Digital First or Digital Extra?

I read this FutureBook post last week and it’s been making me go “hmmm” ever since. I’m taken with the notion that publishers ought to release e-books and paperback first, and then offer hardbacks as a premium option for the book-devoted. I loved that idea at first, but have a hard time seeing how it would play out IRL. Who is going to buy multiple copies of the exact same content? Possibilities:

  • Me: I’ve been reading more books on my e-reader, I find myself considering buying physical copies of the stuff I like, so maybe it’s people like me who will buy these premium editions. But I want these books in physical form to lend to friends, so I’m not as inclined to invest in a hardback that might get lost or returned covered in crumbs and coffee.
  • My dad: At first blush, it sounds like premium hardbacks might be like special DVD collections, re-releases, or box sets. If that analogy is true, then my dad and people like him are the target hardback audience. He generally considers waiting for a box set or premium edition to come out before buying a movie on DVD…and then he buys the non-premium DVD anyway. And then I take the non-premium version home when the premium version hits Best Buy. The more time I spend untangling this analogy, though, the less sense it makes. Maybe the analogy isn’t premium hardbacks:DVD special editions::e-books:DVD initial releases. Maybe instead, the e-book/paperback version is more like a movie’s theatrical release, and the premium hardcover is any ol’ DVD. No matter how many ways I try to make sense of the analogy, though, people just don’t purchase books the same way they consume movies. Serious moviegoers will watch movies on opening day, but serious readers snatch up new book releases only to keep them on our nightstand as a physical to-read list. So even for serious readers, unless the book is a status read (like Freedom) or addictive and quick (like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games) there’s not much reason to grab an e-reader or paperback when you actually want the hardcover if you can wait out the hardcover release date. And if you don’t actually want the hardcover, then it doesn’t matter if there is one at all.
  • People who like signed copies: What would happen to signing tours under this model? Do we even like signing tours enough to worry about what would happen to them if hardcovers became a second-release premium option?
  • People who like hardbacks for aesthetic reasons: Add “wealthy” to the beginning of that to make it feasible in this situation. I’ll generally buy hardbacks because I’m a snob, but my paycheck barely supports that. The number of people who currently buy hardbacks for aesthetic reasons will drop a bunch if the hardback publishers are asking them to buy is version of a book they already own. Granted, this is the entire reasoning behind the premium hardback idea and would result in dramatically reduced print runs for hardback copies, but I wonder if the reduction would be too dramatic. How many people are we really talking about in this category? And you’d still have to pick your books carefully and add a lot of value to them with baller designs, fresh covers, and extra content. What would that extra content look like? How much would you be spending to do redesigns and small print runs? Although I suppose if you really plan well you can gang-print a bunch of premium titles on one press and … I’m just getting carried away.

Then there’s an alternative premium edition model that stands the premium hardcover on it’s head: Melville House’s HybridBooks. HybridBooks are a print book and additional digital-only content. If you buy the book as an e-reader, you get the digital content with it. If you buy the print book, you can scan a code or enter a URL to access the extra material. I think this model makes sense, but only if there’s a compelling reason to keep the digital content digital. Also, Melville House seems to be releasing all versions of the book at the same time and the print versions HybridBooks seem to be paperback only, based on the pictures on their blog and their prices and the fact that the current offerings are all novellas. So there’s no tiered pricing or staggered release dates, which might be a little too innovative for non-independent publishers.

I can perhaps see a world where all versions of a book–paperback, e-reader, and hardback–are released simultaneously. The gap between hardcover and paperback release dates is already inching smaller for lots of high performing titles, thanks to early e-book release dates. But I’m less convinced than I was last week that hardcovers will ever release after paperback and e-reader versions.

Are you really still reading? You must be very into book pricing. May I direct you to the Publ(ish)ing blogroll on the left for the opinions of people who are more knowledgable than I am about this nonsense? And please tell me what you think and if there’s anything else I should be reading. I’m going to go put all my hardbacks into boxes now, because I need to move out of my apartment sometime this month.

3 thoughts on “Digital First or Digital Extra?

  1. the only reason i buy hardcover (second hand excepted) is if it’s from my favorite author and i can’t wait for it to come out in paperback. if i miss that a book came out (…for a year) and only hear about it when it’s finally being released in paperback, i’m sure as heck buying the cheaper one! if paperback started coming out first, i would never buy hardcovers again except as gifts.

    heh, and if you want to ask what will happen to signing tours… margaret atwood’s longpen could sort of do away with those anyway, if people took it up!

    1. Me too, ultimately, I guess, unless it’s something I’m going to read on the bus, in which case I get the e-book, but I try to keep that to easy stuff or YA, and really the books I buy most fall into the “favorite author, can’t wait” category, so basically I don’t know.

  2. I’ve long been wondered why authors don’t offer more extras with books, and I don’t mean calendars or mugs or signed copies or whatever.

    I’m fascinated with the writing process and I would pay extra for annotated novels, novel outlines, character sketches, trashed plotlines, etc. All great art is great because of editing, but for those of us who create in the shadows of the great (and for the fanatics), seeing the process is illuminating. Filmmakers have such an easy time of it with the bonus features that come on DVDs. Why don’t novelists?

    (ps I’m going to do this)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *