Edition progression and the ebook disruption

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.

25 thoughts on “Edition progression and the ebook disruption”

  1. I think the solution is simple: stop windowing except in one instance below.

    Buyers of the hardcover get a “free” copy of the ebook edition.

    Trade paperbacks are print in demand and only show up in channels where the consumer is more likely to want that kind of edition.

    Premium limited-edition packages are windowed for rabid fans, and ship 1-2 two weeks before the hardcover.

    Now, of course, the execution of all that could be incredible difficult, I’m viewing this more from a consumer perspective.

  2. I wish it were like those Blu-Ray/DVD/digital copy combo packs we buy of the kids’ favorite movies. There should be a choice between buying paper or ebook (as there obviously is now), and then a discount for buying BOTH in a bundle.

    There will always be some books of which I’ll want to own a hard copy. As much as I love them, I think of ebooks as disposable–but perhaps that’s because you and I are about the same age, Kent.

  3. “I’m viewing this more from a consumer perspective.”


    I think the biggest difficulty might be convincing publishers that your idea will maximize profit or provide some similar benefit.

  4. The real disrupting effect of ebooks is spelled out over at AML: “Angel of the Danube was published by an established LDS publisher and earned me 73 cents per book times 1200 books–pretty good by LDS publishing standards.”

    Economies of scale still favor producers and distributors who depend on physical things getting shipped around the world (it’s only a matter of time before POD closes the gap). But self-publish at Amazon, and you’ll make that much on a $1.99 ebook.

  5. Eugene, the problem with that thinking is that it only looks at the amount earned per book. The difficult part is when it comes to selling the books. While some self-publishers do well, I’m afraid most don’t sell more than 100 copies, and even at $3 or $4 a copy, the net on 100 copies sold isn’t as much as the 73 cents on 1200 copies.

    If you can sell just as many copies as the established publisher, great. Go for it. But from what I can tell, the majority of authors don’t manage to do it.

    Of course, if no publisher will take on the book, then they are better off self publishing, but I’m not sure whether to call that a success or not. Much depends on what your goals and assumptions are.

  6. I’m afraid most don’t sell more than 100 copies, and even at $3 or $4 a copy, the net on 100 copies sold isn’t as much as the 73 cents on 1200 copies.

    Oh, please stop quoting a decade-old cliche. That’s so hackneyed I could hitch a horse to it and drive it from London to Scotland.

  7. Most don’t, though.

    But I assume what you mean, MoJo, is that for the small- to mid-list author who can garner sales of more than 100 copies, their net profits are going to be better with self-publishing than with a publisher.

    I think in these kinds of discussion we’d do well to separate out the huge hordes of dreck from the indie/newly-freed mid-list authors. Let’s just assume that we’re talking about product that has a certain amount of polish and professionalism behind it as well as decent-to-pretty okay marketing appeal.

  8. My point is that until BookScan registers these things (which it doesn’t) and there is some other valid way of measuring it constructed nobody knows.

    In other words, prove it.

  9. My sister’s novella has sold four times as many as that. The POD version sells better than any of my print books. All with zero publicity.

    Let’s keep in mind the even older stereotype of the struggling author who signs with an “established publisher,” sells about 100 copies, gets remaindered, doesn’t come close to earning out his advance, and is never heard from again. If he self-published on Amazon, he’d sell those 100 copies, and then keep on selling them, a few here and a few there, until Amazon ceased to exist.

    Perhaps the bigger paradigm shift here is from push to pull. That is, readers take it upon themselves to find what they want to read, and don’t wait to be told what they ought to read. If they want to read what you wrote, they will flock like starlings. Most of the traffic to my site is for material I just stuck up there for the heck of it and did absolutely nothing to promote.

    Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath are two of the biggest advocates of the new paradigm: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=6251

  10. MoJo, you probably know that the reason BookScan doesn’t register independent and self-published books is that it doesn’t get paid for it, right?

    I think one thing that often gets forgotten about my “hackneyed” explanation, is that very few, if any, authors know ahead of time how well their books will sell.

    I’m not sure that it matters whether or not anyone knows about the sales of other authors. They only know what they hear, and about their own sales, well after the author has written the book. My point is, no one knows ahead of time what their sales will be. I don’t think anyone benefits from overly rosy assumptions about sales. Yes, there are anecdotal stories like Eugene’s sister where sales are stronger.

    Yes, it isn’t possible to statistically show that going with a publisher leads to more sales than self-publishing. In those (relatively few, I admit) cases where the author actually has this choice, I’d hope that authors wouldn’t put too much trust in anecdotal stuff, regardless of which position it supports.

  11. Eugene, the problem with your sister’s story is that neither you nor your sister knows how many she might have sold with a publisher. But, I do agree that there are cases, many, many cases, where the publisher didn’t put much into an author and the author didn’t sell well at all. Publishers err often.

    And I do see the logic that says that today there is more reward in self-publishing if the author sells the minimum number of copies, than there is if the publisher sells the minimum number of copies of the author’s book.

    But, regardless of that old dispute, I’m not sure I agree with your statement “Perhaps the bigger paradigm shift here is from push to pull. That is, readers take it upon themselves to find what they want to read, and don’t wait to be told what they ought to read.”

    The problem I have with this idea is that it is way, way too simplistic. Yes, more consumers can search for and find the titles they want, and more of what they want is available because of ideas like the long tail, pod and ebooks. But, that doesn’t mean that it is the main trend.

    Book consumers have long been divided into various groups (high and low volume purchasers, those with genre preferences, hardcover purchasers vs. paperback purchasers, etc.) Yes, a certain portion of consumers are now going after the books they want, where they didn’t before. But I think the majority of book purchasers are still influenced by a lot of different promotions — especially those that buy the 80% of books that are purchased in print instead of the 20% that are purchased in digital form.

    I haven’t read enough of Smith and Konrath to understand exactly what they are saying, but I have to wonder if they aren’t saying that an author’s time is better spent doing what he knows how to do vs. doing what he doesn’t know — promotion. That doesn’t mean that well-done promotion isn’t worth it, it just means that authors shouldn’t be doing it. I can agree with that. But, I may not have what they are saying right.

  12. My impression is that most e-books are somewhere in length between a book and a long magazine piece. True? Does anyone read works as long as Lord Jim or Anna Karenina on an e-book reader?

  13. Most of the ebooks that sell are normal novel length. What has slightly changed is that ebooks means that shorter length novels (novellas) and longform nonfiction (as in a long magazine piece) are now viable forms. Publishers would generally not print works of those lengths (~15k-50k words). The return of the novella and long form magazine pieces is one of the things I’m most excited about in relation to ebooks.

    And people definitely read much longer works on a reader. In particular, the huge epic fantasy tomes that are 800-1100 (print) pages are popular on ereaders because the books themselves are huge and difficult to carry around.

    In fact, I’ve read several books that long just on my iPhone and had no problem doing so. If I had an eInk reader or tablet, the experience would be even better.

  14. My point is, no one knows ahead of time what their sales will be.


    MY point is that that phrase and similar numbers are regularly trotted out to shame and embarrass and discourage those upstart idiots who think they can write but can’t get a book deal–totally ignoring the minor little question of publishing slots versus writers of any skill.

    It’s used as a weapon of shame and I’m tired of it.

    Yes, there are anecdotal stories like Eugene’s sister where sales are stronger.

    How many anecdotes does anybody need to put down that silly assertion? Because I can supply them in DROVES.

    Eugene, the problem with your sister’s story is that neither you nor your sister knows how many she might have sold with a publisher.

    Check your premise. You are acting as if she has a CHOICE to go to a publisher who *will* take her book. That’s the mistake the entire publishing cult makes when it sets out to shame self-publishers with aforementioned unsubstantiated numbers.

    Whether she could have done it with a publisher relies on a PUBLISHER’s decision. She has no say in it. On the other hand, she’s made more money than she did with any of the publishers who decided not to publish her.

    I have to wonder if they aren’t saying that an author’s time is better spent doing what he knows how to do vs. doing what he doesn’t know — promotion.

    Of course it is, but if a publisher expects you to do the promotion anyway, spending part of your advance to do it, what’s the value of a publisher?

    As for BookScan, it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t get registered, nobody can prove the numbers.

  15. I’m amused by the notion, tossed out without any irony, that all those silly self-publishers have to do is mail their manuscripts to New York and bada bing, bada boom, money and fame! It’s like collaring the star of a hometown theater production and telling him to run off to Hollywood.

    This is an example of the “lottery paradox,” namely that somebody’s got to win the lottery, which skews our perception of the real odds.

    The odds of getting plucked out of the slush pile are astronomical enough, but with a novella? Really? And a novella first published as a series of blog posts? Yeah, right. Time for a reality check. Have the people making such suggestions spent any time on the over-the-transom treadmill?

    Every other form of artistic expression (and sport) has long presumed that the artist will start out as an indie, an amateur, a freelancer, honing his craft as an avocation.

    Dean Wesley Smith advocates that new writers eschew the treadmill and self-publish first, using their bibliography as a calling card. It’s a much better approach than spending years (yes, years) shopping a manuscript around, years that could be spent building an audience.

    Some of the biggest recent “traditional publishing” acquisitions have been writers who self-published first. This is the real-world application of the same scouting system that professional sports has been using for a century. It will only get bigger.

    Here is a very a good explanation of the sea change going on (by Dean Wesley Smith’s wife, also an established writer who worked under the old system). The problem with traditional publishers, she points out, is that they still think in terms of scarcity in an infinite world.


    Here Clay Christensen explains the business theory behind “disruptive innovations.”


  16. You both need to get over your defensiveness and assumptions that I’m out to criticize your choices. I specifically said that I realize not everyone can find a publisher. AND, I added that at least some authors are financially better off NOT going with a publisher.

    Neither of you really addressed the points I made in my last comments. You just assumed I was criticizing those who self publish!

    Is it really necessary to jump to defending something when you are not being attacked? I have to wonder what your defensiveness means!

    Oh, and Eugene, I’ve been talking and thinking about the effect of “disruptive innovations” on book publishing since the “Innovator’s Dilemma” came out in 1997. While the link is welcome, you needed assume that I’m unfamiliar with the concepts.

  17. Kent, I don’t, in fact, think you’re out to criticize our choices. I do think you’re a bit high in the instep about it, though.

    What I also think is that you’re not following the publishing news and trends the way we are because we are in the thick of it. Your use of those numbers (a long, well-practiced tactic to discourage people from self-publishing and yes, to shame them) is, to me (and possibly Eugene, though I hesitate to speak for him) an indicator that you’re still in traditional publishing think and not as current as you’d like to think you are.

    The idea that the ebook will replace the mass market paperback is at least two years old. But maybe it’s because I’m in the romance community, which is a notorious community for WAY early adopting.

    In short, your thoughts on the subject (original post) are very out of date.

  18. Moriah, you’ve changed what you are saying from your earlier comments.

    I have a lot on my plate in various ways. I do tend to pay more attention to the International aspects of publishing than some of what is happening with self publishing. So maybe I’m “out of date” in that sense. BUT, I don’t see any consensus on the issue of this post, no generally accepted framework has been set for what should happen.

    As for my “use of those numbers,” I still haven’t seen any reason to think they are not a valid way of looking at the publishing decision. I was trained as an accountant, that was how I got into book publishing, and I tend to see things from the numbers. They don’t involve Eugene’s “scarcity” concept, and anyone publishing a book will be better off if they understand the concept that sometimes less per book on many more copies is more than more per book on a few copies. It is hard NOT to bring this up when that concept is so often omitted in explanations for why a book was published a certain way.

    If your claim is that you self publish because you make more per book, and you don’t bother to say that you believe you will sell just as many as with a publisher, it looks like you left out part of the analysis!!

    It really seems like you all jump on me for giving what you call the “traditional publishing think” view of an issue, even when I try to provide caveats for the self publishing viewpoint, but heaven forbid if I point out any potential stumbling block with self publishing because you’ve heard it all before. [You do know that it is not necessarily about you, right?] Perhaps if you included some modest caveats to the “traditional publishing think,” as I try to do with your views, there might be fewer misunderstandings?

  19. Eugene, I don’t think anything I’ve said conflicts with what Dean Wesley Smith calculates in his example.

    I have a little quibble with some of his numbers — I’m not sure that sales will increase by 5 copies every 6 months per book per month on average. That certainly could happen — its not an astronomical figure — but I think it may be a little generous for many authors — but then those authors really aren’t being picked up by traditional publishers either, so they don’t have much of a choice.

    For the record, I don’t have any reservations about his approach either. Submitting to traditional publishers while still publishing independently makes a lot of sense, especially because traditional publishers are much less annoyed about having to republish something that was published independently than they were decades ago.

    So, if that is your position, I’m not sure why what I’ve said above is a problem.

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