Major Publishers' e-Reader Embargo Strategy Straight From Tired, Old Play Book

ebook delays

Simon & Schuster and Hachette have said they'll be delaying the launch of some future e-books until after the hardcovers have been on sale for a while. It's a desperate move to hang on to the old ways of publishing, before e-reader use explodes.

Simon & Schuster's plans involve a four month delay of 35 big titles it'll be launching early in 2010, sandwiching release of the electronic copy between the hardcover launch and softcover editions. Hachette's plans aren't known in as much detail, but are apparently pretty similar. Essentially these moves are placing the electronic editions at a lower importance inside the publishing companies than the hardcover ink-and-paper ones...but as we know, electronic editions are pretty much guaranteed to be the future of books. So what the heck are S&S and Hachette messing around for?

S&S's titles include Karl Rove's Courage and Consequence and Don DeLillo's Point Omega—the full list of 35 represents the publisher's near-future treasure trove of books that are expected to sell well, and those that cost lots to print or are already ordered in huge print runs. And it's for exactly this reason that S&S is delaying the e-editions—the company is trying its hardest to protect its existing investment. That's because they're afraid that e-editions will cannibalize the hardcover sales, and actually sell for less money per unit anyway, thanks to moves by Amazon and others to sell the e-books for relatively cheap prices—say, $9.99 versus $20 for a hardcover.

Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster's CEO explained the move amazingly frankly: With new e-readers coming, "and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible." David Young, chief executive of the Hachette Book Group, cloaked his reasoning in a paper-thin, faux-compassionate excuse: "I can't sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It's about the future of the business." How ever will struggling authors like poor Karl Rove make a living? Any authors with enough power to fuel publishers' embargo probably aren't running to the mailbox to look for their next royalty checks, and making their books friendly to the e-literate masses likely won't cost them a dime. This is protectionism—a trick to force the market to behave how S&S, for example, is used to it behaving—before the march of progress forces the publisher's hand and makes it accept a totally new business model.

And that sounds ill thought-out. Because it's going to irritate the legions of new e-reader owners who'll be ready to hunt for promising e-books after the holiday. And in the bigger picture, it presents S&S and Hachette as desperately backwards-thinking—assuming they keep the policy running. And with the digital content markets booming for music, video and books as the technology races ahead, that could turn out to be a very bad thing—instead of looking backwards, the key to ensuring your future is to move quickly and smartly, adapting to maximize the potential of new business. Am I wrong? Tell me in the comments.

[Via The Wall Street Journal]

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  • Staffmember Digitalcole

    Can't fight the future. I've said it before, I'll say it again. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It's also sad because these companies are really going to hurt themselves because of this childish fear of the future and of technology. They really need to get some futurist on board, someone who'll stop them from pulling really stupid stunts like this one.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Tony. Yup--that could well be one solution, and it's increasingly technically feasible (see the Cappuchino machine I wrote about before)
    @Richard. Indeed... irrelevant and poorly played is how it'll seem methinks. I don't think hardcover books will ever go away, or at least not for centuries, and I agree it'll require some mental restructuring in the publisher's minds.

  • Tony Vahl

    These old school publishers can't fight what's coming.

    As a self-publisher for years, I can tell what they're afraid of -- the end of high-volume prints. They won't be able to justify the print costs once their sales dwindle for hardcover books.

    The printing side of the industry NEEDS to continue working towards a cost-effective Print On Demand approach. As I see it, they don't have a choice.

  • Richard Geller

    You're not wrong, and my best guess is that the so-called embargo will prove irrelevant for all concerned. Personally, I'd be inclined to question the assumption that eBook readers would buy the hardcover if only the title wasn't available for their Kindle. Instead, those who prefer their Karl Rove served up on a Kindle will wait. Those that want their hardcover Karl shall have him regardless. The worst that might happen is that the publishers forfeit some sales momentum with the eBook crowd, because when their books finally do come out, they'll be old news. Though, perhaps, in Karl's case, it already is.

    Richard Geller