The tactic of keeping the ebook off the market to “protect” hardcover sales, first executed by Sourcebooks this month on behalf of Bran Hambric, is becoming more widespread. At the same time that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was released simultaneously in cloth and digital, Ted Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass was released in print with the ebook withheld. Now Harper has announced that the new Sarah Palin biography will come out in cloth in November, but the ebook will be held back until the day after Christmas.
The Kennedy case is a bit different because the book contained color pictures that would not render on the most popular ebook platform (the Kindle), but in all these cases the primary motivation of the publisher seemed to be to avoid having a low-priced ebook competing with its hardcover sales.
Kassia Kroszer has written a nice little rant about the counterproductiveness of this strategy, with which on purely economic and marketing grounds, I substantially agree. She points out that there is no evidence that ebook sales come at the expense of hardcover sales (of course; there’s also no evidence that they don’t…) She also posits that the ebook reader and print reader are often different people. If that’s true (and it is a general notion I’m inclined to share), then holding back the ebook is bound to just lose sales because the title won’t be available as an ebook during “maximum buzz.”
If a publisher’s concern is that reckless ebook pricing bleeds sales away from the hardcover, there is another solution. (One that can work; I have proposed solutions that can’t work.) The publisher could just sell the ebook exclusively at its own site and price it any way they want. It would be like the publisher download is the ebook “hardcover” (i.e. expensive) which is replaced by the ebook “paperback” (i.e. sold at retailers and priced more aggressively) with whatever timetable for that the publisher wanted.
If publishers maintain their retail prices and their discounts, then the aggressively-priced ebooks aren’t costing them any margin. In that case, they’d be making more money per unit on the ebook than on the print books. There’s a degree to which the retailers’ aggressive pricing constitutes a gift to publishers and authors, even if none of them seem to be seeing it that way.
But there are also two other elements major publishers have to considere when they make ebook decisions: their relationship with Amazon.com and the health — even the existence — of a brick-and-mortar retail book trade.
Amazon is the driving force behind cheap ebooks, and they’re doing it to herd more and more people into their closed market with the Kindle. That’s a perfectly reasonable objective from their point of view, but it is very threatening to everybody else in the industry, all of whom would prefer a more diversified ebook market for their own reasons. That’s part of why I think selling direct off the web site at the higher price is something you might see happen. It’s a polite way to stick a finger in Amazon’s eye.
The retail book trade is important for many reasons, but the under-appreciated one is that bookstore shelf space, at 45 to 50% discount off retail, is the cheapest marketing investment publishers can make. It sorts their books out and puts them on display (hey! sometimes even in shop windows!) in front of people who want to buy a book. There isn’t any better product placement than that. Every ebook sold weakens the trade, accelerates the reduction of opportunities to put books in front of readers in the most efficient possible way. Publishers have a real interest in preserving that asset.
Earlier today we interviewed Raelene Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave as part of our preparation for Digital Book World. (They will be on the program!) I was aware that Ellora’s Cave existed and vaguely aware that they were an ebook-first publisher, but, not being a romance reader I was not as clued in to them as I should have been. They’re nine years old and the company is quite a story.
I’ll save the story for another time but I want to pass along one piece of wisdom from this morning’s conversation that is relevant to this post. Ellora’s Cave publishes printed-on-demand editions of those books of theirs that they can (many are too short to be print books and are only put into print as part of anthologies.) Raelene explained to us that they generally hold the print book back for 18 months after the ebook is published (and they publish about 10 new titles a week!)
Why does Ellora’s Cave hold back the print book? Because they make more money on the ebooks, of course, even though the print books cost somewhat more! (They have to pay for that paper, presswork, and binding somehow…)
Of course, I’d tell them to just raise the price of the print book for the first 18 months rather than withhold it. They’re making a close cousin to the mistake I’m accusing the conventional publishers of. But at least they’re preserving the higher margin sale, not the lower margin one.
Sometimes being in publishing makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland.