Monday, September 11, 2006

Penguin leapfroging into cyberspace

Would you pay more for a book when you have the privilege of a preview online? The publishing group Penguin thinks so. The publisher plans to launch a novel in serial form which will be available for readers online before the complete work is released in January 2007 in printed form. A limited edition of 5,000 copies of the Gordon Dahlquist's fantastical gothic mystery Glass Books of the Dream Eaters will cost £25 (34,50 euro) each and will be sent to readers in 10 weekly instalments. The hardcover of the title will cost £16.99 (23,50 euro). According to an article by Reuters this move will “help to usher the industry in the modern era”. I personally think that they must be nuts at Penguin.

I have looked at this news item with some astonishment. Undoubtedly some has been thinking about this and pushing it as a strategic move. But is it and will people buy it? And what is really new? The elements of the business proposal:
- The book. The book has already been published in the States and has received mixed reviews. You can order it from Amazon, throughout the world.
- Non-exclusivity. The book is distributed by more publishers such as the Random House Group and now by Penguin of the Pearson Group.
- Preview. Publishing books before publishing the printed edition is not new. It has been tried before, but never created a run for copies like the printed edition of Harry Potter’s novels did.
- Serialisation is not new either. It was done in print with Stephen King’s Green Mile in 1996, which was sold in instalments before being published as a single volume. In 2000 the author experimented with The Plant, which was offered to readers in online instalments at a voluntary contribution. It was not a success.
- Limited edition. Does a limited edition work in the online realm? I can imagine that a limited edition of a printed book works or a book with the name of the buyer embossed on the cover. When I worked in general encyclopaedias the marketing department would use this sales trick with success to ask more money.
- Higher price for online edition. This aspect of the offer really beats me. Because you get a preview online, you will pay more than you will pay for the hardcover edition. The distribution factor of an online edition is cheaper than distribution factor of a hardcopy.

I still can’t believe what I am reading. Yet Penguin has consulted successful marketing people, it appears. The article points to the promoters in Britain of the TV shows Lost and Desperate Housewives. The publicity manager of for Penguin said: "We wanted to take this idea of water-cooler TV and apply it to books just as it used to be with (Dickens') 'The Old Curiosity Shop' when people would rush to read the next instalment." That turbo term water-cooler TV makes me suspicious. And TV is quite another medium than books. It looks like Penguin wants to leap-frog into cyberspace.

Besides it all sounds like the moves of a starter in new media. In 1987, in the very early days of optical discs, I was involved in the first commercial Dutch dictionary project of Van Dale Lexicography, a prestigious reference publisher. Their dictionary of the Dutch language is like Oxfords University Dictionary and The Random House Dictionary of the English language. The CD-ROM contained the complete contemporary dictionary, a small alphabetic encyclopaedia and a cross word dictionary facility. These facilities were not available in one product. The CD-ROM product was priced at 179 Dutch guilders (roughly 85 euro). The printed product was under 50 euro. The CD-ROM did not turn out to be a hit. This could partly be blamed on the light penetration of CD-ROM readers at that time. But also the price was not right. It was a production price, which reflected the production costs rather than the marketing price. At that time an audio CD bore a price tag of 25 euro. In the perception of the buyer it was difficult to compare the price of an audio CD with a CD-ROM. Most likely the people who had a CD-ROM reader had been willing to pay a price a little higher than an audio CD. But for 85 euro they did not buy it.

I guess the same principle goes for the Penguin business proposal. The perception of online is that an online book product is always cheaper than a printed book, as there is no printing and less distribution costs. I am curious to know whether there will be 5.000 readers who see a value-add in this non-exclusive limited preview edition online in instalments. Of course, if it is a success, we will hear about it; if not we will never hear it from Penguin.


Blog Posting Number: 504


AmeliaF said...

Hi there

I'm the Publicity Director at Penguin and I've just read your comments about our serialisation of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. I just wanted to point out that the serialisation is not actually a download. The instalments are physical books - beautifully produced and individually designed and will be sent through the mail to subscribers. The design specs are very high- this is a premium product and will become a collectors' item due to its limited edition. People can check out what they look like at the website for the book:


PantherSanchez said...

Looking at the website again, I see it's a printed book, not an online edition, and when I tried to buy the US edition from Amazon it blocked delivery to the UK. It is actually a set of limited edition printed paperbacks.

Tomk said...

You might want to get your points straight before leaping in with your criticisms:

1) You cannot buy the book from Amazon in the UK - go on try. And this offer is only open to UK readers.

2) These editions are exclusive to Penguin Books in the UK, ie not available anywhere else.

3) The limited, edition, available-online instalments are new since King's efforts were available either in shops or as downloads. These instalments are neither, being available to buy online but real books are posted to subscribers' homes.

4) You believe these books are digital editions. They are not, they are as physical as any book. And there are ten of them, posted to readers' homes for £2.50 each. The distribution costs for this are not low.

5) Anyone worth their salt in marketing in the modern world understands that you are not competing with your direct competitors - ie film with film, book with book - every piece of entertainment is competing for time. So a book is up against tv, film, etc so new ways of marketing must be experimented with.

AmeliaF said...

Hi there

I'm the Publicity Director at Penguin working on The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and just wanted to correct something in your last post: The instalments are actually physical books - beautifully produced and individually designed, and strictly a limited edition. They are sent out to subssribers weekly through the mail. They are NOT downloads as has been reported here and there in the press. Thanks!