Publishers Struggle to Wake Up from the E-Book Nightmare

Nat Sobel must be thrilled: Simon & Schuster has announced that it won’t release e-book editions until four months after hardcover editions, and Hachette (of which SF powerhouse Orbit is an imprint) has said it will create a similar arrangement. Jane at Dear Author, who I generally trust to have her finger on the pulse of e-book reader opinion, says "Readers who shell out $$ for dedicated ebook reader will not buy the hardcover" and adds, "Eh, at this point, who cares if pubs don’t want the digital reader money. I’ll still spend it. Just not on their books."

One of Jane’s Twitter followers, @hollye83, said it was unlikely that e-book readers would remember books four months later; when I said that sounded just like making a wishlist, which readers do all the time, Jane replied that e-book readers train readers for instant gratification.

Here is how I see the logic:

1. IF (the desire for a specific book > the desire for instant gratificationthe desire for a specific format > the desire to save money) THEN the reader will acquire that book in the format most immediately available, which in the case of these publishers would be hardcover.

2. IF (the desire for a specific book > the desire for instant gratificationthe desire to save money > the desire for a specific format) THEN the reader will acquire that book at the lowest price point that’s most immediately available. These are the readers who still want the hardcover right away but shop around a bit for hardcover discounts.

3. IF (the desire for a specific bookthe desire to save money > the desire for instant gratification) OR (the desire for a specific bookthe desire for a specific format > the desire for instant gratification) THEN the reader will wishlist the book at the desired price point or in the desired format, or will count on being reminded of it by other means at some future point (e.g. "When Dresden Files book #22 comes out, I’ll be reminded to buy #21 as an e-book/in mass market/from for $1").

4. IF (the desire for instant gratification > the desire for a specific book) OR (the desire to save money > the desire for a specific book) OR (the desire for a specific format > the desire for a specific book) THEN the reader will go read another book at the desired price point and format. These are the readers like Jane and @hollye83.

S&S and Hachette are gambling that there are more readers of types 1 and 2 combined than of types 3 and 4 combined. Jane is averring that most e-book readers are of type 4: they’re hooked on e-books and reading in general to such an extent that the desire to have another e-book right now is greater than the desire to read the next book by a favorite author. It’s generally agreed that romance e-book sales are among the highest of any area of fiction, and in 2008 e-book sales were about 5.6% of all romance book sales, so even if Jane is right and those 5.6% of purchases were made by people who are e-book addicts and will accept no substitutes, S&S and Hachette don’t have much reason to care. In other words, this move is really not about people who are already reading e-books; they’ll be annoyed by it, but they don’t take up enough market share to matter. Rather, this is about discouraging people who read paper books from switching to e-books.

Internet users tend to have a mentality of "I want it now and for (next to) nothing". We’ll call this the NNN philosophy. Businesses that cater to it tend to get lots of users and lose lots of money (cf. Twitter and Facebook). Publishers have fewer readers but often manage to make money, because people are used to actually waiting and paying for books. Now that readers are starting to apply the NNN philosphy to books, publishers are pretty much screwed. They’re already cutting royalties and advances, laying people off, and otherwise putting their budgets on crash diets. They can either go all-digital, further reducing the costs of production (including, to my great sorrow, typography and design) and almost entirely eliminating the costs of distribution; they can go all-paper, where they have some clue about how to turn a profit; or they can try to turn NNN to their advantage by diminishing the perception of e-books as the most convenient, quick, and satisfying way to obtain a particular book. I don’t think it will work–books are facing unprecedented competition from other forms of digital entertainment that are out of the hands of publishers, smaller publishers will happily make e-books more available, and people will keep flocking to e-readers as prices drop and the technology improves–but it’s an interesting attempt at turning the tide.

