Here’s something I’m sure every major publisher is thinking about: How can I get consumers to buy both the pbook and ebook versions of a book? Well, maybe they aren’t really sitting around the table thinking about that, but with my latest pbook purchase, I’m wondering if they are thinking about it.

I have enjoyed the “Safehold Series” of books by David Weber. Because Weber is one of my favorite authors, I buy his books in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library. A week ago, the fifth book in the series, How Firm a Foundation, was released. I had preordered it in hardcover and eagerly awaited its arrival.

It arrived and I put down my Sony 950 Reader to take up Weber’s book. That lasted a whole five minutes and two pages. The publisher chose a font size that was so small I could barely read the text. For my eyes to read the text, I needed a magnifying lens. This is the first time this has happened; I don’t know whether my eyes suddenly got worse (not likely based on the lack of problem I have with any other pbook I own) or the font size was deliberately smaller than usual in an attempt to keep production costs down.

Now I was in a quandary. Do I struggle to read the book? Do I put the book aside and simply not bother to read it? Do I break down and buy the ebook version, thereby doubling my cost because the book is published by TOR, an Agency 6 imprint? I struggled with these choices for about 30 minutes and ultimately settled on the third choice. The ebook cost $1 less than the hardcover, which was significantly discounted, so I effectively doubled what I paid to read this book.

This experience started me thinking: Will this be the next ploy of publishers? Will the Agency 6 decide that a small font size that is difficult for a good portion of readers is the best way to force readers to buy an overpriced ebook?

Experience demonstrates that publishers are investing fewer dollars in quality control, and fewer dollars in otherwise standard production services like editing. Experience also shows that overpriced ebooks from the Agency 6 are likely more profitable for them, which means a push to agency-priced ebooks.

In olden days, I would not have even thought to view what happened through the lens of conspiracy. But the Agency 6 have so badly botched their public relations regarding ebooks and ebook pricing that the conspiracy lens jumps right out at me. The Agency 6 publishers have met their Waterloo — consumer mistrust that paints everything the Agency 6 does with the brush of distrust.

It seems to me that for publishers to maximize return, they need to help move readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat growth in pbooks, I would be working on plans to drop mass market paperbacks and publish only trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and ebooks. Phase 2 of my planning would be to eliminate trade paperbacks and just publish hardcovers and ebooks. Perhaps a decade or two down the road, I would look at publishing hardcovers in limited edition runs for collectors and those pbook diehards.

So, moving back to David Weber’s new book and the font size, I guess it is possible that this was unintentional (i.e., using a small font in hopes of selling the ebook version) but now that it has occurred, I wonder if someone at TOR is following sales closely enough to draw a conclusion whether future TOR books should also use this hard-to-read font size.

I’m continually amazed at how the Agency 6 stumble around the periphery of a plan for ebooks but never quite have the moxie to do something constructive for them and for their readers. Recently, I wondered if they were going to draw the right lesson from the Harris Interactive Survey (see The Survey Gives a Lesson?). It is not that I’m cheerleading for the Agency 6 — frankly, I think their pricing scheme is a major consumer ripoff that has no merit — but there are certain things that I would like to see the Agency 6 accomplish because I think it would be good for me as a consumer and for ebooks. The question is how to lead them by their collective nose to those things that would benefit everyone.

Via An American Editor


  1. Printing a book that you don’t expect anyone to read (and, therefore, buy) seems pretty stupid. If you really think this is the publisher’s strategy, more power to you.

    I suspect that the reason for the small font was, in fact, lowering production costs. They may have simply made a mistake and chose too small a font, and decided to offer the books instead of landfilling them. But if publishers think tiny fonts will be acceptable to hardback readers, more power to them.

    To me, it makes absolutely no difference. I was never a hardback buyer, so I’m not going to buy an ebook because I don’t like the hardback production. I am also willing to wait for an overpriced ebook to come down in price before I snap it up… and keep waiting, until either the price drops, or I forget about the ebook and move on. (Publishers, take note: Of the books that have come out on paperback, but not ebook, or have come out as overpriced ebooks, I have so far bought exactly ZERO of the paperbacks while waiting for the ebook to appear or drop in price. Plan accordingly.)

    Rich, I think our difference on this issue is: Where you see conspiracy, I just see stupidity.

  2. For what it’s worth, I can report than the Mobi version for Kindle was perfect. No problem with the font size at all, so maybe it’s an epub issue. I’m a fan of the Safehold series, too, so I swallowed the cost and bought the book as soon as it was available. I did so with some trepidation, though, because its predecessor was so full of scanning errors as to be unreadable.

