I saw a comment on Twitter today remarking on how many reviews Wool had garnered in the UK considering the hardback just came out last week. What they don’t know is that the e-book has been available for a year! Plus, the paperback edition hit bookstores in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa over a month ago.

This isn’t how it normally works. Publishers have caught a lot of flack from readers for a process called “Windowing.” That’s where they release the hardback and wait a while before releasing any other version. As a bookseller, this drove me nuts. Bill (my manager at ASU’s bookstore) and I would watch great works of fiction come in and sit on the shelves. Very few people want to pay for a hardback work of fiction, even with a 20% or 30% discount. A lot of readers prefer paperback because it’s lighter and they can fold it back on itself while they read.

Windowing made sense back when the New York Times bestseller list was dictated by hardback sales. Now, the list you want to get on includes paperbacks and e-books. But old habits die hard. Publishers still make what I think is a huge mistake, which is to provide less choice to their readership. Here’s why that doesn’t make sense (beyond simply being good to your customers): All of your promotion and marketing is aimed at the release date. And then you launch the version of the book that’s going to sell the fewest number of copies.

Makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it? Publishers sell more paperbacks than hardbacks of the same book (especially true of fiction. For the bookstores I’ve worked in, anyway). And yet, the product you’re going to sell the most of comes out six months after you’ve promoted that product. The hope is that the advertising echoes along for half a year. It rarely does.

1 in 20 books sold in 2012 was from E.L. James’s 50 Shades trilogy. They went straight to paperback. The only missed opportunity here was the absence of a hardback for those who . . . like it hard. Maybe a special edition with a pair of handcuffs and a whip!

Choice is a good thing. That’s why I danced a jig (sorry, no video) when I found out Simon and Schuster is planning a simultaneous paperback and hardback release in March. Bookstores and customers can order whichever one they want. Libraries can shelve the durable hardback. People who don’t want it so rough could take it nice and soft with the paperback.

The fact that Wool is doing so well in hardback in the UK provides another lesson. The e-book has been available for a year. Instead of windowing the old way, what if publishers released the digital copy as soon as it’s done. That might be three to six months prior to the physical release (no need to wait on the printing and distribution). You wouldn’t even need to announce the release, just let it loose in the wild. The hardcore fans will find it and snap it up (and brag about the discovery). They’ll have it read and be writing reviews, telling friends, and hyping up the physical books. These are also the readers who will want a copy to hold as well (I’m one of those people who likes both versions). Better yet: Why not give anyone who pre-orders the hardback or paperback a unique download code for a free e-book that they can devour months ahead of time!

I love this last idea. Everything I’ve seen as a bookseller, as a reader, and now as an author points to one truth: Be great to your customers and they will be great to you. Trust them. Give them choices. Don’t try and outsmart anyone or game a system. Just please as many readers as you possibly can. Everything else will take care of itself.

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The paperback from S&S is a ridiculous $9.20 on Amazon. That’s less than most new e-book releases.

The hardback is a criminally low $15.57 as of this writing. But I won’t complain if you wait and support your local bookstore. They need all the help they can get!

19 Responses to “Some Like it Soft”

  1. Brandon says:

    Yea what he said….

  2. Zach says:

    Wow! Really amazing insight there. How is this not happening???

  3. James says:

    For me, I’ll be buying a physical copy to give to friends. There’s nothing quite like handing someone a book and saying “You MUST read this!”

    The eBook allowed me to discover the story, the hardback will allow me to share it.

  4. I love the idea of offering a free ebook to anyone who orders the paperback. They should come part and parcel. Someone can read on their ereader and lend or gift the paperbook or store on their shelves. That would be nice to see that happen!

  5. Mike says:

    The windowing thing bothers me too. I waited a long time to purchase GRRM’s A Dance with Dragons because it was only available in hardcover.

    Eventually my need to read another Song of Ice and Fire novel won out, but then I was stuck lugging a 10lb book back and forth to work for 2 weeks.

    I think a big reason why ebooks and paperbacks are so popular is because they’re much more portable. A lot of readers now a days are on the move. They want to download a book to their 8oz kindle and go.