Here’s a little thought experiment. If I wanted people to pay me, say, half a cent every time they read one of my tweets, I’d be laughed off the internet, yet my Twitter followers clearly get some value out of them or they wouldn’t keep reading. If users did pay $0.005 per tweet to Twitter and they passed along $0.003 to the writer, I’d currently be making about $537 a month from it.* Suddenly we’re talking about real money. Of course, I’d be sending a chunk of that money right back out to all the Twitter feeds I read, but I’d still turn a profit**. None of this matters right now because while I create the text, I have no control over how it’s priced. It’s free or nothing, says my publisher,, and there are no other publishers for this type of content. But wait! What if someone started***, which is just like Twitter only with money? Would I move over there? You bet I would. I might still post to Twitter–I might even post a lot of the same content to Twitter–but it’s better for me as a content creator to be working with a publisher that wants to turn a profit and pass some of that profit on to me, and it’s better for me as a reader to feel that I have an investment in what I read, even if it’s just one or two dollars a day. In addition, if I support the writers I like, they’ll keep producing content that enriches my life. Everyone wins.

* Math: 2871 tweets / 8 months * .003 * 499 followers.
** Math: .003 * ~12 tweets a day * 499 followers > .005 * ~400 tweets a day.
*** Not a real website, at least not right now.

So I’m not going to diss publishers for trying to keep books profitable, because it’s better for writers and for readers. I just think that they would do better to find ways to profit from e-books, whether through micropayments (a nice solution to e-book piracy: copies are distributed for free or available for purchase at a very low cost, but every time you open one you’re asked to send a few dollars to the publisher, from which a royalty goes to the author) or higher pricing or subscription or content licensing or some other scheme not yet discovered. Huddling around paper and trying to wish the digital realm out of existence will do nothing whatsoever to keep book publishing a viable business.

18 thoughts on “Publishers Struggle to Wake Up from the E-Book Nightmare

  1. Farah

    I know tht Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall may be the last non-sf book I ever buy in hardback. So far, it’s a really good read, but the problem is “so far”. It’s sheer size means I can’t be bothered to carry it around when I can take an e reader.

  2. Kat B

    I will always stay with paper books. They have a consistency of content that I appreciate. No sneaky up-loading a “corrected” version on me. They tend to stay where I put them. No sneaky taking the book off my reader and giving me an apologetic refund, saying the publisher decided to pull it. When I buy a paper book, it stays my paper book until I decide otherwise. Plus, they smell good.

  3. librarygirl

    I think that part of the problem is that too many books are being printed in hardcover. As much as I like Linda Howard, Burn should not have been a $26.00 hardcover. It’s much more reasonable to get it as a $9.99 e-book and then I wouldn’t feel like I got ripped-off.

  4. Sandy R

    When I buy a book, I want the book, not the license to read the book, which means it can be snatched back at any time, as Kindle, for example, has done. As I see it e-books are money down the tubes with nothing to show for it but eye strain. No e-books for me. I want real books, which dry out if they get wet.

  5. Sandy R

    When I buy the book, I want to have the book, not just a license to read the book — which can be snatched back at any time — as Kindle has done. Real book dry out, unlike e-books and e-readers. No e-books unless unforseen circumstances develop.

  6. Ross Browne

    I just bough a Kindle in the effort to help take my freelance book editing company paperless, and I’m torn. On one hand I love the tactile experience of a book and can totally sympathize with all the viewpoints expressed here. On another I love having tons of books with me at once and that no trees bit the dust for my reading pleasure. The jury is still out for me, but I do like the idea of ebooks being available as quickly as possible and no four-month delay.

  7. Victoria Strauss

    It seems to me that beneath the debate about when ebooks should be released lies a very basic difference in outlook: are ebooks going to replace, or largely replace, print, or are they yet another alternate format, like trade paperbacks or audio books? People who believe the former seem to argue for simultaneous ebook release, while to people who think (or hope) the latter, it make sense that ebook release should be treated like any other alternate format release–i.e., it should proceed in orderly fashion with each format given a chance to gather sales before the next format becomes available. Only time will tell which scenario is the right one.

