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Ebooks elbow out print editions

2 May 2011

A recent article in Teleread questioned the way publishers bring out the premium edition, the hardback, and then make readers wait for the mass market paperback, which is available at a lower price which most people can afford.

There's nothing new about this, it's been going on for decades. Publishers would claim that they have needed to milk the more expensive edition for all they can by delaying the paperback. The hardback is of course also for people who can afford to pay more and for gift purchase (a paperback, no mater how attractive, is thought by many to be too 'cheap' to qualify as a present). Also, there are the fans of big-name author who simply can't wait for the next book by their favourite author.

But for most of us it's always been the long wait, often as long as a year, for the affordable edition. This makes particularly bad sense to book-buyers because any publicity, advertising or author promotion is usually done when the hardback comes out. There's often precious little attention paid to the paperback, unless of course it's by a big author and will receive advertising spend. But publishers justify this by saying they need to get every penny they can out of each edition.

What's changed in this staged approach is that ebooks have blown it sky-high. Now there's pressure to make a lower-priced ebook available at the same time as the hardback. What this does is risk cutting the hardback sales because the ebook comes out at the same time but at a lower price. But it may turn out to have an even worse effect on the paperback sales, which could easily melt away as people go for the ebook and don't wait for the similarly-priced but not yet available paperback.

In this way both print editions are endangered from the point of view of publishers and their income. So, what's the upside for publishers? Well, that's hard to see too, because there is great pressure on ebook prices, they are vulnerable to piracy and authors and their agents are demanding higher royalties from ebook editions.

You may well feel in principle that everything available through the internet should be free, but the difficulty is that there is a certain amount of investment involved in publishing a book and for traditional publishers the margins on most books are quite tight, with an occasional bestseller (which may also have entailed paying a big advance) helping to pay for the rest. For self-publishers it's the same situation, although of course they get a larger percentage of the income from the book.

But if books are valued down to nothing, or almost nothing, as they are being right now in the Amazon Kindle store, doesn't the consumer get used to the idea that books, like many other things, should be free or nearly so? And how do writers make an income from their writing if that is the prevailing view?

Teleread article