Agent Nat Sobel wants ebook releases delayed – tries to avert progress rather than deal with it

images.jpegE-Reads calls literary agent Nat Sobel "one of the most respected figures in his field". Sobel is afraid that cheap ebooks will undermine the market for hardcover sales. It is always sort of sad to see people fighting against the stream of progress, and instead of coming up with innovative ways to deal with the changing world they try to hold back change and pretend they can stop it. I reprint Sobel's letter in full: Dear Friends, This week’s Variety has a story of the fight going on between the studios and the exhibitors about the too-early release of films electronically. The exhibitors pulled the film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on news that the studio planned a special quick release of the film prior to the DVDs hitting the market. The independent booksellers, even some of the chains, do not have this option, when it comes to instant releases of hard cover bestsellers Why did that movie news remind me of what book publishers are doing to the lives of the hardcovers they publish, by making their top books instantly available electronically? We’ve lived for a year or two with the Kindle, but must now reckon with how the dissemination of books through some of the 140 million cell phones available, is going to change hardcover publishing?

In just a few years we have seen electronic sales of bestsellers go from 2% to 12 to15% of total sales. Next year, they may constitute 20%. Who knows where this will end, once bestsellers are on cell phones, blackberries and the like?

As someone who got his first job in publishing 40 years ago, working for a mass market paperback house, I have seen that area of sales rise and then nearly disappear. My first job was to open accounts and get a 64-pocket wire rack of Dell paperbacks into every imaginable outlet – variety stores, cigar stores – wherever there was foot traffic. At one point, there were more than 100,000 outlets for mass market paperbacks in the US. Those millions of customers didn’t disappear, but the racks and the distributers did.

I’d like to believe that electronic book sales can and should be the mass market of the future. For this reason, I requested that the bestselling Robert Jordan fantasy series not be available electronically until the paperback is released. Now, four weeks after its release in hardcover, The Gathering Storm has sold 24% more copies than the previous volume, even though the work was completed by another writer.

I have nothing to gain, personally, by urging all of you to consider postponing the release of the electronic version of your next bestsellers. As a first step, I suggest that the electronic versions not be made available for six months after initial publication, eventually being released when the paperback hits the market. There’s a clear line between the success of the mass market paperback and its electronic cousin – convenience and price.

The future of hardcover publishing is at stake. You don’t have a lot of time left to save it.


Nat Sobel

7 Comments on Agent Nat Sobel wants ebook releases delayed – tries to avert progress rather than deal with it

  1. While I appreciate Mr Sobels wanting to preserve the hardback market, it does seem a bit misguided. Hardbacks are nice, but ignoring the e book market seems like money left on the table. If the book is very popular I don’t really see e book cannibalizing hardbacks for the hardcore fans. Plus if it is popular enough then pirates will just put it out anyway. Why not just chard hardcover fees or a tad less for the first 6 months then bump the e book price down to mass market paperback after wards?

  2. In traditional (paper) publishing, formats (hardback/paperback) are used as a way of price descrimination, allowing publishers/authors a way of getting a bit more money out of readers and, hopefully, covering their costs. Delaying paperbacks means, if you want to read the book, you’ve got to pay the much more expensive hardback price.

    eBooks can’t really be manipulated in this way. There’s simply the price. If we start with the assumption that eBooks must be priced at paperback pricing or below, then it makes sense to delay their publication so as to rake in the incremental profit from hardbacks. The alternative, as Erik suggests, is simply to charge more for eBooks during their first six months of availability (or whatever the timeframe is). This allows the publisher to recoup a bit of cost from customers who are desperate for the book while allowing readers to pick between paper and electronic formats. We all know some readers believe eBooks “should” be priced low. If customers rebel against premium pricing on eBooks with initial release, then perhaps a delay will become standard.

    I don’t know if there is as much of this as there used to be, but in my youth, it was common for first-run movies to play at premium theaters and priced high. Later, those identical movies would move to second-run theaters which would offer them at much lower prices. I think this model (except the theater part) makes a lot of sense for publishers whose business model depends on price descrimination (the paperback/hardback model).

