Is This the Next Sneak Attack on eBookers?

Here’s something I’m sure every major publisher is thinking about: How can I get consumers to buy both the pbook and ebook versions of a book? Well, maybe they aren’t really sitting around the table thinking about that, but with my latest pbook purchase, I’m wondering if they are thinking about it.

I have enjoyed the “Safehold Series” of books by David Weber. Because Weber is one of my favorite authors, I buy his books in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library. A week ago, the fifth book in the series, How Firm a Foundation, was released. I had preordered it in hardcover and eagerly awaited its arrival.

It arrived and I put down my Sony 950 Reader to take up Weber’s book. That lasted a whole five minutes and two pages. The publisher chose a font size that was so small I could barely read the text. For my eyes to read the text, I needed a magnifying lens. This is the first time this has happened; I don’t know whether my eyes suddenly got worse (not likely based on the lack of problem I have with any other pbook I own) or the font size was deliberately smaller than usual in an attempt to keep production costs down.

Now I was in a quandary. Do I struggle to read the book? Do I put the book aside and simply not bother to read it? Do I break down and buy the ebook version, thereby doubling my cost because the book is published by TOR, an Agency 6 imprint? I struggled with these choices for about 30 minutes and ultimately settled on the third choice. The ebook cost $1 less than the hardcover, which was significantly discounted, so I effectively doubled what I paid to read this book.

This experience started me thinking: Will this be the next ploy of publishers? Will the Agency 6 decide that a small font size that is difficult for a good portion of readers is the best way to force readers to buy an overpriced ebook?

Experience demonstrates that publishers are investing fewer dollars in quality control, and fewer dollars in otherwise standard production services like editing. Experience also shows that overpriced ebooks from the Agency 6 are likely more profitable for them, which means a push to agency-priced ebooks.

In olden days, I would not have even thought to view what happened through the lens of conspiracy. But the Agency 6 have so badly botched their public relations regarding ebooks and ebook pricing that the conspiracy lens jumps right out at me. The Agency 6 publishers have met their Waterloo — consumer mistrust that paints everything the Agency 6 does with the brush of distrust.

It seems to me that for publishers to maximize return, they need to help move readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat growth in pbooks, I would be working on plans to drop mass market paperbacks and publish only trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and ebooks. Phase 2 of my planning would be to eliminate trade paperbacks and just publish hardcovers and ebooks. Perhaps a decade or two down the road, I would look at publishing hardcovers in limited edition runs for collectors and those pbook diehards.

So, moving back to David Weber’s new book and the font size, I guess it is possible that this was unintentional (i.e., using a small font in hopes of selling the ebook version) but now that it has occurred, I wonder if someone at TOR is following sales closely enough to draw a conclusion whether future TOR books should also use this hard-to-read font size.

I’m continually amazed at how the Agency 6 stumble around the periphery of a plan for ebooks but never quite have the moxie to do something constructive for them and for their readers. Recently, I wondered if they were going to draw the right lesson from the Harris Interactive Survey (see The Survey Gives a Lesson?). It is not that I’m cheerleading for the Agency 6 — frankly, I think their pricing scheme is a major consumer ripoff that has no merit — but there are certain things that I would like to see the Agency 6 accomplish because I think it would be good for me as a consumer and for ebooks. The question is how to lead them by their collective nose to those things that would benefit everyone.

reposted with permission from An American Editor


  1. Duane3 October, 2011

    I would like to see book publishers move towards a model similar to that of movie studios. When you buy a Blu-ray or DVD movie these days it is common to receive a free digital copy of the movie for your own personal use. It makes sense. If you own a pbook, should you not be entitled to the ebook version?

    However, this “digital” model took over 10 years for the movie studios to accept, so I don’t really see the book publishing world accepting this type of model any time soon.

    1. Logan Kennelly3 October, 2011

      Even then, the “digital copy” of movies is kind of a joke. It works on only a single PC at a time, supports only iOS and really old Windows Media devices, and expires in an absurdly short amount of time from the release of the DVD (not even the purchase).

      No, I don’t see publishers actively supporting a “digital” model anytime soon.

      This article, though, could have been rephrased as: “Book publishers try to shore up paper product through distribution deals; perhaps they should try maintaining quality of the product, as well.”

      PS: I haven’t seen the book in question so I cannot comment on the legibility of the text.

  2. Carolyn Jewel3 October, 2011

    Hmm. Interesting thought. But I think you’re giving publishers too much credit.

  3. Jane3 October, 2011

    No, I don’t believe that for a second. Publishers make more on a physical hardcover than the ebook. Every move they have made has been to prop up physical book sales. Probably the print is so small because of the printing costs associated with the book.

  4. Jordi Balcells3 October, 2011

    I was able to find a pirated ePUB version of that ebook in less than a minute. If you buy it, you own it, and you can do as you please with it. Including creating a backup or getting someone else’s backup. It may be illegal in your jurisdiction, but it’s morally right everywhere.

    Legal issues aside, I know at least one publisher (AJEC) that prints a QR code to their pbooks. If you paid for the pbook, the ebook, where available, is included free of charge and DRM-free. Also, their ebook prices are very low. Trusting and caring for your customers is good for business. Ripping them off and treating them like thieves? Not a good idea.

  5. Peter3 October, 2011

    They should go the other way around.

    Focus on selling the e-book first, but then give people the option to buy a custom-printed P(ermanent)-book version of the file they already own. That way, if you really like a book, you can have a tangible copy you can own forever and hand down to future generations or give as a gift.

    I don’t trust a file stored in “the cloud” to last 100+ years in a usable sense. Particularly not with DRM and certainly not with proprietary formats. Failure to keep important books in p-book form will lead to a digital dark age.

  6. Richard Adin3 October, 2011

    Interestingly, another David Weber hardcover, A Beautiful Friendship, was just released by Baen. I bought it and the print size is eminently readable. However, I prefer to read in ebook form so I decided to visit Baen and see if the ebook version was available at a reasonable price. Needless to say, it was ($6), so I bought the ebook version from Baen. In this case, I didn’t mind buying both the hardcover and ebook version because I didn’t feel abused by the publisher. I didn’t need to buy the ebook version; I chose to do so.

    1. fjtorres3 October, 2011

      Baen from time to time releases promo bound-in ebook CDs with some of their prominent hardcover releases. With series, they usually include all the previous volumes in the series so if you buy the latest volume, you are instantly up to date.
      Don’t expect to see that from any of the BPHs any time soon.

      As for the new safehold volume, alas, there is a simpler explanation.
      The publisher most likely went with the (painfully) small font to reduce the page count of the book because Weber’s recent efforts (incuding the Safehold series) have been getting progresively more voluminous but (unlike his Honorverse series, which are still going strong) recent Safehold volumes have been a bit less well received, critically and (presumably) saleswise.

      I would suggest the publisher was trying to slim down the page count at all costs, readers bedamned, to save a few bucks, rather than as a machiavellian (but not totally implausible, given recent events) scheme to force sales to ebooks. If nothing else because they would have to deal with loss-inducing pbook returns from retailers once word gets out the hardcovers are well-nigh unreadable…

      …on the other hand, that kind of shortsighted and counterproductive thing *would* be right in line with their track record…

      Thanks for the warning anyway; I wasn’t sure whether or not to stick with that series…


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