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 gratification > the 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 gratification > the 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 book > the desire to save money > the desire for instant gratification) OR (the desire for a specific book > the 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 Half.com 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, Twitter.com, and there are no other publishers for this type of content. But wait! What if someone started Tweet4Treats.com***, 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.