E vs. P price debate: Sourcebooks delays e-book version of potential bestseller

image Bran Hambric, aimed at the Harry Potter crowd, will come out on paper September 9 but won’t be an e-book for at least another six months.

Sourcebooks, the publisher, worries that $9.95 editions in E could steal sales from the paper.

It’s not alone, if you go by a Wall Street Journal piece. And certain publishers are insisting that if E comes out with P, then the prices should be higher than the $9.95 Amazon has been offering. Excerpt from the Journal:

“Some publishers have already embraced alternative means of selling e-books that give them more control over price. Last month, CBS Corp.'s Simon & Schuster publishing arm began setting its own prices on nearly 5,000 e-books sold by Scribd Inc., a Web site that allows people to post and read documents online.”

image So, gang, who do you think will win this one? The old-guard publishers or new rivals like Quartet Press, which lack the same huge investment in the pulped-wood approach?

The backlist factor: Less price clout for old houses in the future?

The catch is that you can’t buy, say, The Catcher in the Rye from Quartet Press, which, anyway, is starting out with a focus on romance titles. But with so much hype for new bestsellers, the old houses may be losing their traditional backlist advantage.

Yet another factor could be that young people's taste in books is so different from their parents’. And in the evil Net may have no small part to do with that. Does Holden Caufield use Facebook or Twitter? Didn’t think so. Even if Harry Potter doesn’t tweet and isn’t a hacker in the literal sense, he still seems to appeal to those caught up in the Net ethos.

I’m not celebrating the above. Rather I am just pointing out why the backlist may not count as much, long term, as the big guys hope, meaning that they’ll be more vulnerable to competition from reasonably priced e-books from new, Net-hip houses.

I could also mention the piracy factor—the fact that if E isn’t reasonably priced at stores, people will go elsewhere for it. But then I’ve already spoiled some people’s Monday morning enough. OK. Have some more coffee, and use the caffeine jolt to brainstorm about sustainable business models.

About David Rothman (6824 Articles)
David Rothman is the founder and publisher of the TeleRead e-book site and cofounder of He is also author of The Solomon Scandals novel and six tech-related books on topics ranging from the Internet to laptops. Passionate on digital divide issues, he is now pushing for the creation of a national digital library endowment.

16 Comments on E vs. P price debate: Sourcebooks delays e-book version of potential bestseller

  1. So, gang, who do you think will win this one?

    Who else? Oprah will win. People will buy what she tells them to buy! 😉

    On classics: The thing about classics is, there’s a reason they’re classics. Young people, often seeking to translate the language of the culture they are trying to become part of (through the working world, say), often will read the classics to get that meaning. They may not be best-sellers in the future… but they still have a future.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Older classics and modern classics are not going to vanish. But remember, I’m looking at this from a sales perspective. Older classics are free on the Net. And as for modern classics, I know that publishers will make money digitizing them. The issue is whether the readers will be there to the expect they would have been without the Net’s impact on literary tastes.

    Nowadays there seems to be more focus on fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Part of this may be that the tech-minded are among the biggest fans of e-books. But could it also be the influence of the Net on society as a whole? Hardly science here. And, of course, in regard to popularity of modern classics, I myself hope you’re right!


  3. There doesn’t seem to be anything unreasonable about a release sequence for popular books of: hardcover, trade, MMPB, ebook. There’s a certain logic to it. The premium hardcover makes a lot of money from early adopters, the trade and MMPB pick off the bulk of the readers, and ebooks, with their low warehousing costs, cover the long tail.

    As an ebook reader, I like having the ebook out early, but publishers probably don’t cater to me. They do lose an occasional, low-profit sale, since I may forget about a title by the time it’s an ebook, but I doubt they lose much sleep over that.

    There is a fundamental problem when the publisher doesn’t produce a quality ebook, or when they don’t price it appropriately. If they release it simultaneously with the hardcover, and price it similarly, I expect first-class production values for that price. I’m a lot more forgiving if they release it after the MMPB at a rock bottom price to cover their long term inventory.

