That's the question I kept asking myself as I read a report called The Impact of Ebook Distribution on Print Sales: Analysis of a Natural Experiment by Jeff Hu and Mike Smith. You'll notice that the report was originally written a couple of years ago but I believe the results would be the same today.
Back in 2010 there was some debate about whether a publisher could maximize revenue by delaying the release of an ebook. So just as paperback release follows hardback release the thinking was the ebook's release should come out after the print book so that customers would have to buy the higher-priced print, not the lower-priced ebook.
Thanks to a unique opportunity to work with a publisher who stopped releasing new ebooks for two months in 2010 the authors were able to analyze the sales impact of delayed ebook availability. Their conclusion: Delaying the ebook only works for the best-sellers. As the authors put it:
For popular books, delaying ebook release dates leads to a significant substitution toward print books. In contrast, for niche books, that do not have strong brand awareness among consumers, we find an insignificant substitution toward print books when ebook release dates are delayed. [Further,] the net effect of delayed Kindle releases is an overall loss in sales and, based on the best available data, a net loss in revenue and profit to the publisher.
That makes sense. I'm pretty sure if the Harry Potter series was only available on stone tablets they would have sold just as many copies. On the other hand, all those other books out there with either delayed ebook releases or, more importantly, no ebook releases, are leaving money on the table. That last point is the most important takeaway for me.
I scanned the B&N top 100 (print bestsellers) as I wrote this and I saw that every title in the top 20 had a nook edition. Once you get past the top 20 it's hit and miss. You find more gaps when you look in certain subject areas. I still come across titles from time to time where there's no ebook edition. There aren't very many publishers playing the delay game these days but there are some who are still on the ebook sidelines.
Then you have the authors who insist on a print-only option. OK, you can get away with that if your name is Stephen King. He's an enormous brand and can use his clout to force readers to print...or at least most of them. I wonder how long it will take for someone to scan King's Joyland and post it on all the torrent sites. I'm not encouraging that, of course, but I do believe that you can reduce piracy if you offer your content at a reasonable price in all the popular formats. Although King's intent is to provide a reading experience from the old days I'm convinced it will only increase piracy of the title and cause him to complain that ebooks and ebook customers are evil.
As a publisher I believe we should make sure that our content is available in every storefront possible, both physical and virtual. It's amazing to me that in 2012 we still see so many books that are only available in print format.