Make Them Wait

Three of the largest book publishers have decided to delay the release of their most popular new books to the e-Book market. This is unlikely to be a successful experiment. But another experiment from a fourth publisher offers promise.

E-Book readers, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony, among others, are some of this years hottest Christmas gifts. These e-Book readers are more than doubling last year’s unit sales. They are pulling the e-Book book sales with them.

The problem, of course, is money. An e-Book sells for about $10. The most popular hard cover books sell for $25 to $27. There’s the rub. The book publishers get about half of that $27 hard cover price. So you can imagine these publishers are less than excited about the opportunity in the retail price of an e-Book at $10, even if they would get all of that $10, which they won’t. (See “Audio Tip #88: Questions to Determine Your Response to a Low-end Competitor” on

So, to try to hold the $27 hard cover market, three major publishing houses have announced delays in allowing their most popular titles to go to the electronic book publication market. HarperCollins Publishers, Hachette Book Group and Simon and Schuster plan to delay a few of the books that carry their highest expectations for profit. The delays will last from four to six months. These delays roughly match the time that the paperback version of a title follows the hard cover version.

On the one hand, these titles are unique Function innovations. Some readers will pay the higher price in order to be first in line to read the new publications. But there are many other unique books. The delays announced so far will cover less than 150 of the total 2000 new book titles issued each year.

The e-Book format is less costly and much more user-friendly. The e-Book is a much less expensive product to produce and deliver. Its digital format allows companies to distribute their product over the internet and to the e-Book readers by wireless connections. The e-Book reader can carry more than 1500 books. The user, then, can carry many books in the space of one paperback. This technology is not going to shrink nor pass away, no matter what publishers decide to do with their most popular new book titles. The cost of book publishing is simply going to plummet. But the revenues available to the industry over time should increase dramatically as new customers enter the market.

This e-Book market is an entirely new market. The e-Book offers opportunities to do things never before possible with hard cover books. The digital format allows companies to provide “special features” that enhance the attractiveness of the e-Book. These special features could include such benefits as interviews with the author, in-person video reviews by some of the country’s best book reviewers and videos of the geographic settings in the book, among others. There will be a lot of these new features (See “Audio Tip #29: Positive vs. Negative Volatility” on These new features, along with the much lower prices charged, will bring a whole new set of e-Book customers into the marketplace. Many of these new customers are not candidates for the $27 hard cover product. They will be happy buyers of the e-Book at $10 with its enhanced features.

A fourth member of the major book publishers, Macmillan, has developed a more creative and more promising approach. This approach envisions the release of an e-Book version of its best sellers on the same day as the hard cover book hits the shelves. The company envisions a “special edition” of the e-Book. This special edition will cost the same as the hard cover book and will be on the market for only 90 days. The special edition will include author interviews and reading guides, along with other material. At the end of 90 days, the special edition will discontinue and the company will issue the standard e-Book format at the lower standard e-Book price.

The publishing industry will fail at its delay experiment. They would be better off embracing the new technology, with its potential for extra Functions and ease-of-use, and then spending the next few years reducing the scale of the paper-based cost structure they carry today. My guess is that a hybrid version of the Macmillan experiment will eventually emerge. Under this hybrid version, all of the most popular books will be available in e-Book format, along with many function enhancements, like those in the Macmillan special edition, for a price a few dollars above the standard e-Book price, but at least 25% below the hard cover price. This approach ensures a much better value proposition for the e-Book customer, builds the e-Book market, and should allow the industry to make an attractive profit at the lower price, due to the much lower cost of production and distribution. Over time, the higher price of the most popular e-Books would gradually fall to the price of the standard e-Book in the market place so that the publisher may reap the rewards from customers willing to wait for a lower price on a good product.

Posted 12/17/09