Bookworm: Format’s theorem | Free e-book

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So fast is publishing changing that what would otherwise be regarded as epochal shifts in the old ways of doing things can pass by virtually unnoticed. This week, there were two of them on the same day.

They both centre on Canongate’s publication of Ruth Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which on Monday was published in every format possible – hardback, paperback, audio and e-book. So far, this fact only seems to have registered with trade publications. But if it catches on, it could revolutionise our reading habits.

At the moment, the paperback edition of a title invariably follows when publishers think that they have exhausted the sales potential of the hardback – often six months or a year afterwards. Canongate were already planning to publish the paperback of Ozecki’s novel in June to catch the summer holiday market. “Why wait three months?” asked sales and marketing director Jenny Todd. Why indeed? publisher Jamie Byng agreed.

The rationale, he explains, is twofold. “It’s almost a perfect storm of circumstances. The traditional argument has always been that that you don’t publish paperbacks early because to do so would eat into hardback sales. But e-books are already cannibalising paperback sales, so why not just accept it and offer people whatever format they want?”

Canongate have printed 5,000 copies of Ozecki’s novel in hardback and 12,000 in paperback, and will be looking closely at how each format’s sales hold up. But already, says Byng, they are thinking about repeating the experiment with other titles. “It’s all about being creative in the way in which you can allow people to read. The hardback is so beautiful that if you’re going out, you might not want to take it with you. But with the other formats you can.”

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All of which brings us back to that question Tracy Chevalier asked at the end of our feature interview (see page three): why can’t we buy the e-book as part of the hardback itself? Again, another potentially enormous cultural shift if it catches on – Marvel already offers fans a digital code with their higher-priced comics. And again, something Canongate will be doing with Ozecki’s novel. Provided the hardback is bought from their own website, canongate.tv, the ebook comes free.