The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that leading independent publisher (and my former employer), Sourcebooks, is pushing back against the devaluation of ebooks typically sold on Amazon and B&N for $9.99 by delaying the ebook release of one of its major Fall books for at least six months after the hardcover release. The plan, as I understand it, is a kind of staged release, similar to that of a book going from hardcover to trade paperback to mass market paperback, inserting the ebook release somewhere in between.
"It doesn't make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99," said Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, which issues 250 to 300 new titles annually. "The argument is that the cheaper the book is, the more people will buy it. But hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn't cannibalize it."
Dominique is a smart publisher, a great advocate and defender of authors and readers, and she has just ripped the lid off this can of worms. Check out the comments on the WSJ article and you will see that people generally don't have a high regard for publishers who are being demonized like the greedy music industry for destroying the old model. I would contend, though, that there is no bad guy in this story. Publishing is just changing.
Aside: The biggest misconception about ebooks is that there is no or little cost to sell them. It's simply not true. Think about development. Think about distribution and everyone who touches a file in the process and their piece of action. Think about storage fees and transaction fees. As soon as I hear or read a comment that ebooks are free or even cheap to produce and sell, I immediately tune it out because it is clearly an uneducated comment.
Releasing a book in stages may be as a good an approach as any today, especially for high profile books. As one comment on the WSJ article said, "The blockbusters will make a fortune, while the also-rans will be read by friends and family. Hmmm...sounds a tad like the film and music industries, doesn't it?"
It is an interesting and exciting time in publishing. There is a lot of criticism and comparison to the failure of the music industry, but I don't think the music industry failed. The music business just changed. I guess if I had been employed by a record label I might think differently, but the independence fostered by technology we see today is a cleaner business model for artists (and authors) to develop their material and their audience, and market and sell their own products.
In my vision of the future, surviving publishers will become like successful music producers adding value to the content by truly making a better reading experience than the average author can do on their own, and doing it consistently. No longer can we publishers survive on packaging, blowing in air to bulk out a spine width for shelf presence, and adding seven or eight chapters around one or two central ideas. Content must deliver and do so in the way the reader wants, which is going to be very different from most books today, especially for nonfiction.
Reading on devices will be Web-based. Kindles and other e-readers will be replaced with color touch-screen tablets with full Internet access, always-on high speed wireless connectivity, and will be marketed by the wireless service providers. Ebooks will auto sync between a user's mobile phone, tablet, laptop, desktop/TV, but reading will be just one of many info/entertainment features along with video phone, gaming, TV, movies, and more.
Online retailers will become like broadcasters, posting most content for free on ad-supported platforms merging author-generated content with user-generated content, sharing ad revenue by page view with authors and publishers, and offering pay-per-view options for special events, and print-on-demand paperback editions.
Brick and mortar stores will sell mostly used books, as well as collectible first run publisher paperbacks. Only select titles will ever be released in high-priced hardcover editions tricked out with bonus content and the very best in design and print production quality. Think CD box set.
That is not so much a futurist vision as it is already happening in degrees today. While the market is determining the value of ebooks (I for one won't pay more than $10 for an ebook, and now that I own a Kindle don't intend to purchase any more print books), we will see a lot of experimentation and discovery with pricing strategies and release strategies.
Delaying an ebook release will certainly produce some backlash from the early adopters who spent $400+ on a device and cannot get the book for their device when it releases, and for that reason, I don't think this approach will stick. It could work though, if the consumer could get an "advanced copy" of the ebook with the purchase of the hardcover. It feeds the early adopter's need to have something before everyone else, and the author, retailer, and publisher still get the hardcover sale. Even a $25 hardcover might be on sale for $15, which is $5 more than the ebook will be in six months, but the consumer gets the ebook now, before everyone else, and a print edition they can resell or gift, providing a kind of pass-along/word-of-mouth marketing benefit to the publisher. Barnes & Noble and Amazon could launch a program with the Public Library Association and give consumers the option to donate the print edition to a struggling public library.