When Is a Book Not a Book?

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They say seeing is believing. It’s just that our instinct is also to check once, check twice, before we truly accept what we see before us. They say a millionaire passes at least one dollar bill dropped on the street every day. A pauper never misses one. Why? Because the pauper is always looking for the next dollar bill and they appreciate, far more, the true value of it.
When Random House signed many of its older publishing contracts with authors, like many publishers, they never envisioned that the book was going to one day become more than the humble paper product it once was. Here are some recent news reports and discussions on Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Hachette Livre’s current business and marketing philosophy on the arrival and impact of ebooks in publishing and the wider book sales market.
There is a dichotomy here, isn’t there? Yes, but large publishers seem to be saying, ‘ebooks have arrived, but let’s curtail the effect they are having on book sales and preserve what is sacred’—in this particular instance—it is the beloved hardback format they are worried about. The hardback format is the doyen of the academic and literary world and the lovechild of The Book Club, burgeoning with MILF’S and modern-day stay-at-home-dads.
In a far and distant galaxy, long ago, the hardback format was the lead trumpet to the publication of a book. Many large publishing houses still persist with the misspent philosophy that a new work, particularly fiction, should first appear in hardback format three to four months prior to the paperback publication. The two formats—ebook and hardback—stand at opposite ends of what the publishing world perceive a book to be. Our hard cousin is the reliable granite-mass foundation, and the ebook is the spawn of some half-formed electronic book foetus, prescribed for those young people with their new-fangled ipigs, lambtops and tablets. The two, somehow, cannot co-exist.
Let me put my cards on the table here. I love hardbacks. I have never published a book without a hardback edition being an option or part of the deal. It is a personal aesthetic wish as well as being a practical route to exploit and maximise book club and library sales. To suggest for a moment that ebooks might be damaging hardback sales for large publishers is like blaming candle-lovers for global warming. The readers who buy hardback books will buy them because they want the first edition of a book by their favourite author—NOW, IMMEDIATELY—be that in hardback or ebook format, and whether they are paying $10 or $25 is not the issue. Therein, we come to the nub of matters. Publishing is a business, just like any other. Yes, the hardback market is declining, but it still remains lucrative, by definition of being the first print edition. Large publishers, through a combination of not being fully prepared, or wishing more to the point, to maximise their profits in a declining global economy, see ebooks as a developing irk and complication on a business which has changed little in 100 years, or a new honey-pot of profit. Consider the advent of compact disc to the music retail market in the 1980’s against cassette tapes. What killed cassette tapes was its inferior quality compared to digital recordings—not even the strength of portability could save it. The arrival of ebooks doesn’t have the initial expense factor or lack of platform that CD’s had back then. Much the same can be said for DVD over video tapes in the 1990’s.
Consider the news of Random House contacting the literary agents of authors they published many years ago to claim first ebook rights, and add to that Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Hachette Livre choosing to delay ebook releases until the hardback edition of a book have run their retail sales course. Have we heard a great tumult of horror, repulsion and recoil—similar to the raucous and wildly emotive debate we had over Thomas Nelson and Harlequin stepping into the self-publishing minefield? No. We Haven’t. So when is a book a real book?
I found a dollar today at the side of the curb on my way to the bus stop. I had to stop to pick it up. I examined it carefully, only to find it was a piece of green paper that looked just like a dollar. When I finally looked up, I realised I’d just missed my bus.
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