When I began working in book publishing at Henry Holt & Co. in 1988, one of the first things I learned was that there was a pattern to when each edition of a work was published. Hardcover editions came first, and then, usually a year later, a paperback edition was published, if the hardcover had sold well enough. There were, of course, exceptions, but the pattern was generally understood.
The rise of the ebook has, of course, disrupted this paradigm.
While discussions of the impact of new technologies in book publishing have almost endlessly explored their effect on pricing, sales venues and the like, I don’t believe I’ve read too much speculation about what is and might happen to the progression of editions.
I know that many commenters have and will continue to suggest that all or nearly all print editions will disappear. I’m not convinced, because I think there is a role for print for many types of books (high-end art books, cookbooks used in the kitchen, etc.) and for some audiences (technophobes, the poor, seniors, etc.). While even these situations may eventually be resolved with digital books, it could be decades, if not more, before the transition to digital eliminates the production of print books — and the use of print-on-demand technology can only postpone the demise of print books.
My own recent book purchases reinforce this perception. As much as I like reading on my iPhone and in various applications on my computer, I still debate with myself a little about whether to purchase books in print or in digital form. Usually, this debate comes down to a trade-off between convenience and conservation. For example, I recently purchased Monsters and Mormons on paper, despite the stunning 6 fold difference in price (more easily justified if the print version were in hardcover), because I want to make sure that I have a nice copy of the book for the long term. While I’ve often forgotten or misplaced files on a computer, and likely lost many in the transition from one computer to another, I’ve never lost a book that I truly care about. [It doesn’t help that I’ve been burned with computer files before–I still have an Infobases disk that I can’t read because I lost the password years ago. I know Monsters and Mormons isn’t in exactly that situation, but it still doesn’t feel as permanent to me — perhaps because of my age or something.]
In the meantime, we are, at least for the time being, in a hybrid market, which makes me wonder what the optimal progression is from one edition to another that maximizes publisher profit without seriously inconveniencing consumers. While I know that not everyone likes having to wait for a paperback version of a book to come out, I think the situation was largely accepted in the market. For publishers, it means that more consumers purchase the higher margin hardcover version, maximizing sales of that edition, while most consumers end up waiting for, but still purchasing, the paperback.
While it might seem logical for publishers to adopt a similar strategy–perhaps publishing a hardcover edition first and then the ebook edition simultaneously with the paperback at some later point, that isn’t what I’m seeing. In fact, it looks like what is happening is just the opposite: ebooks are either being released simultaneously with the earliest print edition, or even up to a couple of months ahead of the print edition. And subsequent paperback editions are even coming out earlier than they did, according to the New York Times, unless the hardcover continues to sell well.
I don’t think the motivation for this is very clear. Either ebooks are more profitable than hardcovers (which I doubt) or, like sample chapters and pages on amazon and other sites, ebooks may, along with providing a profit, actually lead to more sales of print books–which also seems kind of counter-intuitive. Confusing somewhat this situation is the effect of the much-maligned agency pricing, which is used by the largest publishers, since it raises prices, making ebooks a bit less attractive.
Underlying all this is uncertainty about exactly what role ebooks will play in the market. Are ebooks really a complete substitute for a print edition–do consumers always only buy one or the other? Or do consumers buy the ebook and then decide, in some cases, that they have to have a print version? Are ebooks really going to be cheaper than paperbacks? Or will consumers accept the publisher’s position that the paperback price is as cheap as they can go?
Regardless, the rationale for the progression of editions has been disrupted, and seems likely to remain uncertain for a while–at least until the industry settles on what the role of ebooks is.