  8. Paul

    First, as library girl commented, some Hardcover books are overpriced. Basically, for hardcover publishing, it is the “one price fits all” syndrome, unless it is a “fat” book, then the price is more while the “thin” book still cost over 20 bucks. Saying that I’m will stick to “paper” instead of going to digital is like saying I’m sticking with CDs instead of buying MP3s. CD sound better, are easy to port around, and last a long time, but you know what, I still download MP3s more and more. Consumers are bred for instant gratification. That’s the rule, like it or not. Trying to change the rule is impossible. Adapt or die.

  9. DLR

    If you back up your books on your computer, you don’t need to worry that anyone will snatch them back. Leatherbound books smell wonderful, but the new mass-produced books are nothing special. Not as special as curling up with my ereader and not having to worry about balancing a big book, turning the page and losing the light . . . I’m definately a #5. I want a specific book, in a specific format. If I can’t get it from the publisher, I can find it on the darknet. So far, I pay for the ebook once it comes out, to compensate the author. But if this turns into a game, I guarantee I will have the ebook before 4 months is up, at the best price of all – free.

  10. JSWolf

    WAKE UP PEOPLE! There are more and better readers out there then the Kindle. Sony for example. And if you are afraid of Amazon monkeying around with your content, get a nice Sony Reader PRS-600 that does not give anyone the ability to touch your content except you.

  11. Ian Randal Strock

    A recent conversation reminded of another short-coming of electronic books: when I walk into my home, I can see all my books, and browse them at my leisure. But more than that, when a guest walks into my home, he, too, can see my books and browse them. I can share a printed book with a friend, loan it out, give it away, say “Hey, I think you’ll like this; give it a try,” and so on. With an e-book, all I can do is say “pay money for this; I think you’ll like it.” Also, what happens to illustrated books with electronic readers? You lose it all (try a Dr. Seuss title on your e-book reader). –Ian Randal Strock Editor,

  12. James Ison

    This will backfire. Maybe not now but as ebooks gain more traction in the market. Yes I understand that there will always be people who insist reading a physical book is better… I once agreed and swore I loved the feel and smell. Then I tried an ebook and all bets were off. I read 2 or 3 books a week at my house was filled to overflowing. Now I have a small shelf of books and the rest are digital. I WILL NOT buy a paper book. at all. ever again. If it is not available as an ebook I will not read it. I may or may not wait for it to be released depending on the author. King… I probably will wait. Heck I will wait the YEAR that TOR is forcing for the new Wheel of time book. But for most others I will forget and move on to authors and publishers that “get it” James

  13. Cassandro

    Logically, the readers of ebooks are (1) people who read in all existing formats and add the ebook format, (2) people who migrate from pbooks to ebooks almost exclusively, and (3) people who generally didn’t read much but now read some ebooks. If I were a publisher, I would use a paired distribution strategy. I would release the ebook version and the hardback version at the same time for the same price, and later release the ebook version (again) and the paperback version at the same time for the same price, then even later stop printing the harback & paperback but keep the ebook available as competition against used copies of the pbooks. All resellers selling ebooks must keep the price of the ebook the same as the current price of the latest issued pbook. I believe that this strategy would not sacrifice any sales at hardback prices, and would capture new ebook readers at all price levels.

