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How Will We Remember the Publishers Who Delayed eBooks?

Since Simon & Schuster and Hachette Book Group announced their plans to delay digital publication of some or most of their frontlists (with HarperCollins following suit the very next day, publishing insiders and observers have been trying to sort out the long-term consequences—and as the argument about whether Hachette CEO David Young and his peers were going to “preserve the industry,” as he hoped, or add another nail to its coffin continued, we saw somebody compare all the second-guessing by people who’ve never run a publishing company to “telling Mariano Rivera that he should have thrown that last pitch high and inside.”

And we thought: You know, there’s an even better metaphor to invoke here, although we will have to beg the forgiveness of GalleyCat readers who don’t follow baseball.

pedro-and-grady.jpg

Make no mistake about it: This is a critical moment for “New York” book publishing, and a solid eBook strategy is going to be essential for continued success. But by insisting that the hardcover remain the primary object of value, when digital options are ready to flourish, are these Big Publishers creating a moment analogous to former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little‘s decisions during the last game of the 2003 American League championships to keep Pedro Martinez on the mound at the start of the eighth inning and then again as the Yankees began to eat away at the Sox lead? Despite an excellent track record overall, Little’s legacy in Boston remains clouded by the eventual loss of that game and the failure to reach the World Series, followed shortly thereafter by his departure from the team.

But, you know, as clever as that metaphor feels, the reality is maybe not so simple.


The idea, as S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy puts it, “the right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback” is not an inherently unreasonable idea—and to Hachette’s credit, they actually seem to be applying that vision of a publishing cycle to the majority of their frontlist, attempting to institute a genuine standard for themselves if not the industry, as opposed to the approach S&S and HarperCollins are taking, which looks from the outside like cherrypicking the “big” books they can’t afford to let tank.

But… if you want to create an enduring hardcover-digital-paperback cycle, you need to convince readers, especially digital-embracing readers, that this cycle offers them genuine value, and that’s where these decisions seem to have failed most, because Young and Reidy (and HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray) have not made (or, perhaps, have not had the opportunity to make) a fully compelling argument that withholding content from a small but significant class of passionate readers for several months actually benefits those readers. The main argument for establishing a timetable, as Reidy articulated it, is “we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.” That’s not about publishers helping readers, it’s about saving themselves, and you see why readers might take umbrage.

(In fairness, Murray’s remarks as summarized by the Wall Street Journal do hint at an argument—”if new hardcover titles continue to be sold as $9.99 e-books, the eventual outcome will be fewer literary choices for customers, because publishers won’t be able to take as many chances on new writers”—but so far it’s only an assertion one would wish to see elaborated.)

Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin has made an excellent observation about the situation: He says this is about taking back power from Amazon. The idea is that while Amazon is willing to lose money on every Kindle edition sold (but maybe not that much), there will come a point when the online bookstore will say to publishers, “Look, eBooks are $9.99, and they’re going to stay $9.99, so we’re not paying you more than that anymore. Now, do you want to alienate all our Kindle customers?” Thus, Shatzkin concludes: “If publishers can slow down the growth of the Kindle installed base, it will give time for other technologies to catch up and create a more diverse marketplace, which is better for publishers.”

Again, though, readers who have already dedicated themselves to digital devices are not likely to appreciate the idea that they are acceptable collateral damage in a struggle between publishers and retailers. And that’s why alternative approaches—like Seth Godin‘s call for dynamic pricing or James McQuivey‘s similar, more detailed proposal—hold such allure: They appear more convincingly to be attempts to answer the question “What do readers want?” before (rather than?) “How can we keep making money?”

(And we think, though it’s pure intuition on our part, that people who care enough about reading to invest in electronic devices want publishing to thrive, even if only on a subconscious level, because that’s where their stories come from, which is why we believe there would be significant value in publishers making more of their cases directly to readers. But we know how little infrastructure there is for that at present.)

We get why these big publishers who have made their eBook decisions public want to keep the hardcover on the mound for at least another inning, and we could even foresee outcomes where things work out in their favor—although those outcomes only come about after a slew of follow-up decisions, including but not limited to rethinking the way frontlist titles are marketed to readers from pre-publication through the hardcover release and hence to the digital release. We don’t envy the people who have to make these decisions, one after the other, day after day—because we know from Grady Little’s example that one right-seeming decision gone wrong can make the difference between being the hero and the goat.

(By the way, Red Sox Nation fans might be interested in a set of computer simulations which “prove” taking Pedro out could’ve made the difference, although Tom Tippett also, importantly, concedes “leaving Pedro in the game was a viable option.” Tippett’s key conclusion is also worth noting in a broader context: “The right call is the one that gives your team the best chance to win, not just a good chance to win.”)

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