Laura Hazard Owen (you know, if my middle name was as cool as “Hazard,” I’d probably use it all the time too) has an article over on paidContent discussing the splash that The Cuckoo’s Calling has made unexpectedly among bookstores and and e-book stores alike. Joanna mentioned this article earlier, but missed the most exciting part:

This is freaking out bricks-and-mortar booksellers who fear that by the time that they finally get print copies in, everyone will already have read it on Kindle. The New York Times quotes one store owner: “People who can’t get it as a book are going to run and get it as an ebook. By the time the books are back, two weeks from now, most people are going to have read it on some device. That really concerns me.”

(Of course, I pointed this out a couple of days ago…)

Following that link goes to a New York Times story that goes into a little more detail about just how rapidly it’s selling and how long it’s going to take for bookstores to get more copies in. Will the buzz have died down and people have canceled their spur-of-the-moment reservations by the time the print factories can churn out their boxes o’ dead treeage?

Honestly, I think this is a flash in the pan in all the ways that matter. I cannot in my life remember any other specific incident when a book went from ho-hum to gotta-have-it in the spur of hours. I don’t know if it will ever happen again. So any major impact this might have on the industry is going to be overstated. If bookstores miss out on the “opening night” mega-sales, it won’t kill them. The Harry Potter books reportedly sell pretty well even now.

And are “most people” who buy the e-book going to pass up the print one? I have my doubts. We’re talking about the sort of person who has so much more money than good things to spend it on that they’d go out and chuck $26, or even $20 Amazon price, at a hardcover of a novel they weren’t interested in before just because it suddenly has some famous writer’s name on it and they want to read it now.

Seems to me that someone willing to spend that much already just to read something right away probably wouldn’t cavil at spending $10 more for the e-version to get started on until they are able to get their hands on the print version too. Even if they don’t have a Kindle themselves, $10 might be little enough to them that they might buy it to read off the screen until the print one comes in. That’s what Jim Baen found a lot of people did with Webscription books, after all. Though, conversely, perhaps some people will look at this as just the excuse they needed to drop eighty bucks or so on a Kindle and get started e-reading in general. (Heck, it would be cheaper than Owen points out some paper copies are going for on eBay!)

If publishers were smart, what they’d take away from this—what they hopefully will take away from it once the paper sales figures come in—is that early e-release is additive, not substitutional. Which is something else Baen does, come to think of it, with its $15 E-ARCs that dedicated fans buy in droves and then buy the regular version too. Publishers were looking at “windowing,” pushing e-books back several months beyond print books. Maybe they should consider “reverse windowing,” making the e-book available early because e-book-lovers wouldn’t have bought the print book anyway but some people will be willing to buy both.

It’s a pity that more bookstores don’t have print-on-demand machines (like the ones Books a Million will be getting). If they were widespread, Little, Brown could have released The Cuckoo’s Calling for POD sale, satisfying both the people who would prefer print and the owners of the bookshops with the machines in them. But Espressos are still rarer than hen’s teeth, and it’s hard to imagine they could become more commonplace before the e-book revolution has completely surpassed them.

In a related note, the mystery of who “outed” Rowling—in the form of a tweet from someone who subsequently deleted her Twitter account—has been solved. Turns out an employee at a law firm injudiciously told his wife, who injudiciously told her best friend, who simply couldn’t resist tweeting it to a reporter—thus proving once more the old adage that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

I can sympathize with all three of them: the lawyer, the wife, the friend. It’s soooo hard to keep a secret when you know something awesome you shouldn’t tell anyone but you want to share it with someone. I’ve had that happen more than once myself. The problem is, sometimes the people you tell (or the people they tell) have poor impulse control. I can well imagine the moment of horror that the friend had when she typed the fateful tweet and realized it was too late to take it back…and that it had her real name attached to it. Oops!

As aggravating as it was to Rowling, I can’t say I’m sorry that it happened. All in all, it’s a fascinating look at how e-books are immune to the vicissitudes of sudden unexpected fame. Nonetheless, I doubt it will be remembered as any sort of a huge turning point in the history of e-books. Probably more like a footnote.


  1. “…is that early e-release is additive, not substitutional”

    Terrific phrase and a terrific paragraph. I hope windowing and reverse windowing sticks in wider discussion. Another factor here is book reading behavior; book readers are not wating around idle for a good book to come along….they are reading books already discovered and purchased. Book reading, at all paces, is backed up with plenty of material on-hand.

    Your insight that screen and print work as a complementary reading strategy has already been realized in humanist research. That awareness deserves much wider recognition…just as you have encouraged.

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