Should Publishers “Window” Their Products Like Hollywood?

The recent Book Expo America conference in New York was dominated by two discussions: the lack of diversity in publishing and the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. I think publishers were relieved that Amazon’s bullying came into the limelight at the ideal moment to drown out as much talk about their egregious shortcomings in diversity, both at the editorial and authorial level, as possible.

And the mental effort of solving publishing’s economic problems while ignoring its social inequalities has led to some very interesting notions about how to “save” the industry. One I found personally intriguing was the idea that publishers abandon the simultaneous print-ebook release date model that has become ubiquitous for most trade publishers. In a recent Publishers Weekly article, Codex Group CEO Peter Hildick-Smith argues that publishers should “follow the film industry’s successful model of releasing new content in premium format first, followed by discount formats in later releases…as a way to ‘give bricks-and-mortar stores a chance to do what they do best,'” a practice known as “windowing” because of the staggered release windows.

So, in the same way you choose between going to theaters, buying the Blu-Ray, or indulging in both for the latest Marvel movie, consumers would choose between buying the more expensive hard copy immediately or waiting for Amazon’s cheaper Kindle copy (since, let’s be honest, all ebook sales happen there at this point). Publishers would have to step up on marketing for the release dates of both versions, however. And just as movie studios put deleted scenes and cast commentary on their DVDs, publishers would need to step up on enhanced ebook features—hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity—to make them more attractive.

As intriguing an idea as it is, I don’t see it happening. Amazon explicitly bans “windowing” in its contracts with publishers, and the company would know how that kind of contract concession would damage their business. Amazon can sell books and ebooks at a loss so long as it owns the market on tablet e-readers with Kindle, Paperwhite, and Fire. But would you buy the latest Kindle if you knew that the latest books wouldn’t be available? Maybe, maybe not. On the publishing side, pub houses would be loath to raise marketing budgets on an uncertain scheme, and would have to start hiring more programmers to create enhanced ebooks. They haven’t done so yet precisely because Kindles are the worst of all the eReaders in terms of enhancements, and while Apple ebooks can have exciting features, the Apple store just doesn’t provide enough profits to justify the effort.

Having Amazon as the primary e-tail and major print retail sales channel cripples the opportunity for publishers to try new tactics, encouraging a fatalistic conservatism of trying to preserve what little profits remain. Amazon purports to be a Wild West-style landscape where any author with a good story can make millions; the fact that it continues to squeeze the life out of the publishing industry, big houses and small, shows that Amazon only cares about authors that spit out more Kindle Singles. While publishers this week tackled economics to avoid issues of diversity, I believe these issues are irrevocably linked: a rich, thriving publishing industry doesn’t guarantee that opportunities will arise for more writers of color, LGBT+ writers, or female writers, but an industry writhing under the thumb of its distributors all but erases such a possibility.

Until publishers cut themselves off from Amazon and attempt to sell directly to consumers, or else attach themselves to an Amazon retail competitor that is willing to give them a better deal in exchange for exclusives or some other perks, this problem will persist. For this reason, if you want to join this field, it’s important not only to keep yourself apprised of the economic issues of the field, but also become an economist yourself if you can. Although Mr. Hildick-Smith’s plan has some flaws, he’s thinking radically about the kind of changes that publishing needs to make in order to not only survive, but adapt into something new—a profession that inspires pride while still generating a profit.

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