Is hardcover windowing costing too many paperback sales?

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?

6 Comments on Is hardcover windowing costing too many paperback sales?

  1. Darn you! I didn’t know Ghost Ship was out as an e-arc. Now I have to go buy it. Baen prices ebooks so reasonably that I can’t help but buy from them. That’s how I discovered the Liadan series that Ghost Ship is from and some others that I wouldn’t have looked at had I seen them in the bookstore, especially at hardcover prices.

    In the past, there have many books I’ve wanted when they finally came out in hardcover, but there have been only a very small handful that I actually bought — “The Gripping Hand” being one. The others I either waited for the paperback, or looked to the library.

  2. As just one consumer I must admit to skipping the early-bird hardcovers; if the paper backed version takes too long to come out, I will just wait for the library to get a copy.

    Hardcover consumers among my acquaintance will spring for the more pricey volumes no matter what time they emerge, therefore publishers have likely lost quite a bit of business by waiting to release the paperbacks.

  3. I can give you my own example of how the publishers (and authors) are missing out. L.E. Modesitt’s last novel in the Imager series, Imager Intrigue, was released on Kindle in June, 2010 by Macmillan, and is still selling for $14.99. I had bought the first two from Amazon for my Kindle, but got the third from the local library. I’ve finally got my brother hooked on the series, and he has bought the first two for his ipad, but is now reading the third, which he also got from the library. It’s true there isn’t any paperback edition available, but that just compounds the problem, seems to me.

  4. I’m still waiting on a book that came out in paperback last year to be published as an ebook. If it doesn’t, they won’t get any money out of me at all. I’m not sure how that helps publishers.

  5. There are very few authors I’ll buy in hardback – my problem is, by the time the paperback has come out, I’ve forgotten about the book entirely – and it’s another lost sale.

  6. It seems to me to be a simple financial and strategic decision by a publisher based on the likely hard back sales vs the marketing spend required to achieve that vs the later marketing spend to achieve the likely paper back sales.

    The fly in the ointment being that if the publisher chooses to publish an eBook version at the same time as a hard back, will buyers pay a premium price for that eBook as well ?

    I agree with the questioning of the value gained by the hard back marketing spend and wonder why it would not be financially more advantageous to indulge in one marketing spend on the launch of a paperback and an eBook together, skipping the hard back.

    Gaining people’s attention is a major challenge and an expensive one. Launching a series of marketing efforts with years in between seems daft to me.

    But again it seems to me that it all comes down to the popularity of the title and the value people place on accessing that title in the first 3 months of publication. Charging a premium can be justified if there is a significant anticipation by a significant number of customers. However the risk of the title being forgotten by the time the price drops must surely also be considered.

    I am not familiar with the current practice – whether all new titles are automatically issued in hard back first etc etc. But it is clear to me that it should only be done for a select group of titles and not automatically.

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