windowWindowing—the practice of releasing some book formats first and others (such as e-books) later—has been poorly received in the e-book world, even though it’s an extension of the long-held practice of separating hardcover and paperback releases in order to make the most money possible out of those willing to shell out for a hardcover book.

Now, in a blog on The Bookseller, bookseller Martin Latham wonders whether it might not be time to get rid of the hardcover/paperback windowing practice. He points out that all the marketing dollars associated with a book are spent to drive the hardcover release, leading to lost sales months later after the enthusiasm has waned of those people interested in the book but not interested enough to pay hardcover prices.

Customers have interrogated me for 25 years about why, when they want to buy a product, its publisher will not sell it at a man-in-the-street price until many months later. When I explain that the actual date is unknown, and depends on how long the publisher can milk a dwindling minority for the hardback price, well, the customer backs away with an expression that says "get me out of here and back to a normal retailer" or even, "when your planet exploded, how many of you survived?" Now that the book can be downloaded on publication day, this Dance-of-the-Seven-Veils journey to paperback seems even madder.

He suggests that the delay of paperback releases, and the associated loss of sales to people who would have bought one when the book was first released, is one factor responsible for killing bookshops.

On the other hand, I don’t know if there is any alternative, at least from publishers’ point of view. If hardcovers and paperbacks were released at the same time, would the added sales from paperback buyers offset the loss from those who would otherwise have shelled out bigger bucks for the hardcover? I’ve mentioned before that hardcover segmentation is a way to charge a premium on the impatience of fans who absolutely have to read something right away, and if impatient people no longer have to pay the premium, publishers could be out a lot of money.

Though Baen is showing one way to extend that premium on impatience into the e-book world. Just yesterday—the day it came out–I  paid $15 (about 2 1/2 times what the final version will cost) for an E-ARC of the latest Sharon Lee & Steve Miller Liaden novel, Ghost Ship. And, having read it, I am still quite satisfied with my decision. I had been waiting for that book for literally years and $15 was not too much to pay to read it as soon as possible. It’s still considerably less than a hardcover would cost, however.

When you get right down to it, the whole paper book distribution system is still living in the past. Hardcover books don’t sell out all their printings and end up on discount tables stealing sales from the full-priced hardcovers and paperbacks and not putting anything in authors’ pockets. What happens when paper book sales dwindle over the next few years to the point where not enough books sell to cover the system’s overhead costs? I would hope publishers are working on coming up with solutions now, before that happens—but who knows?