  14. Peter Glassman, Books of Wonder

    I find the constant comparison between digital music downloads and ebooks a fales analogy. First, there is price. Consumers are paying 99 cents per song download on average. And the average CD costs $15, but most albums have 15 or more songs on them, so the cost per song is the same or greater in digital form. As a result, the economic value of the music and the work of the artist’s who create it is being preserved. How then, does this equate to ebooks, where the value of writing by authors, as well as the creative efforts of cover artists, editors, designers, etc. is being devalued? Is good writing, editing, design, etc. suddenly worth 70% less because it is read on a screen rather than on a printed page? Second, there is the experience. Listening to an Ipod is very much the same experience as listening to a walkman. The music is still delivered to your ears via a headset of some sort. On the other hand, reading an e-books is a different experience from reading a printed book. Some will prefer one, some the other — just as some prefer to watch a DVD at home, while others want to see it on a big screen at a theater (a much more apt analogy, to my thinking). Maintaining a plausible economic value for each experience is the only way to sustain each industry and allow the authors and artists who create the books and films we enjoy to make a living doing so. After all, no one expects fashion houses to produce low priced versions in less expensive fabrics of their latest designs the day after they unveil them at a fashion show. Why shouldn’t books enjoy first having a life in printed form, followed by a digital version? Yes, some will complain about having to wait. But they’d complain even more if their favorite authors gave up writing books for television and film or writing press releases for some corporation because they could no longer support themselves and their families writing books. I find myself in the interesting position lately of being on the same side of many issues with Leonard Riggio, CEO of Barnes and Noble. As someone who has been in the book industry even longer than the 35 years I have spent in it, I find his view on bookstores and books is very much in line with that of most booksellers. He recently was quoted as saying that delaying the release of ebooks was inline with the later release date of paperbacks. That, in my opinion, is the correct view. Ebooks are really just another format — and as such, they need to have a set place in the hierarchy of book distribution. Just because they can be produced and distributed simultaneously with the hardcover release doesn’t mean they should be. After all, paperbacks could be as well — but they rarely are. Finally, I was interested to learn that Scholastic sponsored last year a comprehensive poll of teen readers around the country at various malls to learn about their reading habits. The poll revealed that most teens were quite comfortable reading on devices and did read a lot of articles, blogs, etc. online. But when asked how they preferred to read a book, this generation of kids raised on computers, cell phones, texting, and digital music, chose printed books by an overwhelming majority (somewhere around 80-85%, I believe). Sounds to me like the future of the printed book is in as much danger as the movie theater was from the invention of the VCR. — Peter Glassman Owner, Books of Wonder

  15. Hannah D

    >>When I buy a book, I want the book, not the license to read the book, which means it can be snatched back at any time, as Kindle, for example, has done. Sandy makes a good point. Until a solution to the DRM conundrum is reached (Um hello … music industry, we miss you), and until a reasonable priced ebook reader is released, I won’t buy one. What Hatchette and S & S don’t get is what many of us see all too clearly: those who own ebook reaeders wouldn’t buy the hardcover version in the first place. To that end, I will very vocally argue both pubs and those who might follow suit, are cutting off their noses to spite the readers.

  16. Mike Cane

    All they’ll do is encourage the pirates and cost their writers money. FAIL. I don’t buy *books* — I buy the *words* in them. And those words can now come in a way that does NOT require packing a ton of boxes, lugging them, and unpacking them when moving. It also means those words are safe from flood, fire, theft, and emergency evacuation — because, ideally, all services store a purchased copy in the cloud I can grab again despite whatever might happen to the electrons I’ve cloned locally via purchasing.

  17. Laura Kinsale

    I find myself in pretty complete agreement with Peter. My prediction is that books and print will become two different and parallel “models.” To me, online shopping is a good example. It’s complemented brick-and-mortar retail, rather than replacing it. And for many of the same reasons that print books and ebooks are a different shopping experience. You can “try on” things in the real world. You never really get a good look at something online until you’ve pressed that Buy Now button. As someone who’s just been shopping online, I’m having a lot harder time making purchase decisions than I do in a store, because I can’t really SEE and KNOW that what I’m getting is what I expect. I wish this had not become such an emotionally loaded subject regarding books. Why the insistence that’s it’s going to be either-or, “or die”? If ppl who love ebooks are so sure they are going to dominate the future, why the fear that somehow they’ll be stopped by the Ebil Publishers? If you guys are right and ebooks are the future, then why not sit back and let it happen?

  18. Alana Abbott

    @Ian — the B&N e-reader (nook) has developed a feature called “Lend Me” that actually allows for lending your e-book copy to friends (though presumably only other friends with nooks — I’d have to do more research to be sure). I have preordered my nook, but of course have yet to try it out, so we’ll see how I come around on this issue after I’ve been a user for some time.

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