  6. Deb Robbins says:

    Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of patience. The only hardback fiction I routinely buy comes from the bargain tables. Exceptions to that are rare. I’m always prepared to wait for a paperback release, but it sure would be nice not to HAVE to wait. Simon and Schuster have the right idea, in my opinion. Your idea for releasing the ebooks first – you are proof that works well, aren’t you? It would be great if publishers saw it that way.

    1 in 20? Seriously? I find that sad. I wasn’t one of them, that’s for sure. Tripe is tripe, in any edition.

    I prefer quality. This explains the Hugh Howey collection on my Kindle. :)

  7. RD Meyer says:

    It’s adherence to old rules that is one of the reasons the traditional publishing worl is not doing as well as it once was.

  8. Sheila C says:

    This is why you are one of my favorite authors, Hugh. You care about your readers, and you know how happy you make us by being humble and gracious and playing well with others! You share your work, and you find new and creative ways to do it.

    I love that last idea too. :)

  9. Mike says:

    I love my Kindle and it always drives me nuts when a book that I want to read isn’t available as an ebook, and even more so when the ebook is available in the US but not in Canada.

    I really just want to read books conveniently, so why don’t publishers understand that?

  10. Andrew Oakley says:

    But today we have the new version of “Windowing” – making e-books available only in one country, and not available in another country.

    Take, for example, Third Shift: Pact . Not even listed on amazon.co.uk . I can see it on amazon.com but if I log in and try to buy it for my Kindle…

    “We’re sorry, we could not complete your purchase. Your Kindle account is registered at Amazon.co.uk. To shop for Kindle titles available for your country, please shop at Amazon.co.uk.”

    The difference between these American electrons and our British electrons? Other than about fifty milliseconds as they transit across the Atlantic, nothing.

    That’s windowing by any other name. Wool *is* windowed… just not in dead tree form.

    • Yeah, this has been a very unfortunate consequence of giving up my digital rights in other countries. The only way to avoid it would be to sit on a finished book here while publishers caught up. I’m learning as I go, which means making some choices that I would love to have back. I promise, it’s out of my hands. :(

  11. Alex Rodrigues says:

    I completely agree that physical books should now come with a code for the e-book. I’ve though of this myself, and it boggles my mind why it’s not ever done.

    I find it much more comfortable reading on my kindle, especially when the books are big. However, I also love having the physical books. So more often than not I find myself purchasing the physical book, and then looking around the internet for a “free” e-book of the same book.

    Of course your e-books are fairly priced, so I really don’t mind buying the same work twice. But in most cases I can actually find a paperback copy of a certain book for cheaper than I can buy the e-book for. That makes no sense to me.

  12. Charla Arabie says:

    Hugh, your sexual references made me laugh. “…for those who….like it hard.” Hilarious!!! Won’t be sharing this post with my class. lol

    And you are right on the money about customers. Treat them right and they will follow you to the gates of hell. Well, maybe not THAT far. :)

  13. greg says:

    Some time ago author David Crawford a struggling one at that, was publishing a story on AR15.com called “Lights Out” one chapter every 3 weeks or so. We would copy and paste it into Word to keep it on file.

    When finally finished, the .pdf was available for ‘free’ for over a year. Then David negotiated a book deal. (was a little difficult as he was unknown, and the story was 609 pages long.

    Anyway, I know many people who bought 2 or more copies and the kindle edition.

    Things have changed now. When he first finished the story there was no Kindle.

    Story=What happens when y’all get hit with a EMP burst. One of the first doomer stories that deal with real life after the fact.

    Good read, available on Amazon. “Lights Out” by David Crawford. Both the wife and I have read it twice.

  14. Ross Graham says:

    From the UK I took wool on holiday with me after searching for the best Sci-Fi available this just called out to me and I don’t regret it. Bought a paperback just to show my mates and get them into it.

    Please tell me you have plans to visit the UK (specifically Nottingham) for a signing.

    Keep up the great writing,

    Reading The Runner, at the moment from WJ Davies, well recomended.

  15. Daniel says:

    Any chance that you might offer signed hardbacks in the future?

    Also, as your sales increase, do you think you’ll still be able to send out signed copies? I really hope so, it’s been a neat experience between that and being able to follow the book developments on this website!

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