Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Let the Tail Wag the Dog

Diane Cordell

Image by Diane Cordell

Last week, Laura Hazard Owen of Paid Content tabulated that about 500,000 digital copies of Harry Potter have been sold since their release on March 27, 2012. Harry Potter series have reportedly sold 450 million copies in print. Despite those record breaking print sales prior to the official digital release and that there were illegal digital versions have been available for years, print sales have actually increased since the release of the official digital versions. Says Charlie Redmayne, chief executive of Pottermore:

Obviously there were fears piracy would increase as a result of being DRM-free, and that sales of the e-books would cannibalise sales of the physical titles, but we were delighted to see sales of the physical books go up, and piracy come down.

50 Shades series sold over 250,000 copies in digital and print on demand before the series was purchased by Vintage in the U.S. The initial print run by Vintage was 750,000 copies. It remains on the top of the trade print list for the 8th week or since its release in print.

Amanda Hocking sold 1.5 million digital copies of her books before being swooped up by St. Martin’s Publishing. Last week, Hocking blogged about her print sales. She didn’t have concrete numbers but did give us a feel for the success of her print books:

Switched came out January 3, 2012 with an initial print run of about 200,000 books in the US, and it’s in its fifth printing. Torn came out February 28, 2012, and I’m actually not sure of its initial print run, but it’s in its third printing. … Ascend came out last week, and my editor told me that my first week sales are already double that of Torn.

Shannon Stacey published 10 books before her Kowalski trilogy was published by Carina Press, the digital first arm of Harlequin. Yours to Keep placed No. 33 on the NYTimes list. This year the Kowalski books were released in print under the HQN imprint.

Back in the infancy of digital publishing, one of the things that frustrated ebook readers was the publisher practice of windowing. In an effort to prevent digital book sales from canilbalizing print sales, publishers would delay the release of the digital version until after the release of the hardcover. Some publishers would do this for paperbacks as well. The latter was due to the fact that digital sales were not included in the calculation of bestseller status. It wasn’t until 2011 that the New York Times began counting digital book sales (and even now they do not include digital book sales in anything but one large list called a combined print and ebook. The USA Today remains more forward thinking than the times. It started counting digital book sales and the list ranks titles regardless of format.  Presence on the list is a sales accelerator and still remains an important part of a writer’s goals.  Last week, I wrote about three publishing experiments I would like to see publishers engage in and one was a tried and true Baen sales technique – sell early access to a book. Ruthie Knox, currently a digital first published author, mentioned the concern that this type of pricing experimentation might lead to a reduction in aggregate sales the week of its “official” release.

But what I wondered was if there really would be a “regular” first week, for an e-first publisher that followed the Baen model. Surely an e-book’s on sale when it’s on sale, as far as the best-seller lists are concerned? I wouldn’t think the publishers could get away with saying “The pub date is April 6, but we’re going to go ahead and sell these higher-priced copies on March 21. But it’s not on sale yet. Not really.” Could they? Maybe I’m thinking too hard. :)

Walt Boyes pointed out that the Baen model has been in existence since 1998 or 1999 and has proven data that shows early release of the digital arc does not diminish sales.

 If you are dying to read the book, they’ll sell you the electronic ARC shortly after the author turns in the book, for a fair sum.

Then, the ebook (all edited and polished) goes on sale at an astonishingly low price, one month before the paper version does, AND in the preceding months, you can sign up to read the first 25%, the first 50%, the first 75% of the book, until the entire book is posted. The ebook is DRM-free and available in many formats, including, believe it or not, RTF. I know of at least one person who formats the RTF version of the eARC into a print formulation and prints and binds it.

Baen has more than a decade of data that indicates this model actually drives up both ebook and print book sales and it drives Amazon rankings.

I am a little surprised that the original article didn’t mention this. Baen’s data is conclusive.

Windowing, on the other hand, had no measurable increase in sales according to Dr. Hu and Dr. Smith. (PDF of paper)

We find that delaying the release of ebooks causes in an insignificant change in overall hardcover sales but a significant decrease in ebook sales, total sales, and likely total revenue and profit to the publisher.

The scholars determined that the reduction of digital sales overall was the result of a loss of marketing buzz:

This result is consistent with Elberse and Eliashberg (2003)’s finding that delaying the release of movies in international markets compared with the release in U.S. market reduces such movies’ box office in international markets, mainly because of the loss of marketing buzz.

While windowing the digital book after the print book release, it appears that the reverse is not true and that an early digital release can lead to increased print sales.  The above four examples show an exciting path forward for publishing. One of the things that publishing has done in the past is to fail to take chances. Admittedly I haven’t seen a bunch of experimentation in self publishing either, but a digital first publishing model allows publishers to take more risks by pushing out lesser known authors, touchier subjects, and more experimental fiction.  Curtis Sittenfeld, author of surprise hit Prep recounted something an editor told her “People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.” As the same New York Times article noted:

Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, said that whenever he discusses the book industry with people in other industries, “they’re stunned because it’s so unpredictable, because the profit margins are so small, the cycles are so incredibly long, and because of the almost total lack of market research.”

Publishers should ramp up their digital first arms, take publishing risks, and let the digital successes guide their print production choices.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Lisa J
    May 06, 2012 @ 08:00:12

    There have been several instances where the book I wanted to buy was out in paper, but not digital. By the time they came out in e format, I either forgot about them, had purchased other books and was no longer insterested, or (and this is the big one) the reviews and word of mouth were enough to turn me off the book. No matter what the reason, I did not purchase the book, which I would have done had it been available right away. So, my wallet thanks the publishers.

  2. cecilia
    May 06, 2012 @ 08:34:14

    @Lisa J: I would say exactly the same as you, except I would add “I got it from the library instead” to the list of things that happen when they don’t release the e-book in a timely fashion.

  3. Merrian
    May 06, 2012 @ 08:57:05

    I read a review of a book today on Tor.Com that interests me. I have looked at the publishers website which lists hardcover and trade ppb but no ebooks. As much as I want to read the book (I have emailed a query to the publisher)it is a lost sale because it is not availble now when the reviews are there to drive me to it. If an e/version ever comes out will I know or care?

    This is a double bind for people outside the USA because geo restrictions also mean that there is less interest by local publishers/branches of companies in picking up a book that hasn’t a campaign behind it any longer – because people order books from overseas when the publicity is there to tell them about the book. This means it never arrives in local territories in ebook or print form at all.

  4. Darlynne
    May 06, 2012 @ 10:51:23

    Is there a more risk-averse industry than publishing? And we’re not even talking enormous risk so much as a willingness to explore possibilities, to loosen their death grip on business as usual. I hope Baen’s decision is one of many forward-thinking moves to come industry-wide.

  5. library addict
    May 06, 2012 @ 12:15:09

    In addition to the list for Combined Print & E-Book Fiction, the NYT also does a separate list for just E-Book Fiction. It’s often interesting to not which books score higher on one or the other and also compare to the just print list.

    I really disliked windowing, so am glad to see that is mostly gone. Or it is for most of the books I’ve had on my to buy list for at least the past year or so. Now if pubs would just do something about those excessive new-to-digital-but-really-backlist titles. Penguin still has Jayne Ann Krentz’ Family Man at $15.99.

    I was really glad when the Shannon Stacey trilogy came out in print as I know two people who enjoyed the books who refuse to read digital. There are several more Carina books I think they would enjoy (as well as Samhain ones, but they don’t like trade sized either and the cost can be prohibitive for new-to-them authors even with a recommendation they would probably enjoy it).

  6. library addict
    May 06, 2012 @ 12:17:14

    to note which books…

    I really need to start proofing better before hitting that Post Comment button.

  7. Ridley
    May 06, 2012 @ 13:18:03

    While windowing the digital book after the print book release, it appears that the reverse is not true and that an early digital release can lead to increased print sales.

    Well, duh. The people who blog, tweet and review books are creatures of the digital age. They’re not reading paper, for the most part, because their houses are full of books. They’re reading ebooks to save space and to make copying and pasting excerpts easier. Keep ebooks out of these people’s hands, and there goes your hype. They’re just going to talk up the books they could download instead.

  8. Liz
    May 06, 2012 @ 13:24:40

    “…they’re stunned … because of the almost total lack of market research.”

    This has been driving me insane for years. Know your market is business school 101, yet the more I read about the publishing industry, the more it seems that they not only don’t follow such a basic tenant, they bury their heads in the sand and ignore any practice proven to be effective if it would require them to make a single change.

    You say that you would like to see publishers take more risks, but in my opinion (and I think your article supports this), some of the risks you would like to see are not actually risks, but in fact proven, effective business models. And, other “risks” (library lending anyone?) wouldn’t be nearly so risky if they knew a single thing about their markets.

    I did mention this drives me nuts, right?

  9. Estara
    May 06, 2012 @ 14:15:44

    The one quote I find iffy is Walter Boyes, as he does not seem to be related to BAEN and isn’t Toni Weisskopf. Then again, I am sure that BAEN would stop with the practice if it did hurt their overall sales – and as he rightly pointed out they were at the very front of digital publishing so they will have data about what works and doesn’t.

  10. Estara
    May 06, 2012 @ 14:19:52

    This is a double bind for people outside the USA because geo restrictions also mean that there is less interest by local publishers/branches of companies in picking up a book that hasn’t a campaign behind it any longer – because people order books from overseas when the publicity is there to tell them about the book. This means it never arrives in local territories in ebook or print form at all.

    I would think this is only the case with English language books. As soon as the majority in your country reads in their own native language, the translation rights are quite interesting. We had our second Teacher Parent day on Friday and one mother came with a fat “Panem” hardcover to tide her over the waiting periods. I had to look at the author name to realize it was a Hunger Games book ^^.

  11. Charming
    May 06, 2012 @ 16:35:45

    Baen rocks. They have also had lots of free books for years, and you could arrange to have them mailed to your Kindle as soon as that was possible.

  12. Carolyn
    May 06, 2012 @ 17:22:56

    Had a couple of free ebooks emailed to my Kindle account today. And then bought an ebook arc which I had emailed also.

    It was almost too easy. If a klutz like me can do it, anyone can!

  13. Bella
    May 06, 2012 @ 23:44:53

    Dear DA,
    just wanted to say I’m constantly grateful for the bounty of info y’all provide. Thanks so much:)

  14. Joy
    May 07, 2012 @ 09:06:25

    What Baen does properly is intelligently leverage the author’s fanbase. It has an online community, and the e-arcs are perfect for fans who can’t wait for the next release–they buy the e-arc because they want their fix, then then final ebook because it’s edited and final, and then they might even buy the hardback for their collection because what use is it to have vols. 1-10 of the series in hardback and 11 in e-only? And yes, I totally do this for Bujold’s Vorkosigan books…

  15. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Ligamentary, my dear linkity
    May 11, 2012 @ 02:04:55

    […] Some thoughts from Dear Author on how publishers should experiment with ebooks. […]

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