    Jack Tingle

  4. Bruce Wilson // July 13, 2009 at 8:25 am //

    I think the publishers will win, and Amazon will lose the $9.99 first-release price battle. I see e-books as the electronic equivalent of the paperback, not the hardback. To have the same in-hand prestige that a hardback has, we’d need a lot more (and a lot better) formatting. For an example of what an e-book could be, look at the Amazon e-book version of The Princess Bride (S. Morgenstern’s classic). They use non-default fonts (at least on my DX they are not default) which changes the reading experience. Sure, you need to adjust the font size (the font they use comes out a size bigger than the default font), but it’s a better experience. The publisher cared about that e-edition.

    But truth be told, a better-formatted e-book isn’t worth the full price they charge for hardbacks. E-books are paperbacks. Little more.

    So publishers have options:

    a) delay the e-book until the paperback release, and be happy with the $9.99.

    b) release the e-book with the hardback, but charge full hardback price, until Amazon get’s sick of subsidizing (and when would that happen? A messed-up economy couldn’t do it), then drop the proce when the paperback arrives.

    c) make the e-book worth more during the harback release (get clever, formatting guys!), and talk Amazon into charging more because it’s worth more, then revert to default formatting when paperbacks arrive.

    Amazon has only a single option: get us addicted to the e-book, then do what publishers want. They can’t subsidize forever. Only a government can do that.

  5. Jack, you make some good points; and in fact, if memory serves, Penguin does lower prices when books have been out long enought.

    But many of today’s readers care more about words than about where they appear. As e-book tech improves, this is just going to be more and more common an attitude.

    No easy answers here. It’ll be fascinating to see how things shake out.


  6. Sadly, I think the pirates will win. If popular, it will be less than 24 hours after the release in hardcover that the book will show up perfectly proofed and formatted beautifully with a great looking cover in html on IRC. Thus, quite a few people who would like to pay to read it in an e-book version will likely default to the free version since it will be so easy and because it is not available to legally purchase in that format. A period of waiting is very outdated between format releases imho given todays views on instant gratification.

  7. >>>The backlist factor: Less price clout for old houses in the future?

    What backlist? That’s what Google intends to steal!

  8. “But many of today’s readers care more about words than about where they appear. As e-book tech improves, this is just going to be more and more common an attitude.”

    Of course, the converse is also true. Some do care about the physical form. As I understand the publishing world, current hardcover press runs are 10-50K books. They tend to come out 6 months to a year before the trade/MMPB is out. They make a lot of profit. That’s a press run that sells to less than 0.02% of the US population. You can make a lot of money selling cream.

  9. Clearly publishers are not getting it. People who truly love their Kindle (or other ebook readers) don’t want to buy P books. They will simply wait for the ebook to come out. The only thing that the publishers end up doing is making their customers mad. Which will not work in the long run.

    With so many ebooks to choose from, why would anyone buy a P book?

  10. There is a cross-elasticity between eBook and hardback books, so it makes sense that initial prices be held high to skim the cream, followed by price reductions that allow those willing to pay less to also read the book.

    The hardback/paperback publishing model is not based on the cost of hardbacks (although they cost a bit more, the cost differential is tiny compared to the price differential) but on market segmentation. With eBooks, there is no hardcover/softcover physical difference to play with. I personally think it makes sense to set a higher initial eBook price and reduce it when the paperback comes out, allowing eBook readers to get the book. However, I recognize that many eBook buyers complain bitterly about the high cost of eBooks. From Sourcebook’s perspective, it might look easier to simply delay the eBooks rather than put up with customer attacks at the high price point.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, BooksForABuck

  11. A couple of things left our of the discussion. With ebooks pricing could highly variable, much more so than with print titles. In fact, we already see Amazon’s kindle store pricing some new release hardcovers at points of above $9.99 and sometimes bringing them down a few weeks later. But with real-time information about what’s selling – or not – at a particular price point, there could be a lot more flexibility.

