The release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman provides another moment to reflect on the developing e-book market and how it mixes with the print sector. Released globally in print and e-book format, and at various retail prices, there are three competing editions in the marketplace (hardback, e-book and audio): which will prevail?
The assumption that readers prefer to read commercial fiction in e-book format but buy printed copies of the more serious stuff is not always borne out by the charts. As The Bookseller noted in its half-year review (published last week), two of the biggest books of the year so far have radically different sales mixes. The Girl on the Train, for example has sold 294,000 print copes at an average selling price of around £9; the e-book, selling for £3 less, has sold 440,000 copies. The performance of Grey is almost the exact opposite: it has sold 688,000 copies in print (average price of round £4.50) and 395,000 in its digital format (current Amazon price £3.66).
So what of Harper Lee's latest?
Go Set a Watchman will benefit from pre-order sales of both the e-book and print book, and with sales of the printed version of Grey now waning (albeit from a high point), it is already a shoo-in for next week’s Nielsen BookScan-measured number one. Sales of the print version will no doubt be boosted by those fans wishing to hold and retain a physical version of the historically important novel; but sales of the e-book version will aided by those wanting to read the book overnight (only 23 bookshops stayed open till past midnight). There is also the price difference between the two formats which, as with The Girl on the Train, is high. On Amazon the hardback is retailing for £9, while the e-book is priced at £5.99.
Unless one of the retailers or Penguin Random House choose to release some sales figures early, then we are a week away from knowing more. Looking at the retailer websites in the hours since the book went on sale provide some hints. On the Kindle chart (updated hourly) Go Set a Watchman is currently sitting in fourth spot, after The Girl on the Train, Grey and Avon’s 99p promoted The Lie. Yet on Amazon's print chart it is number one ahead of Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom and The Girl on the Train. It is also number one on Waterstones’ print bestseller list.
On Kobo’s UK digital chart GSAW sits in sixth spot—priced at the odd-looking £7.47. Both Nook and Apple are selling the digital version for £10.99: it is number one on the iBookstore, but has yet to show up Nook’s bestseller list. The audio version, narrated by the actor Reese Witherspoon, is second spot on Audible (priced at £16.62, or one token for subscribers); on iTunes (where it costs £9.95) it is top.
The question of format has been raised also by two recent publisher interviews.
Canelo launched its first titles this week as an avowedly digital publisher. Its m.d. Iain Millar told FutureBook that it did not want to be distracted from making e-books as good as print books, by also making print books. It's the discipline to the format that is important here: like the best indie authors Canelo will go that extra mile to make its digital books succeed because it has no alternative. Millar says the company will only “commit to print editions” if it can do so without compromising the digital release.
Digital-only publishers are rarer than they might have been.
A second interview, this time with Amanda Ridout chief executive of Head of Zeus, helps indicate why. HoZ is well-known for its prodigious digital output (it has 1,300 e-books available after just three years of publishing) and a mantra of e first and last.
Yet unlike Canelo it is also developing a print business: significantlly print sales made up 60% of its 2014 turnover. As Ridout said: “How we think about what we publish, is that ‘e’ and ‘p’ are intrinsically linked . . . ‘E’ is where you can recruit readers quickly and it provides a way to reach readers wherever they are. But you need print to attract authors and frankly since we know print is not going away, there is a business to be made [from it].”
As the first half of this piece acknowledges, publishers face these format choices with an inexact knowledge of the marketplace. The different attitudes show a positive approach to a market that remains as complex and perhaps disjointed as the character of Atticus Finch.