December 11, 2009

Deconstructing the Publishing Houses stupidity

This week the WSJ reported (here and here) that Simon & Schuster, Lagardere SCAs Hachette Book Group and HarperCollins are going to delay eBooks releases for a few months after the hardcover comes out.

Needless to say I believe this is a terrible idea. But as I read some of the executive’s comments, I found myself talking back to the computer screen just like I do when I drive.

From an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg on the WSJ:

“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

Where do I start?

  1. The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback.

    False. eBooks and physical books are not perfectly substitutable goods. If you must, release a hardcover edition eBook first and then cheaper paperback version later. It’s very safe to assume that once you buy an eBook reader you’ll try to buy and read all your books on it.

  2. We believe some people will be disappointed.

    Oh. So, you know consumers (not people”) will be disappointed. You guys are aware that you aren’t a public institution, right? If you decide a policy, the consumer (again, not people”) doesn’t need to go along with it. Do yourself a favor and google New Coke.

  3. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now …

    Yes, because the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for a disruptive new technology is to treat it as a second class citizen just before its numbers explodes.

But the brilliance doesn’t end there, here is David Young, chief executive of the Hachette Book Group:

“We’re doing this to preserve our industry,” Mr. Young said. I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices. It’s about the future of the business.”

Again, let me inhale deeply:

  1. We’re doing this to preserve our industry

    No you’re not. You’re doing this because you’re afraid of change and have no idea how to make the same kind of money in this new environment. The transportation industry didn’t die when horse-drawn carts where phased out by motor vehicles. But you’re right, those companies that didn’t recognize the change are history.

    As George Carlin said:

    The planet is fine. The people are fucked.

    The book publishing industry is going to be fine. You’re fucked.

  2. I can’t sit back and watch years of building authors sold off at bargain-basement prices.

    I know it’s a figure of speech, but delaying a book format release date is not really getting off your butt and innovating yourself out of this situation. BTW, there are lots of books sold at bargain-basement prices in current analog bookstores. You should look into that before getting all high and mighty about eBooks prices.

  3. It’s about the future of the business.

    Exactly. The business. Your business. Writers are not going to disappear. They might even find ways of selling directly and -gasp- bypass publishing houses completely. Indeed, it’s time you think about your future.

From the WSJ, Brian Murray, chief executive of News Corp.’s HarperCollins Publishers:

Earlier this year, the Harper imprint of HarperCollins delayed until Dec. 26 the e-book edition of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue.”

A quick search on shows that the eBook is available there. In the digital world, the alternative of something not officially available is not the analog world. It’s piracy.

“We have to believe that delaying the e-book edition helped hardcover sales,” he said.

Hey, whatever helps you sleep better at night. I also have to believe that Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals because I didn’t get a chance to compete.

Being an MBA grad, I can relate how having your head stuck up your own behind can make it difficult to notice new trends. But c’mon! executives in these companies have seen the writing on the wall for years. In many cases they can ask within their own parent companies to learn how all this affected the music, movie and TV industry.

I know there is no easy solution when disruptive forces shake your industry. But repeating the same mistakes of the other media industries is inexcusable.


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