Can they hold back the tide? Publishers will slow e-book releases

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When is the right time for an e-book? Many readers might answer: as soon as possible. But at least two of the big players in the publishing industry have arrived at a different conclusion. According to one, the right time for an e-book is several months after the hard cover version of a book is published – but sometime before the paperback.

In today's Wall Street Journal, both Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group's CEO, David Young, say that they will delay the e-book versions of certain titles ("key" titles in the case of Simon & Schuster and "the vast majority" in the case of Hachette) for three to four months after the book's publication.

Readers might not like the wait, acknowledges Reidy, but both Reidy and Young stress the need to preserve the publishing business. The fear is that the lower prices on e-books (many bestsellers retail for $9.99 in electronic format) could seriously erode industry profitability.

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But will it work? Maybe – for a time and for certain books. Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue," for instance, won't appear in e-book form until after the holiday rush. But that hasn't stopped a million readers (so far) from ponying up for a hardback copy. And Stephen King's decision to delay the e-book version of his new "Under the Dome" did not prevent that book from immediately appearing on bestseller lists. (King said he based his decision on a desire to help struggling bookstore owners.)

Perhaps the delay will work for blockbuster titles. The book industry could end up functioning the way the movie industry does, with some consumers eager to see a new release immediately in theaters, while others are content to wait for the DVD. It's hard to imagine, however, at this point, that anything is going to stem the e-book tide.

Those who doubt it need only look to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's interview last week with the New York Times Magazine. "For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition," said Bezos. "It won’t be too long before we’re selling more electronic books than we are physical books."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/MarjorieKehe.

(Chapter & Verse readers are reminded that they can access the 12/8/09 Monitor Books podcast – including an interview with Colum McCann, author of "Let the Great World Spin" – either through iTunes or by clicking here.)

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