Publishers Struggle with Strategies on When to Release Their E-Books

For all their sound and fury, e-book sales accounted for no more than 4% of all book sales in 2009. That figure will certainly rise in 2010. With all manner of e-readers on the market (or about to hit), the boom of reading-related smartphone apps, and Apple (AAPL) appearing to prepare a tablet device (rumored name: iSlate) for its debut on January 26, e-book sales may hit $500 million in the next 12 months, Forrester Research projects.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Next year, publishers may find themselves having to choose between treating e-books as it would any other format, or as a separate entity. Publishers are increasingly having to weigh the way they've always done business -- selling books primarily to retailers and distributors -- against a swelling tide of consumers who want to get their e-books directly from the publisher, when they want them, and on the device they choose.

No Overnight Shifts

Publishers won't transform overnight into lean, mean, e-book-publishing machines. While Amazon (AMZN) touted that it sold more Kindle books than physical books on Christmas Day (without backing up that claim with data), consider that up to 96% of book sales are still physical hardcover, trade paperback, and mass-market paperback books. The big players can't abruptly sacrifice their core business practices on the altar of a very hot new category of their revenues.

But e-books do hold the promise of generating a great deal of money for the publishers. That's why Random House battened down the hatches on digital rights to much of its voluminous backlist, making clear to agents that "published in any form" extends to formats -- like e-books -- that did not exist before the 1990s. It's why Harlequin (TORSF) launched a digital-only imprint, Carina Press. It's also why agents and publishers will continue to duke it out over the proper royalty for e-books, which may settle into the 20% to 25% net royalty range in boilerplate contracts all across trade publishing.

And the money to be made off e-books makes publishers believe fervently that they have say in pricing, lest Amazon's $9.99 cap for most new titles become the upper echelon that no retailer can exceed (and most will want to undercut). Amazon has no plans to bump up its Kindle e-book prices, so publishers see fit to strike back by deciding when -- and if -- a new anticipated bestseller's e-book edition gets released.

Several Strategies in Play

So when should an e-book be published? Next year, publishers trying to figure that out will test a host of strategies:

Before the book's print publication. The New York Times reported this fall that The Daily Beast, Tina Brown's news and opinion site, had formed Beast Books, a new imprint that will publish "timely editions" of short books by the site's writers: first as e-books, then as trade paperbacks. Perseus Books, which will handle distribution and marketing, has had some success in releasing digital editions in advance of print: Its PublicAffairs imprint released George Soros's The New Paradigm for Financial Markets -- and sold more than 50,000 copies -- two months before the hardcover.

In sync with the hardcover. On September 15, Doubleday, a division of Bertelsmann's Random House, published Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in print and electronic formats. The decision came late, and some observers speculated that the move would accelerate its likelihood of the insta-bestseller leaking before it was published. The leak did come, but in the form of an early New York Times review of the hardcover. The Lost Symbol has sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S., some 200,000 of which were e-book downloads.

Four months after the hardcover. Between January and April, CBS's (CBS) Simon & Schuster will release 35 titles as e-books, four months after their hardcover editions. "The titles we've delayed represent a broad cross section of the types of books we publish," a representative says, but they all have larger print runs and higher price points -- that is, anticipated bestseller status -- and come from the publisher's heavy hitters, including Jodi Picoult, Mary Higgins Clark, Karl Rove, and Paula Deen.

Hachette Book Group (LGDDF), too, will delay e-book publication of major hardcover releases up to four months. Hachette CEO David Young told the Wall Street Journal in November that the move is a bid to preserve the industry. "I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices."

"At some unspecified period" after the hardcover. Soon after Hachette and S&S announced they would delay their e-books, News Corp.'s (NWS) HarperCollins did the same. Between five and 10 e-books every month will be delayed, according to company CEO Brian Murray, until six weeks to four months after the hardcover. Their test case for this strategy was likely Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, which despite early predictions has sold more than a million copies, although e-book editions weren't offered on Amazon or other retailers until December 24.

At the same time, but as limited "enhanced" editions. Macmillan's plans for its perceived bestsellers for 2010 is to offer the e-book editions at the same time as limited "enhanced" editions including author interviews, reading guides, and other bonus material -- and all priced comparably to the hardcover. After 90 days, the enhanced edition will be replaced by a standard -- and cheaper -- e-book withought those goodies. (Macmillan titles that don't merit those e-book extras will come out in hardcover 90 days before they come out as e-books.)

In sync with the paperback. The waiting game got serious last summer when Dominique Raccah, CEO of Illinois-based independent publisher Sourcebooks, told the Journal that the e-book edition of the young-adult fantasy novel Bran Hambric would be published "at least six months" after the September hardcover publication. Raccah now says the e-book publication is slated for next fall, to coincide with its paperback release, and that of the next hardcover in the series.

Simultaneous e-book and paperback publication is now Sourcebooks's official policy. "For the business to work, publishing has two marketing windows: first, there's a hardcover release, and then the paperback," Raccah says. "By publishing the e-book edition of Bran Hambric along with the paperback, we feel we can make a real statement. It also gives us a chance to experiment with bundling, or giving away pieces of the e-book for free."

With e-books, Raccah says, "If you're going to have a pricing strategy that's aggressively lower, instead of 25% lower, then we know what that looks like and where that falls in the life cycle of a book."

She continues: "I could be wrong about this, but consumers, not aficionados or pundits, understand and can see that some things happen earlier, some later. I can pull the numbers of trade paperback editions of hardcover titles, look at pretty much any list, and people have waited that whole year. Trade paperbacks do very well. There are people who didn't buy Harry Potter in hardcover."

Never. Publishers who lack the right to market digital editions of their authors' books may be out of luck -- but they're not going down without a fight. Open Road Integrated Media, the digital-book startup founded by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, disagrees with bigger players over who has the right to release e-book versions of William Styron's novels (from Random House) and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (from Simon & Schuster). Ray Bradbury may remain steadfast in his refusal to grant any e-book rights to any of his books -- but Vladimir Nabokov refused to allow the publication of his last novel -- and look what happened. (There's no e-book edition of The Original of Laura on the horizon.)

The winner? Check back in a few months, once there are actual numbers to crunch. There may be multiple ways to make e-book publication timing work, or just one. However this shakes out, though, the bottom line, in the words of The Big Money's Marion Maneker, is that "readers want books that are plentiful and cheap, publishers want to preserve their profit, and authors want a larger share of revenue."

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