Some Like it Soft
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.
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!