    Second, major publishers for the most part are currently setting the price of ebooks the same way they set them for print books – charging retailers a fixed percentage of the list hardcover price. Amazon is choosing to sell many ebooks at a loss. I’m not sure what publishers easily can do to stop Amazon from volunteering to take a loss.

    Finally, of course, the publishers won’t do the one easy thing they could do to make ebooks worth a lot more: sell them without a DRM. They want to charge the hardcover price without giving consumers the same value (and saving themselves a pretty penny in distribution and production costs, too). Allow ebooks to be shared and resold, just like hardcovers.

  12. The publishers are too fixated on the past. The industry has changed and continues to evolve. Artificial price distinctions such as hard cover/softcover and now ebook no longer applies. As Mark said, books are scanned and online less than 24 hours. The reality is that they are digital files anyway and will end up released BEFORE print runs have even shipped.

    It has to be a volume game. Sell the most books possible at the lowest price.

    I see the likelihood of me buying paper books ever again as low. I love my ereader. Once they have some waterproof ereader, I can even read in the bath.

    I want my favorite authors to get paid. I want the books now. When it is sitting there digitally waiting, I will not wait a year for an official ebook. I am not the only one. It seems the publishing industry is blind to the success of itunes and .99 tunes. That was a game changer. Sure, there is still music piracy but there are millions of songs being sold.

  13. “I think the publishers will win, and Amazon will lose the $9.99 first-release price battle…”

    I tend to give your doomsday scenario a lot of credit in that it captures who exactly is in power. Amazon and many other e-book retailers have been fighting a valiant fight to bring down the prices for e-content. They can easily win (low cost distributors) were it not for something that us 9.99> boy-cotters have been coming up against. The dreaded “individual value” crowd who continuously demand that they determine the price of content while criticizing and demonizing any sort of organized consumer consensus seeking to force <9.99 equilibrium price on e-books. These folks even go as far as lambasting Bezos himself who has publicly stated that “9.99 prices for e-books are perfectly sustainable.” Until consumers can agree that an e-book should be priced less than 9.99, the publishers will have the upper hand, unless pirates are dealing the cards.

  14. I wouldn’t bet against the value of a strong back list. Titles like Catcher in the Rye will sell forever. What’s interesting is that many of the perennial favorites have no digital edition — not because publishers are slow to digitize them, but because there is no clear ownership of the digital rights.

    The confusion goes back to the Rosetta/Random House suit in 2001:

    So, it’s entirely possible that some new digital publishing startup will eventually acquire the digital rights to Catcher in the Rye and other classics that are still in copyright and in print (and therefore outside the scope of the Google Book Search agreement).

  15. If the publishers do not come to an agreement with amazon et al, the pirates will win. The publishers can fight it but they do more harm in the long term. The publishers may think they are in power but are really at the mercies of the consumers and pirates. To ignore the reality is crazy.
    There is a revolution happening. Paper books are not going to disappear but they will become a small part of the market. What happens when the price of an ereader is under $100.00? Under $50.00? Consumer technology such as this is cheap to make. Soon enough they will be produced in the millions by 10s of cheap chinese manufactures.

  16. Kirk: Many thanks for your perspective–straight from the trenches–and, yes, Rosetta/Random is highly germane. Who knows, maybe Quartet will buy Salinger rights someday?

    At the same time, it’ll be interesting to see if the big publishers hang on to the rights, and what their value will be—in an era when so many kids are growing up with experiences radically difference from, say, Holden’s. Remember, if the rights really continue to matter a lot, it’s the big guys who’ll have the resources to buy them up. Even though Vonnegut and a lot of others published through Rosetta, the big houses are more hip now about the e-value of old properties.

    Who knows what’ll happen? Damn hard to predict, with all the factors plugged in. Thanks for your own thoughts, Kirk!


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