The idea that any standard deal from a major publisher guarantees a print format release—which was previously a foregone conclusion—is something agents no longer take for granted, with some expressing concern that the big houses are starting to hedge on print editions in contracts.
While e-book-only agreements are nothing new—all large publishers have imprints that are exclusively dedicated to digital titles—a handful of agents, all of whom spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, said they’re worried that contracts from print-first imprints will increasingly come with clauses indicating that the publisher makes no guarantee on format. The agents say this is a new twist to the standard way of doing business....
One of the difficulties with reporting on changes to book publishing contracts is that all new contracts, as Applebaum rightly noted, are open to negotiation. However, there are standards of doing business, and the agents speaking out said they feared that if vague language about format begins to crop up on a regular basis, they will need to start advocating for a format they were universally guaranteed in the past.
Despite their dismay, agents and other insiders who spoke to PW said they were not necessarily surprised by the move, given the current marketplace. There is growing pressure on publishers to release books quickly, and to do so in the formats that will bring in the most revenue. Because so many book deals are made well in advance of the titles’ release dates, publishers have always had to gauge the future relevancy of topics and authors. Now publishers also have to attempt to anticipate the future bricks-and-mortar landscape when signing contracts. As some insiders explained, it’s a very different situation when the question goes from, “How many copies will Barnes & Noble take?” to “Will Barnes & Noble be around?”
The fact is that print books don't really make much economic sense anymore. There is too much risk attached to them given the rules of the distribution system. I think this will most affect paperbacks, particularly trade paperbacks. There will always be a small percentage of book lovers who demand hardbacks, but if I'm a publisher who faces the possibility of eating some 5,000 paperback returns, why take that risk?
Take ATOB, for example. I've sold 15x more ebooks than hardcovers, and that is to a group of unusually book-friendly readers who are disproportionately inclined to buy my books. I'll continue making the hardcovers available, (because, let's face it, the monsters do look well on the shelf), but they are a sideshow, they are not the primary product.
Perhaps more importantly, as the authors of the article noted, once Barnes & Noble goes down, there won't be a large enough retail market to make it worth their while producing print books for it. It may be another year or two before the publishers make the leap, but don't be surprised if they do so sooner than that, given the growing financial, competitive, and distribution-related pressures on them.