July 19th, 2009

books in a stack

What makes a book a book?

Ebooks have never been that important to publishers. Until very recently, they were so tiny a percentage of sales that publishers didn't spend much time worrying about what format to provide them in, or how much to charge for them. The idea that ebooks could hurt print book sales was laughable.

No one is laughing now. Wailing and tearing their hair, perhaps, buit not laughing. Ebook readers are demanding ebooks at sharply reduced costs from hardbacks, as they have no resale value and can't be shared, an argument to which DRM gives validity.

Publishers are insisting it costs them just as much to make an ebook as a print book— not too many folks are buying this argument— and insisting that cheap ebooks will cannibalize print sales.

I think publishers started a lot of this fuss by developing a pricing model that emphasized format. Books that were expected to sell really well were always published first in hardcover (HC), and priced three times more than mass market paperbacks (MM). Books by new authors were usually published first and only in MM. After a book had been out a while in HC, it was often republished in either trade paper or MM and priced accordingly. If it was published in trade paper, it would sometimes come out a year later in MM. The message to readers was clear: HC is worth more than trade paper or MM; trade paper is worth more than MM. With this history, it is no wonder that book consumers expect that a paperless format to cost substantially less.

Now we come to the question of timing. Publishers almost never release a HC and MM version simultaneously, so they don't want to release the ebook at the same itme as the HC. I actually don't mind waiting for the ebook version if a new book is published in HC, but I think it would be foolish of publishers to wait a whole year to release the ebook. And some ebook readers see red when they have to wait.

Once I made the leap to ebooks by getting a Kindle, my interest in buying printed books went out the window. It's not a matter or HC or ebook or MM. There is no "or." I'm not buying a printed book unless the author is a personal friend. But I do buy more books than I used to because a) I can read more with a Kindle, since I always have it with me and b) ebooks don't take up any shelf space. I'm pretty sure that's typical behavior, and one reason why Amazon has recorded such strong gains in ebook sales. Still, it would be nice to know when I could expect the ebook to come out. And if it isn't soon after print release, I may well forget the book is out there. Regardless of timing, it's essential that the publisher proof the text in ebook format and make sure it doesn't have formatting errors.

So, what publishers need to work out is, how do they publish books in a way that makes the most money? Does it make sense to hold back the format that some of their best customers demand or to charge the same for an ebook and a hardcover book? My answer to both questions is no. What do you think?

Addendum: Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford's blog had an excellent post on this topic, so I'm tacking it on to mine.





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