The Wall Street Journal was the first to announce, on Monday, (behind a pay wall, but Google “Publisher Delays E-book Amid Debate On Pricing” and you’ll get it) that Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah was holding back the ebook publication of a new hardcover YA novel, Bran Hambric, scheduled for release this September. Raccah’s explanation to the Journal was that she was trying to preserve the perception that the $27 hardcover price was reasonable. Since she knew that any ebook would hit the street at just under $10 (the Kindle promotional price is $9.99 and B&N has suggested that their promotional price will be $9.95), Raccah felt that sales of the hardcover would be undermined.
What was left unsaid in the Journal piece was that Raccah might have been leaving money on the table with this decision. After all, the publisher still sells ebooks on roughly equivalent terms to printed books and has lower costs. So, depending on the royalties Raccah is paying the author, she is (most likely) realizing more margin for Sourcebooks on the ebook sale than on the printed book sale, regardless of how the retailer prices it.
Even more startling (in this day and age) is the possibility that the author’s royalty is higher per copy on the hardcover, so Raccah might be protecting author royalties, to the extent that withholding the ebook restrained cannibalization and resulted in more hardcover sales. I mention that possibility because the agent for author Kaleb Nation is Richard Curtis, one of the most ebook-friendly agents in town (and, indeed, the owner of an ebook publisher called EReads), who was quoted in the Journal supporting Raccah’s decision.
On Wednesday, Motoko Rich and Brad Stone published a piece in the Times on the same story (in which I was very briefly quoted.) Rich and Stone added some nuance to the story. The Journal said that agent Robert Gottlieb resisted simultaneous ebook publication “when he can prevent it.” In the same graf, they said that only one book of the Times’s Top 15 fiction bestsellers was not available in the Kindle store. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Kindle editions were available at any particular time in relation to the first release of the hardcover, just that they are available now.
The Times reporting went further than the Journal, speaking to several publishers of upcoming major books about their ebook timing plans. Doubleday hasn’t decided yet about Dan Brown’s book but acknowledges that the impact of ebook sales on the hardcover was a consideration. S&S won’t reveal their ebook release plan for Stephen King’s November novel, Under the Dome. Ditto from Hachette imprint “Twelve” on the Ted Kennedy autobiography, True Compass, coming on October 6.
So the fact that everybody is thinking hard about this is confirmed by the Times’s reporting.
But Cader, who as an industry expert and blogger has more scope and credibility to report unattributed information than reporters at WSJ or the Times, went further in Publishers Lunch on Thursday. He ridiculed the notion that Doubleday was (according to a spokesperson) “[more] worried about…security…than particular vendors” and he sees the motivation from publishers being to control the behemoth, Amazon. As Cader reports it, Kindle sales surged when the new device(s) came out, becoming as much as 50% or even 70% of Amazon’s sales of many important books.
Everybody (in the industry, but maybe not outside of it) knows that Amazon pays a standard discount for ebooks, which is about 50% off publisher suggested retail, and that Amazon actually takes a loss on a $25 or $27 hardcover book it sells through Kindle at $9.99 (as B&N will do if they follow through to sell books like this as ebooks for $9.95.) Nobody expects Amazon to do this forever although, as Cader points out, they are temporarily subsidized by the profit they make selling the Kindle devices. The widespread fear among the big publishers is that Amazon will soon demand lower prices for the books they put on Kindle so they can keep the $9.99 price point profitably. As the Kindle unit sales grow, of course, the muscle behind such a potential demand would grow right along with it.
Cader makes the very important point that sales migrating to ebooks, and particularly to Kindle, weaken the brick-and-mortar channel that publishers depend on for most of their sales and profits. The Times reported that publishers could well be making bigger unit profits on each Kindle sale than on each printed book sale (a fact that I explained to them when I was interviewed and which appeared not to be clear to them before I did). Cader (who of course knew that without needing to be told by me or by the Times) makes the point that publishers do this because they are “looking out for what they believe to be their long-term interests — and are trying to protect the entire system of physical book retailing which supports the whole industry.”
While this was happening, Dominique Raccah posted her thoughts to Peter Brantley‘s Amazing List and Kassia Krozser, on that list and proprietor of the Booksquare blog, turned her space over to Dominique for a version of that post. Dominique made it clear that she considered what she was doing with Bran Hambric to be an experiment. Her focus was on a “sustainable author/publisher model”. She made the point (again, clear to most people in publishing but perhaps not to those outside) that the music business continues to present inapplicable analogies, but one of the most egregious is that authors should give it away like musicians to get performance bookings: in publishing, there are no performance bookings (and few t-shirt sales…)
Raccah made it clear that she supports early ebook releases and her house is going to a workflow that will enable that. But then she gets to what is really the heart of the matter. “Etailers are suggesting that the ‘right’ price point for an ebook is maximally $9.99. And they are proselytizing the price $9.99. We can’t control what retailers charge for books or ebooks.” The publisher’s choices are whether and when to make it available and whether to sell to any particular retailer.
From there she explains that exploiting formats with “windows” is an old book business strategy (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback) and a common film strategy (theatrical precedes DVD release, with TV licensing once part of that picture as well, but not anymore.) And she concludes by saying that publishers need to make these decisions on a book-by-book basis (“strategically”, she says, although I’d call that “tactically.”)
My quote, by the way, was to the effect that ebook readers and print book readers are increasingly separate markets, which I believe to be true but cannot prove. A C-level friend at a large house disagrees with me, as I’m sure many others do, and my evidence on this is highly anecdotal (including myself: I have read one printed book of the 50 or so I’ve read in the past 18 months.) But my friend would have no more evidence than I to support his contrary position, so publishers will have to make decisions without really knowing, for now, whether they can push a Kindle or Shortcovers or Ereader consumer back to paper by denying or delaying a book.
That concludes the summary. I have a few thoughts of my own to add on this. I’ll be posting those shortly, probably over the weekend. I hate going much over 1000 words on any single day, and I’m already past 1200.
An earlier version of this post had a couple of errors misconneting agents and authors which have been repaired. So if somebody tells you about a mistake they saw that you can’t find, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks to Michael Cader for setting me straight.