  3. Steven is right. It’s a good principle never to ascribe to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity. Maybe the book turned out longer than they planned and some editor, under pressure to get the page count down, agreed to a too-small font size. Lowering the quality of the hardback edition certainly doesn’t make business sense. It’d be like an automaker scrimping on quality for its luxury model., hoping that’d increase the sales of its economy models.

  4. I recently published a nearly 200k science fiction novel and was faced with a similar pricing choice… do I go with a small font on the print version, or pick a readable (12 point) font, recognizing that doing so will drive up the page count and consequently the cost per book significantly. I chose to go with the standard font, but even at a slightly higher price point than I normally pick, I’m barely breaking even on the print. So, I agree with Steven that this is probably not some plot by the publisher.

    When I was a grad student and had better eyes but no money, I used to love getting books with small fonts… more words for my buck. As my eyes have aged, I’ve celebrated eBooks… I pick the font size that works for me rather than go with whatever works for the average reader.

  5. I have to admit, as many doorstop-length books as Weber has been turning out lately, I’m rather unsurprised that a publisher might feel constrained to use a smaller-than-optimal font on them. I seem to recall reading a blog post by Charlie Stross indicating that doorstop-thickness books are extremely expensive because there are only a very few binderies set up to handle them, which is why only mega-bestsellers like the Harry Potter books get that treatment. If the book couldn’t be split into sub-books and had to be published as a single volume, it might be that Tor decided it was more economical to cause eyestrain.

  6. @Steven — The point I was trying to make, and obviously did not do so very well, is that because the Agency 6 publishers have squandered the consumer’s trust, when something like this happens, consumers are ready to believe that the act was deliberate and for nefarious reasons. I agree that it was most likely an attempt to save money, but then they have angered the very consumer who is willing to pay for a hardcover.

    @Laura — No, returning the book is not the right answer for me because I collect Weber’s books in hardcover and returning it would put a gap in my collection. Although I prefer to read ebooks over pbooks, I do have favorite authors whose books I collect in hardcover, and Weber is one of them.

    @James — There was nothing wrong with the ePub version of the book. I was complaining about the thype size used in the hardcover version.

  7. Michael W. Perry says:
    “Steven is right. It’s a good principle never to ascribe to conspiracy what can be equally well explained by stupidity. ” I must say that I would adhere to this viewpoint fully.

    The article posits a theory based on just one pBook. As such I really cannot give it much serious consideration. If it included references to even two or three others I would be inclined to give it more than 10 seconds thought.

    Keeping Michael’s point above, I cannot imagine a rational argument to adopt an intentional strategy to actively push pBook readers over to eBooks. We are far far too early in the transition period from paper to e. The majority of ordinary readers in the Americas and the rest of the world are still completely focussed on paper, us early adopters keep forgetting that. yes, the ‘rate’ of increase in eBooks is huge, but the real share of the market is still far from dominant. The majority will take some time to even consider a change. It would be suicide to try to strong arm them to make that change before they are nearly ready. It would risk losing and alienating millions and millions of readers

    On the issue of small type I am constantly confounded by the number of publishers who issue paper titles in small print. Once I hit 47 or so I woke up to a world where an enormous swathe of people, some even younger than 40 (!), who cannot read this small type without glasses – and retrieving reading glasses every time you want to read a book is such a pain in the ass. The industry’s patronising strategy of publishing either small type, or enormous “we know you are old and almost blind” print books is a complete mystery to me.

    Then again, keeping in mind Michael’s point above does offer a very acceptable explanation.

  8. Rich, I did follow the point; you don’t trust the traditional publishers. I don’t trust them… to act in my best interests. Beyond that, as I said, an example like yours sounds more like stupidity to me.

    I think they assume that people will just swallow the hardback, even if what they produced isn’t readable… and I hate to point out, but in your case it seems they were right. Like Laura, I also would’ve returned the book for a refund (but we’ve already established that I’m not trying to display neat rows of hardbacks on my shelves—as long as I have the book I’m good).

    I reserve my distrust for how the publishers handle their slush piles and “choose” what to accept; how they treat their authors; how they sell to vendors; how they determine book prices; and how they handle ebook creation of their backlists. I see all of those as areas where publishers can hem, haw, excuse and obfuscate in order to make the most bucks and give me the least content for them.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail