More on Publishers' E-Book Release Date Strategies

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Four major U.S. publishers announced plans last week to delay, or consider delaying, the release of e-book editions until weeks or even months after the publication of hardcover titles, as the industry attempts to adapt to the accelerating growth in the sales of digital editions and the widespread sub-$10 pricing of bestsellers in digital format. This week, Macmillan joined the ranks of those announcing e-book release plans, while HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray told Bookselling This Week that there is a lot more to HarperCollins' e-book strategy than a simple change in release scheduling.

Simon & Schuster was the first to issue a release last week detailing its plans to wait four months after the hardcover publication of 35 new titles before releasing e-book editions. The decision will cover hardcovers published between January and April 2010. Adam Rothberg, vice president, corporate communications for S&S, told BTW this week via e-mail: "Our decision was arrived at after much deliberation and consideration about all aspects of the publishing business, especially the long-term effects that current e-book pricing standards may have for authors and the bookselling marketplace."

As to whether S&S will continue this e-book release schedule beyond April 2010, Rothberg said, "It's certainly possible: We'll want to study the data we get back before making any longer term decisions."

HarperCollins said last week that it planned to experiment by delaying e-book publication of five to 10 new hardcover titles a month, starting in January or February. In an interview with BTW this week, Harper CEO Brian Murray said that as part of its long-term e-book strategy, the company is looking into producing e-books with special features, such as narrative, author videos, and social media features, as part of an enhanced e-book experience. "We're trying to innovate the product and come up with a different experience" for the digital consumer, Murray said. Looking long-term, he expects that some e-books with special features could be released alongside their hardcover editions and sold for a "fair value."

Hachette also announced last week that it plans to publish e-books of a "vast majority" of its titles three to four months following the publication of their hardcover editions. "We're doing this to preserve our industry," David Young, chief executive of the Hachette Book Group, told the Wall Street Journal. "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." Hachette declined BTW's request to comment further on its e-book release strategy.

In response to an inquiry regarding its long-term e-book release strategy, Penguin Group told BTW it had "no plans at this time to issue a blanket policy on e-book publishing. We have always treated authors and titles on an individual basis, and we will continue to do so in the digital arena."

In a statement released this week, Macmillan CEO John Sargent discussed the publisher's e-book release strategy for frontlist titles. "In 2010," he said, "we will publish our bestsellers in several ways. Some bestsellers will be enhanced with additional content and priced to reflect their increased value to the consumer. These will be published at the same time as the hardcover and will be available for three months as special editions. We will publish other bestsellers, without enhancements, several months after the hardcover release. We will adjust the number of special edition bestsellers we publish based on the market response. Working with our authors, we will continue to experiment with new models going forward."

Murray told BTW that HarperCollins took a close look at its e-book strategy because "we don't want to wind up like the music industry." Among the publisher's goals, he said, is to have strong partners in both the "physical [world] and a vibrant digital marketplace. We're looking for the best possible outcome, with the new alongside the traditional."

The practice of sequencing formats, Simon & Schuster's Rothberg explained, is one that is common to many media industries, including motion pictures and television. "In publishing, we have long provided different formats for consumers who prefer certain book formats, such as hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperbacks, and now e-books," he said. "Historically, those formats have been published at different times in a book's life, with the less expensive paperback edition usually following the hardcover publication by nine to 12 months. We think the e-book can naturally follow this model, and four months is really not too long to wait to read the electronic edition."

Added Rothberg, "It is also true that we seek to preserve the value of our authors' works -- works that in many cases they have labored many years to create -- at the moment when that work has its maximum value."

Though HarperCollins is experimenting with the e-book releases of five to 10 new hardcover titles, Murray said the publishing house had not yet formulated a firm policy on release dates. "There is tremendous change [occurring in the marketplace]," he said. "Making the right decision book-by-book is critical. We need to be agile and learn from every possible decision."

Some e-books will be released six weeks after the hardcover and some three months after. Choosing the timing for the e-book release date is a "gut feel" more than a hard and fast rule, Murray said. The key for the publisher is that the timeframe will allow it to learn quickly from the strategy. "We chose six weeks rather than, say, 12 months because HarperCollins didn't want to wait 12 months to learn."

Moreover, Murray stressed it's important to strike a balance for those avid readers who want to buy e-books, while also supporting those who don't have e-readers and want to buy traditional books --"and there are more of those," he said. "We don't want to set economics that will destroy the avenue for those who want to buy traditional books."

S&S expects that e-books will represent about four percent of its revenues this year, Rothberg reported, but he said that there is "no doubt that this format is going to gain market share. It is still in its early stages, and more technology companies are getting into the business."

Similarly, at HarperCollins, e-books represent four percent of HarperCollins adult fiction business overall, though many backlist titles are not available. However, on any given new titles, e-books can represent as much as 15 percent in the first 15 months, "which is rather significant," Murray noted. He stressed that e-books will continue to grow in importance -- it's just a matter of "how quickly it will grow. Over the past one to two years, it's grown faster than the publishing industry expected."--David Grogan