On E-Books and Delayed Publication

December 9th, 2009 • Kate

ebooks2I’m going to be answering more of your questions this week, but for the moment, I wanted to share a couple of articles I read this morning about e-books. As you may have read (via GalleyCat and Rexroth), Simon & schuster and Hachette Books have made the decision to delay e-book editions of some of their most anticipated books of 2010. As Rexroth puts it, “Simon & Schuster and Hachette – doing their part to guarantee ebook piracy becomes the norm.”

James McQuivey posted a response to the news on the Forrester blog, saying, in part:

I’m just being a historian here when I point out that language like “We’re doing this to preserve our industry” is a classic symptom of what we at Forrester loving call The Media Meltdown. I wrote a whole report on this ailment and its many symptoms, chief among them is that media businesses attempt to preserve analog business models in the digital economy, even when analog economics no longer apply. This is exactly that scenario.

I have two very important messages to offer the book industry (most all of them clients, so I’m trying to be delicate here, the way a group of friends running an intervention for an alcoholic have to act even if it involves summoning tough love). The first message is the hardest to hear and it will make me some enemies. But the second message offers some hope and I encourage you book types to give it a fair hearing, because I have history and economics on my side.

I encourage you to click through to read his two messages. I’m highly optimistic that his plan for bundling the digital download of a book with the hardcover will become the norm. I love the convenience of reading on my Kindle, but I’m also a collector — I want my favorite books displayed on my shelves. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have had such a hard time paring down my book collection for my move out here to Denver, and Rexroth and I wouldn’t need to keep buying new bookcases.

I shared McQuivey’s article on Twitter, and was quickly asked by an author where I think authors should stand on this issue, “since they stand to lose royalties off of lower ebook pricing.” I replied briefly within the confines of the 140-character limit of Twitter, but I’ll expand on my thoughts here, since I have the room.

I think authors should be getting much higher royalties off e-books than they do off hardcovers or paperbacks. This is what I negotiate in my contracts, where a 25% royalty on e-books is somewhat common (although there’s a disturbing trend down to 15%) versus 10% on hardcovers, and 6% on paperbacks. Even with escalators and some variance from house to house and author to author, to my mind it should make sense that the author gets more money off an e-book edition than a physical copy, which has a much higher cost to produce.

Do I think S&S and Hachette are making the right decision to delay e-books of some of their forthcoming titles? No, I think they’re shooting themselves in the feet. The Wall Street Journal article says that only one author (from S&S) had asked not to be included on the list of titles [with delayed e-book editions], which are being published in the first four months of 2010. Personally? I want to know who that author is, so I can buy his book. As the WSJ quotes an Amazon spokesman, “Authors get the most publicity at launch and need to strike while the iron is hot. If readers can’t get their preferred format at that moment, they may buy a different book or just not buy a book at all.”

What do you think? Where do you stand on this issue? I look forward to chatting in the comments.

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10 Responses to “On E-Books and Delayed Publication”

  1. Lindsay F Says:

    I understand what they're trying to do but I also agree that they're just shooting themselves in the foot. Hopefully they will get enough backlash and reconsider launching the ebooks along with regular publication. And I'm glad that at least one author had enough foresight (or a very good agent) to get his or her self off that list.

    I'm a little leery of e-books, but with all the talk surrounding them lately, I'm starting to like the idea of them better and better. But I'm Kate on collecting my favorites. I will always buy a book I love.

  2. Jim Duncan Says:

    I keep going back and forth on this. Something will have to give regarding royalties down the road. It's going to be hard on publishers if agents are constantly negotiating back royalties lost from lowering ebook prices. As I don't read ebooks at this point, the whole delayed release issue has no direct effect on me. The battle to bring down the price of ebooks does however. How much you want to bet that Amazon can outlast the publishers and force capitulation on pricing?

    I also wonder if changing release dates will end up trickling down to the mass market side. Will we see ebooks out first on mm titles? They are viewed as being more like digital paperbacks than hardcovers. There may be some benefits to going digital first for mm titles, but I can also see it causing problems for authors. As the numbers climb for ebook marketshare, and they will keep creeping up as the months go by, will we see digital releases as test marketing for mm release? It's not hard to imagine scenarios where print runs get reduced or shelved entirely based upon poor ebook sales. We aren't to that day and age yet, but that possibility isn't far off in my opinion. Anyway, I digress a bit here.

