e-Books and The Ever-Decreasing Circlets of Hardback Books

Yesterday we looked at Amazon’s latest move in their stand-off with Penguin (Pearson Group) over negotiations on the implementation of the agent model on e-books by the major publishing houses. Amazon have reduced some new penguin titles in hardback to $9.99 to telegraph to their customers that they want control and flexibility on retail pricing rather than be under constraints imposed by the agreements they have with publishers. Amazon know publishers are deeply uneasy about the future for hardback books as the lead format release for a new title, and while Amazon are taking the hit on a $9.99 discount, they are send a very clear signal out to their customers—we’re on the side of the of the customer and just look at what these publisher guys are trying to do to us.

I questioned the real resolve major publishers have to get behind the development and promotion of their e-book strategy, and while this year’s London Book Fair came and went in a whisper, last year’s Fair underlined for me the first inkling I had that UK publishers were just not willing to embrace e-books in the way they needed to. My feeling now is this reluctance may actually extend to many US publishers, who may like to be seen to be actively behind the steady rise in e-book sales, but secretly they are hoping the market levels and bottoms in the next couple of years so they can revert back to their tried, trusted and sacred printed book. I commented yesterday on the resolve of publishers to seeing e-books take off.

“I have one overriding feeling about the agency model adopted by the major publishers in their agreements reached so far with Amazon – whose executives have spent many an hour locked away behind polished doors – and it is the belief that publishers are still not wholeheartedly behind the growth and development of e-books. What I see is the battle for control rather than any innovation and prosperity for e-books.”

Judith Rosen, of Publishers Weekly, on Friday, highlighted the approach of Circlet Publishing in the USA, a small press run by Cecelia Tan and her husband, Corwin, since 1992. Three years ago they had to stop publishing print editions of their titles due to a financial downturn, and instead, in an effort to revitalise the business, they focussed on e-books for their science fiction erotica lists. Tan never saw the move as a means to become an e-book publisher, but an effort to rescue Circlet Press. She told Rosen in the Publishers Weekly article:

“There’s still no replacement for the ‘real’ book. Three years ago Circlet was essentially dead in the water. Bookstores weren’t ordering in the quantity they used to. There’s been a real shrinkage of the erotica shelf. [In 2008] That’s when I taught myself to format for the Kindle.”

Through a mix of fundraising campaigns on www.circlet.com, Tan hopes to raise $5,000 for Circlet Press’ first printed book in three years by creating a CD compendium edition of twenty of their best e-books. It was interesting that Angela Hoy of Booklocker.com commented of the article on Publishers Weekly. Booklocker were a pioneer of selling e-books online way back in 1998. In fact, Booklocker did not sell their first printed edition until a year later.
So, the bigger question remains…
Why are publishers secretly terrified of e-books and what it will mean for the publishing industry?
Publishers are correct to point out that taking a book from submission to print ready file costs the same amount whether it is intended for print or e-book format. Beyond this stage is where publishers incur their biggest expense—on printing, marketing and distribution. The marketing expense will always focus on the sector where the largest sales are, and up till now it has been through media and in-store promotion. It is print runs and distribution discounts which eat away at publisher budgets. In an ideal e-book dominant market, print-runs are reduced and if we are to use the agency model as a future business template, then 30% is what the retailer gets, less than what is negotiated for many print book discounts.
For a $10 paperback, an e-book should not cost to the customer any more than $6.99 as an e-book, and its hardback counterpart has not place costing any more than that whether it is being released for the first time or not. Where publishers can be innovative is offering a hardback edition for the retail and library market bundled with an enhanced e-book edition. Attempting more than that from the buying customer is extracting more than the publishing centre will hold.
It is time for publishers to access the true value of books in whatever format or medium they are published. The real battle for the survival of the hardback—something publishers seemed desperate to hand on to—is not in their hands, but rather entirely dependent on how slowly or quickly universities, libraries and book clubs move to embracing digitalisation, and something tells me, in these financial times, it will come a lot sooner than later.
Circlet Press is a Cambridge, Massachusetts publishing house founded and managed by Cecilia Tan. It specializes in science fiction erotica, a once uncommon genre, and its publications often feature BDSM themes.

Tan founded the house in 1992 after researching the markets for publication of her own stories, which combined science fiction plotlines with explicitly sexual themes. At the time, science fiction publications turned away such material as unsuitable for their audience, and most publishers of erotic material were hard-core pornographers and uninterested in any material whose plotlines extended beyond the simple formula encounter story (in which two people meet and sex ensues).

The ground-breaking combination of sex-positive, woman-centered erotica with science fiction and fantasy themes came as a result of Tan’s editorial vision that rather than combine the worst clichés of both genres, the mixture could instead expand the boundaries of what was possible in each. Science fiction had developed a somewhat deserved reputation for being dismissive or neglectful of human character development issues like love, lust, attraction, and family issues, while erotica was definitely ripe for something beyond the encounter formula. Placing stories into a science fictional or magical context allowed writers for Circlet Press to remove their stories from their contemporary political context and sidestep issues such as feminism, AIDS, and sexual identity politics.

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