FORMAT WARS: eBooks won’t kill physical books but it may knock off a few formats

Another week brings another article in a major newspaper about the death of physical books ( and therefore bookshops). Predictions of how much of the market eBooks will take up varies from 5%-50% but most predictions neglect to mention that this will vary from genre to genre, fiction to non-fiction, kids books and so on. Romance and paranormal fiction currently dominates eBook sales and children’s books and illustrated non-fiction sales are practically non-existent. Rather than eBooks cannibalizing physical books sales leading toward “extinction” I think what is really under threat is the traditional publishing model of multiple formats for books.

Traditionally a new release book is published in hardcover followed by a paperback edition 12 months later, on average at half the price (hb $50 – pb $24 on average). In Australia we have slightly changed this model with the Trade Paperback (tp $33) which has slowly replaced the hardcover particularly in fiction. There have also been a few books which have tried to have the best of both worlds and have published in hardcover then Trade Paperback and then a third smaller paperback format. I think the advent of eBooks makes this multi-format publishing model obsolete.

Initially publishers have tried to price eBooks at the same price as the current physical book in the market.  This has been tweaked slightly by some publishers to 20% less than the current physical book. But treating eBooks as just another format to fit into the traditional publishing model is flawed. Twelve months ago there was a major hullabaloo in the US market where Amazon was aggressively pricing all their eBooks at $US9.99. Some publishers, fearful of lost hardcover sales, decided to delay the release of the eBook edition to give the hardcover a clear window. But this did cause a backlash from readers.

Apple then came along and the Agency model was born which in effect locked the price of the eBook at around $US12.99 but also decreased a retailer’s margin to 30% (less after the eBook wholesaler takes their cut). The attraction to publishers, even though the eBook was still cheaper than the hardcover, was that this new model created a “point of indifference” to the publishers. Basically they were making the same money on the eBook as on the hardback so were therefore happier. Strangely enough the UK market has just repeated the same exact process starting with the traditional wholesale model and then having to switch to the Agency model after hyper-aggressive discounting from some retailers.  It makes you wonder if publishers actually pay attention to other markets at all.

Even before eBooks there were signs that the multi-format publishing model may not last. Unlike the US and the UK, where there is a real difference between first format hardcover and second format paperback, Australia’s first and second formats are both paperback. There has also been a trend by publishers away from A-format, the smallest size paperback, to B-format and even B-format plus. Trade Paperbacks (also known as C-format) have also been trimmed down in size (you could call them C-format minus) and the price of B-formats has steadily increased. There is now only a vague difference between a $32.95 Trade Paperback and a $24.95 B-format paperback (with some B-formats priced at $26.95 and even $29.95!). Second format in this model is now instant backlist and only a much-loved title, strongly hand sold by a bookshop’s staff, has any chance of significant sales in a second format.

There is still a need and a purpose for multi-formats of some books, particularly non-fiction but for other books multiple formats are no longer relevant. Unlike music where the MP3 format and iPods etc were superior to CDs and CD players, the physical book is still the best possible device to deliver a book to a reader (which is why eReaders keep trying to replicate them). But eBooks do add more convenience and flexibility for readers and therefore have a significant role in the market. The format a physical book  is published in needs to take this into consideration.

I read a variety of different books. Some books I absolutely love and want to own a hardcover edition to keep on my shelf. Other books I am content in reading and then never seeing again. Every reader is different, as is every book, and the reason a book is read is different again. In a sense eBooks have created disposable books. Readers download what they want, read it and move on without physically owning or possessing anything other than their eReading device. This creates a whole new paradigm for publishing.

An interesting question to ponder is why is the release of the hardcover and paperback staggered? Why not release both simultaneously and give readers a complete choice of formats (hardback, paperback, eBook)? It is being done with some ‘literary’ fiction at the moment (Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is one example).

Formats of physical books need to better reflect what the audience of the book is looking for. A $35 hardcover is not a suitable format for a 12-year-old, reluctant reader (e.g. The CHERUB series). An Antony Beevor military tome is great in hardcover and will also have an audience for a paperback. A ‘holiday’ read does not need to be in a bulked-out, oversized Hardback or Trade Paperback and a crime novel you can read in one sitting does not warrant a $30 or more price tag. If the physical book is going to remain relevant to new generations of readers’ books need to delivered to readers how they want not what we tell them they can have.


One thought on “FORMAT WARS: eBooks won’t kill physical books but it may knock off a few formats

  1. Have to disagree with the above, I have Mobipocket books from my Palm T5, still saved, and re-read. Will be doing the same on my Galaxy Tab. Books I enjoy will be saved and re-read.

    All I want is the ability to get the book of my choice, in the format of my choice, price obviously being different for covers. I do think that Ebooks should be considerably cheaper than say a hardback, after all surely there is a single copy on someones hard drive that I download, so no overheads after the initial set up – daily housekeeping of computer, and servers etc. Not a ebook seller expert but I find this whole saga of ‘not available for Australia’ very annoying.

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