried that the difference between earned digital royalties and lost print royalties is too vast. Apparently, ’tis better to have no sale at all and all that.
Gottlieb compares the hardcover and ebook markets to theatrical and DVD releases. It’s a bad comparison. I’ve used vinyl albums versus cassettes. Others use CDs versus digital downloads. But theatrical versus DVD? The DVD package often contains more content, more entertainment than the theatrical film; the ebook, generally, has less. And the DVD purchase is generally cheaper than the price of seeing a movie in a theater, after you factor in ticket price, food, and beverage. And, of course, you can resell the DVD, loan it to a friend, and/or play it on multiple devices.
I wonder if publishers are paying attention to the rumbling from readers about crazy, unpredictable digital release patterns. Is the ebook release concurrent with print? A week after, two weeks, six months? Think about it: all your marketing efforts are getting customers to the point of sale…and then you lose them. These readers are not saying, “Well, that format isn’t available so I’ll just buy this one.”
Nope, they’re saying, “That format isn’t available so I won’t buy this book at all.”
What Curtis and Gottlieb are suggesting is that the current business model needs to be protected above all else. I would suggest that preparing for shifts in reader behavior now leads to less pain in the future. Is it better to scoop the mass market reader into the hardcover window via digital or is it better to maintain the status quo, relying on those sales to happen at the mass market/trade level?
If the reader is me, it’s definitely the former because other books will capture my attention in those intervening days, weeks months. The longer the gap between reader awareness and ability to purchase, the greater the chance that a book will be forgotten (or, ahem, sunk due to poor word-of-mouth).
I’m not sure what the answers are, and it will only be through experimentation and analysis that some of these answers emerge. I think there’s some danger in expecting consumers to play by the rules of last year’s business model, especially if readers are adopting this technology at an impressive rate (considering digital reader, phone-based, and the ever-popular browser based reading). In fact, I think it’s dangerous to expect readers to buy into your business model at all.