    Rob Preece

  3. Delaying the ebook release won’t work. People that want the convenience of ebooks aren’t going to buy a hardcover.

    My believe is that they have to introduce them at the same time as the hardcovers but at a much cheaper price. They’ll get a lot more impulse purchases when the book is getting the market attention but then the buyer may never read it. My experience is that I impulse bought a lot of $10 books but my “to read” list was in the hundreds. I’ve hardly bought any books in the last year since the publishers started playing with higher prices.

    Delaying the ebook release just means it never hits my radar. The strategy works for paperbacks because you trip over them at the store. That doesn’t happen with ebooks.

  4. A cursory examination of Amazon’s Kinlde e-book offerings will reveal a wide range of prices relative to the corresponding print editions. There is no standard as it is still very much an evolving situation. The often referenced Amazon $9.99 price point is weighted disproportionately toward public-domain titles, deep backlist already available in lower cost paperback editions, genre fiction or loss-leader new pubs.

    I believe agents’ concerns are relegated principally to the last category, and rightly so. At standard royalties, the difference to an author’s pocket between an original hardcover sale and a deeply discounted e-book can be as much as $2.00 per copy or more. There would have to be a better than 2/3 probability that a simulataneous e-book sale were not cannibalizing a potential hardcover sale to make that a good bet. Agents like Nat Sobels are not stupid for figuring that one out.

  5. I believe all formats would co-exist easily if the market were not manipulated. A few thoughts:

    1. We could go back to real backlist publishing – where e-books can be really good in bringing back literature of all kinds long forgotten by print publishers who won’t invest the PPB in them. Instead of high octane falsely presented front list ‘celebrity; driven lit (dare I say garbage).

    2. For 9 years we have experienced a market full of scorn and strategies to make sure e-books don’t appear in mass-market form. Mass market e-books are a real threat because in certain contexts price really matters to buyers – i.e. paperbacks.

    3. Hardcovers are a gift item, a luxury item almost. Is it that publishers/agents are making a noise because they fear they won’t be able to ask unfair hard cover prices and reap the unfair profits anymore? Hardcovers are not expensive to produce but the prices are high, much higher than they could be.

    4. If e-books bring prices down to a few dollars a book, will the conglomerates drop them, leaving an open market of small dedicated ‘real’ publishers? Heaven forbid I hear the conservatives saying! Free unfettered supplies of information from all POVs, what sort of dangerous world would that be.

    5. Publishing could have a 1935 style (another ‘paperback’) boom if they knew to handle e-books.

  6. A last thought – Borders in my area in London is closing down. The shop was full last Sunday when I walked in, though the deals on offer were not so wonderful – but the shop was full to the rafters. Show you are prepared to sell at a reasonable price and you could sell any book in any form.

  7. @Richard:
    1) Good point about the backlist. eBooks neatly sidestep the dread Thor Power Tools decision and make owning a backlist profitable again. Baen (arguably the bellwether for good practices) seems to be _increasing_ their backlist, bringing out books previously published and no longer available.

    2, 3, & 4) I cringe when I see the word “unfair” used in conjunction with commercial pricing strategies. They may be unwise, ineffective, or just plain dumb, but they can’t be unfair in a market with multiple vendors. Unless you want to argue antitrust violations.

    Publishing is in a state of chaos, where old strategies don’t work. It seems few of the major publishers have the flexibility (due to ownership) or creativity (due to, IMO, incompetence) to come up with a new strategy.

    Comments like these probably make them remove their heads from the sand, nod sagely, mutually agree that customers are unreasonable radicals, and put their heads back in the sand. That buys no one anything.

    5) Excellent point. The lack of creativity in this are has boggled me. The midcentury paperback revolution carried publishing for decades until they ran out of steam. Smart publishers could do that again.

    Jack Tingle

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