images.jpegE-Reads calls literary agent Nat Sobel “one of the most respected figures in his field”. Sobel is afraid that cheap ebooks will undermine the market for hardcover sales. It is always sort of sad to see people fighting against the stream of progress, and instead of coming up with innovative ways to deal with the changing world they try to hold back change and pretend they can stop it. I reprint Sobel’s letter in full:

Dear Friends,

This week’s Variety has a story of the fight going on between the studios and the exhibitors about the too-early release of films electronically. The exhibitors pulled the film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs on news that the studio planned a special quick release of the film prior to the DVDs hitting the market. The independent booksellers, even some of the chains, do not have this option, when it comes to instant releases of hard cover bestsellers

Why did that movie news remind me of what book publishers are doing to the lives of the hardcovers they publish, by making their top books instantly available electronically? We’ve lived for a year or two with the Kindle, but must now reckon with how the dissemination of books through some of the 140 million cell phones available, is going to change hardcover publishing?

In just a few years we have seen electronic sales of bestsellers go from 2% to 12 to15% of total sales. Next year, they may constitute 20%. Who knows where this will end, once bestsellers are on cell phones, blackberries and the like?

As someone who got his first job in publishing 40 years ago, working for a mass market paperback house, I have seen that area of sales rise and then nearly disappear. My first job was to open accounts and get a 64-pocket wire rack of Dell paperbacks into every imaginable outlet – variety stores, cigar stores – wherever there was foot traffic. At one point, there were more than 100,000 outlets for mass market paperbacks in the US. Those millions of customers didn’t disappear, but the racks and the distributers did.

I’d like to believe that electronic book sales can and should be the mass market of the future. For this reason, I requested that the bestselling Robert Jordan fantasy series not be available electronically until the paperback is released. Now, four weeks after its release in hardcover, The Gathering Storm has sold 24% more copies than the previous volume, even though the work was completed by another writer.

I have nothing to gain, personally, by urging all of you to consider postponing the release of the electronic version of your next bestsellers. As a first step, I suggest that the electronic versions not be made available for six months after initial publication, eventually being released when the paperback hits the market. There’s a clear line between the success of the mass market paperback and its electronic cousin – convenience and price.

The future of hardcover publishing is at stake. You don’t have a lot of time left to save it.


Nat Sobel