Why Oyster now sells ebooks too
Debunking the discovery problem

Lessons from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks

I recently did something that I haven’t done for more than five years: I bought a physical, print edition of a book. For myself. I didn’t want to, but I had to. The publisher made me do it. The story behind my purchase offers lessons for all book publishers, but especially those who have yet to embrace the ebook market.

I’m a huge baseball fan and when I heard that Hal McCoy, a legendary sportswriter, recently published a book about his career covering the Reds, well, I had to have it. If you take a quick look at that link to the book on the publisher’s website you’ll see they only sell a print edition there. A quick look on Amazon shows that print is the only option online as well.

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That made me stop and double-check the pub date. It’s 2015, after all, and surely every publisher offers e-editions of their frontlist, right? I’ve apparently stumbled across one of the remaining publishers who is still stuck in the 1990’s. 

Not to worry… I figured I’d just run out to one of the many local brick-and-mortar stores and buy a copy there. No dice. There’s not a single copy of this book to be found at any of the local stores.

Amazon offers it at 21% off the publisher’s list price though, and since I’m a Prime member I’ll get it in a couple of days. So here we have a small boutique publisher who is contributing to their own market limitations. In this world of digital abundance they prefer to live in the era of physical scarcity.

Why print-only? It’s hard to assume they haven’t found a viable way to quickly, easily and inexpensively create EPUBs and mobi files. Not only are there a variety of simple tools for this but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of outsource providers willing to do it for a song.

Is it fear of cannibalization? Perhaps. But is that such a bad thing? I’d argue in this case that the number of potential customers who aren’t buying the print edition because it’s not available far outweighs the number of customers who might opt for a cheaper e-version over of print.

Here’s a radical idea: Charge 50% more for the e-edition. So that $19.99 print book lists for $29.99 as an ebook. Even after Amazon applies their consumer discount the publisher still makes more than they do on any print copy sale. Btw, I paid almost $16 for the print edition through Amazon but I would have gladly paid $29.99 for an e-edition, if only they’d offer one.

The publisher wouldn’t have to stick with a permanent digital list price that’s 150% of the print list. Maybe they could just have it set that high for the first 30 or 60 days, for example. The key is to measure the results, see what can be learned from the combination of print and digital sales and adjust accordingly.

Here’s another radical idea: Sell the ebook direct exclusively for 30 or 60 days. After that initial period offer it through all  theother ebook channels. (Yes, I realize this means the publisher has to renegotiate terms with distributors.)

As a consumer I admit that I’m not a fan of paying more or having to go through some crazy DRM process on a publisher’s website when I buy direct. But in this case I’d be willing to live with both of those situations.

At the very least, how about this?: Offer me an e-sample on the publisher’s site so I can start reading the book while I wait for the print copy to arrive. And please don’t lock that sample…make it easy to copy and send to others; after all, it’s a marketing tool for the publisher and the author.


Michael W. Perry

Not buying print books at all? How silly. I buy them all the time. I picked up ten for $1.50 at a thrift store last week. I ordered two used books yesterday. Even with the shipping, they cost me less than the ebook version.

Print books have two enormous advantages.

1. They're not going to be rendered worthless by technology changes.

2. You can loan them to friends.

Unless you live in a tent, your really ought to look into buying print books again.

nate Hoffelder

I regularly buy print books. All too often I find that a used paper copy costs less than the ebook, and if I don't plan to keep the book then the price matters more than the format.

Ellen Bilofsky

As the managing editor of a very small press that has made the transition to include e-books, I find this kind of a dumb comment. Depending on the kind of books you publish, and if you want high-quality versions of your publications, converting them is neither simple nor cheap. It is time-consuming and involves a bunch of new steps involving proofreading (quality control)yet again, figuring out how to distribute, setting up new accounts, creating metadata, etc., etc. If you're a small publisher without extraneous staff and can survive on your old business model, it simply may not be worth it to go through this kind of major transformation.

Raghavan Madabhushi

I guess movies do the same, run the theatre sales and DVD sales for couple of weeks and based on response move to VOD channel. Makes sense and worth a try.

Bobby Blackstock

Never bought an ebook in my life, not saying that wont change, but don't plan too.
Granted I work in book PRINTING
I know many book publishers who have tried e-books and have found the returns not worth the effort, so are pulling out of doing them with their new books
I know publishers who have lost serious money in e-books
Mind you the fiction publishers seem to be ploughing on whilst seeing more people buying the printed edition and getting a highrer return.
If you have a critical mass yes by all means publish in e-book form but should it really be called an e-book, when its actually not a book, but just a digital file.
Oh and a final shot to those who say the printed book is dead. Rubbish, we have seen 40% growth in book printing in the last 3 years.


This is a marvelous idea/suggestion! My publications come in both digital and print format - but I find it is a lot easier to market/promote the ebooks than it is to promote and sell the print. The reason is simple, most readers can simply add the publication to their preferred eReader and select it at their leisure. I can also post my publications on-line (issuu) and allow my audience to read my publications for free (I removed the download feature) This way they spend more time on my site or they can add it to their own which gains more exposure for my work. I suspect, however, the publisher here in question is leery to post his content in digital format because it is rather easy to bootleg the publication - and maybe he doesn't want to be ripped off. I have had to send a few "cease and desist" letters to "publishers" who have co-opted my work.

Judy A

I have published in both print and ebooks. With Amazon's new return policy, that anyone can return an ebook for any reason within 7 days, I pulled the ebook from the offerings. It seems that I had more ebook returns from Amazon than print returns from my other distributors. I have 5 kids that know how to download and keep anything from the internet, despite digital rights locks and I'm sure a lot of other people know how as well. Any company that allows easy return with no costs, is a bad business model. Print only for this publisher!

Marc Ardizzone

I wonder of people would be willing to pay *more* for an e-book over the cost of a printed version? Is the perceived value greater? Personally speaking, to me it is not.

Joe Wikert

Hi Marc. I typically feel the same way and don't want to pay more for an ebook than a print book. Now that I have this print version though I *know* I would have paid more for the e-version. Why? The print book is an awkward trim size, a bit wider than a typical book. As a result, it's clumsy to hold and read. Then there's the fact that I don't want to lug it around with me. So yes, in this case I gladly would have paid a bit more for the e-edition.

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