21 December 09 | Chad W. Post

Every time I feel like I’ve said all I really want to say about e-books and digital revolution (see all of these pieces from my recent trip to Paris), some crazy announcement or other is made, feathers are ruffled, barbs are traded, and I feel the insane itch to comment . . . And no matter how much I try and resist (just look away from the Simon & Schuster/Amazon.com pissing contest, just walk away), I always feel like I’m sucked back in.

This time it’s two separate and seemingly unrelated articles that got me to thinking about e-book release dates. First, from the Wall Street Journal:

Simon & Schuster is delaying by four months the electronic-book editions of about 35 leading titles coming out early next year, taking a dramatic stand against the cut-rate $9.99 pricing of e-book best sellers.

A second publisher, Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, said it has similar plans in the works.

“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

I’m sure any and all regular readers of this blog already know where this is going. There’s no point in focusing on the “predatory pricing” tactics of Amazon.com in this particular post. (Tactics which sound pretty similar to the “predatory pricing” tactics of the big box stores a few years back, but wtf? those price cuts helped corporate publishers to consolidate and expand, so there wasn’t nearly the same amount of hand-wringing as there is when a tactic starts to nibble at their bottom-line. I’m not making any judgments about Amazon.com or B&N or Borders or the business of bookselling as a whole, but fuck me does this whole thing sound hypocritical. To pull from my favorite bag of sports cliches—winning makes all problems go away. But once you start losing, it’s time to point fingers . . . And in this recession, big publishers are making the Detroit Lions look legit.)

But I can’t resist making fun of this: “with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

Yeah. Booming sales of e-books is a huge problem. Everyday publishers lament the fact that readers are buying their books. That activity must be nipped in the bud!

OK, to stop being facetious for a second: clearly Carolyn Reidy doesn’t hate the people who buy S&S titles, she hates the fact that they won’t pay the inflated hardcover prices that have kept this industry afloat and static for the past X number of decades. Those bastards! If these sales continued to expand, no one would be paying $29 for a 400-page book of questionable worth. And then S&S would have to figure out how to cut costs, how to publish more successfully, etc., etc. And that would suck. For Carolyn Reidy. So instead, she wants to at least delay you e-book readers from getting your e-book when you want it.

This decision follows a pretty standard model: You can see the movie at the theater now, or wait 9 months for the DVD; you can buy the hardcover now, or wait a year for the paperback.

You can buy the physical CD now, or wait . . . crap—that analogy doesn’t work. Wonder why . . .

The big gamble here is that readers value immediacy over price. That you want a book so bad that you’re willing to pay an extra $12-18 to get it rightnow instead of waiting four months for the discounted e-version. And that there’s no clear differentiation between p-book readers (god I hate that term, but whatever) and e-book readers.

Which could be totally wrong.

I don’t know how much market research S&S has done on e-book readers (I’ll guess zero, but who knows, maybe they polled their own employees), but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which there is a group of readers who have invested $250+ in an e-reading device and only want to buy e-books, and a different group of readers who only like to collect hardcovers, and a third group that will always wait for the paperback. (I fall into that category.)

If this is the case, and if e-books are booming, and if the people who read e-books help spread the word about titles they read and love to other readers who fall into one of these three categories, than S&S maybe handcuffing their own sales by preventing books from achieving their maximum sales velocity when released.

Just imagine if a CD came out, then we all waited four months to buy it through iTunes. Most of the reviews and publicity would take place at one point in time, whereas a massive amount of sales would happen at another. There’s a real disconnect here between marketing efforts and word-of-mouth, but whatever, Reidy gets paid the big bucks to make money for shareholders and increase the bottom line, not to increase the access readers have to great literature.

*

Over the weekend, Margo Rabb wrote an interesting essay for the New York Times called Steal These Books about which titles are most often stolen from bookstores. There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:

But this doesn’t mean that every reader is contributing to the bottom line. Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new, said Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry. The rest are shared, borrowed, given away — or stolen.

Those are some fascinating statistics, especially in relation to how we conceive of e-book readers. Granted, this is in relation to books that are actually read and we know most publishers really only care about books that are sold (a fine, but financially crucial distinction), but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the e-book world.

One reason publishers are so jacked with optimism for an e-book future (as long as it conforms to their present ideas re: pricing, DRM, etc.) is because it will allow them to cut down on all of this “borrowing” and “giving away” of books. Things will inevitably change, but for now, the idea of being able to sell a e-version to every single person who wants to read the book, jacking these percentages way, way up just through technological limitations, is very appealing. To some people.


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