    I do hope that agents keep pressure on to maintain royalties on ebooks. It's very hard to know just how lowered ebook pricing will pan out in the long run. Will it generate enough additional sales to offset the lower royalty? That's the hope of course, but who knows. In the short term, I don't think ebook delays are that big of a deal. It will annoy some ebook readers, but currently they are a small portion of the pie. I don't think it will have much affect on hardcover sales. Pubs are looking long term though as well or trying too. They foresee the ebook market slowly chipping away at the hardcover as that number grows. For best-seller type books, this kind of logic makes some sense. For the smaller print run author or debut author, whose career is predicated to some extent on building readership, this kind of tactic could be to their disadvantage. I could be wrong but it seems Hatchette and S/S are aiming this delayed release at their prime-time books. Will ebook readers who have to wait forego the books entirely? That remains to be seen, but honestly, I doubt it. They'll buy the hardcover or wait or do both.

    Of course one wonders why they don't bundle hardcovers with ebooks. Sell the title with access to download the digital version, much like you can buy dvd's now with a digital copy included for a slightly higher fee. Those sell, so not sure why it wouldn't work for books. Or, why can't they release premium ebook versions at the same time as hardcover, in order to justify higher pricing and then release the plain version four months later? I'd probably go for a premium version with an author interview, deleted chapters, and whatever other extras they might come up with. It's like the bonus disc with movies. I have a feeling they'll get there eventually, meanwhile it's kneejerk,panicy reactions to losing profits that drive decisions.

    As an author though, when it comes down to it, I don't want to lose money. Let's face it, writing is not a very profitable profession unless you do remarkably well. I can't support anything that's going to eat into my already mediocre earnings, no matter how fabulous it is to have people reading my stories. There's solutions out there that are more author friendly. I just hope they get there sooner rather than later.

  3. Mandy Says:

    I agree with Daphne and Jim in that it makes sense to release the book with an ebook as a bundle. Isn't this was the movie industry is doing? I can't name the number of times my parents have bought a Blu-Ray/DVD/digital copy combo. (Of course, that's so my sister gets the DVD and I get the digital copy). I never touched a digital copy of a movie until my parents handed me their copy of Bride Wars and said "hey, this has a digital copy, you should use it." Now I'm up to 10 movies and I wish I had more.

    People need to be slowly introduced to things. If it only costs a few dollars more for a digital copy of the book when you buy the hardcover I think most people will go for it. And like Daphne, I too am a collector. If I can get a bundle of both I will, but make me choose and I'll take the hard copy every time. (This is why my DVD collection is on the order of 100 while my digital copy collection only consists of 10).

  4. Kate Says:

    Thanks for the comments so far. Jim, you raise a lot of great points. I think publishers can promote their e-book editions in different places than they would a hard copy, and the instant gratification of getting a book with a single click may turn into more sales than even just going to Amazon and clicking buy on a hard copy, which may arrive a day or so later. Ideally, it's a slightly different market that wouldn't cut into your hardcover sales, but that's something we're all still figuring out.

    For another publisher's take on the announcement, check out this post from Harper Studio.

  5. A. L. Sonnichsen Says:

    I agree. Bundles are a fantastic idea. The best I've heard yet.

    Maybe I'm being optimistic — and I definitely wasn't a business major — but I think if e-books are cheaper, more people will buy them and authors will see the fruits of those sales. I know I never buy a hardcover book unless I already know I love it. I just can't afford to. But if I had a digital reader, I'd buy e-books if they were a third of the price of a hardcover. Absolutely!

  6. Mike Cane Says:

    >>>I’m highly optimistic that his plan for bundling the digital download of a book with the hardcover will become the norm.

    I will not buy print any longer. Do that and you wind up losing *two* sales — print *and* the e.

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  8. Angie Says:

    Personally I prefer reading electronically (it is quite literally painful to hold a book open for as long as I tend to read at a stretch) and it makes me increasingly angry when the books I want to buy aren't available as an ebook (delayed or just not available). Since most publishers are decidedly backward on this topic, I find myself more and more often just buying books directly from Baen. There, I can check out new authors via their free library, and then buy the author's whole catalog if I like their writing. Instantly and at any time. It's perfect. I wish the other houses would get with the program.

    There was a question above about whether we die-hard ebook readers would buy the hardcover, wait, or just buy something else. The answer for me is "it depends." I bought the new Wheel of Time in hardcover, but I've also just decided (many times) to boycott the print-only book in favor of one I could read the way I wanted to.

  9. Caitie F Says:

    But shouldn't the publishers start standing up to Amazon? I think that is what this is really about. Publishers are sick of Amazon pushing them around, so they found a way to push back…which i don't think is a bad time. Publishers can't work together to make things more fair for everyone (especially authors…several ask their readers not to buy from Amazon), but Amazon can push all the publishers. This is a way around that.

  10. Christian K Says:

    As an avid reader I hate this idea. I don't want hardcover books!! If you make me buy one get to get a ebook, I won't read your book. It's plain an simple. There are authors I love dearly, but their books aren't available in any ebook format. Do I buy their books? In short… No.