By stating last week that it would delay the release of the e-book editions of 35 titles set to be published in the January through April period, Simon & Schuster has become the first major house to put into place a firm release date for its e-books—four months after publication of the hardcover. The 35 titles scheduled to have a delayed e-book release are books that have either high print runs or high price points. An S&S spokesperson said the company believes that “this publishing sequence will benefit the performance of all the different formats in which these titles are published and, in the long term, will contribute to a healthier retail environment for the greater book buying public.”

To date, most publishers decide when to release e-books on a title-by-title basis, though most new books often are released in hardcover and e-book simultaneously. “We have no plans at this time to issue a blanket policy on e-book publishing,” said a Penguin spokesperson. “We have always treated authors and titles on an individual basis and we will continue to do so in the digital arena.”

That attitude, however, appears to be slowly changing elsewhere.

A Hachette Book Group spokesperson confirmed that in January or February of next year it will delay the e-book release “on a wide selection of titles.” And HarperCollins is planning several different approaches. In the first few months of 2010, HC will delay the release of five—10 books per month. But HC also plans to develop enhanced e-books for some of those titles and will publish the special e-books, which will have price points close to that of the hardcover, simultaneously with the print edition. The regular e-book will then be released at a later date. In addition, next year HC plans to test low price and free e-books to gauge consumer appetite for a variety of digital price points and formats.

For many within the industry—especially entrenched agents, corporate publishers, and authors—S&S and Hachette's decision is a positive thing. For these factions the move is a step in the right direction as a way to combat the low prices set by online retailers for e-books, and in turn it protect the price of new hardcovers. Agent Robert Gottlieb, of Trident Media, said he thinks withholding e-book releases is “a very good idea” and that, historically, new publishing platforms—be they trade paperbacks or mass markets—“all have found their place in the proper order of the publication process.” Gottlieb, who added that tinkering with e-book release dates is under discussion at all the major houses, said it's important that publishers be out in front on this issue in order to be the ones to set these standards instead of the retailers.

Brian DeFiore, who runs his own eponymous agency, said he assumed this approach would be the one to take hold. (For months now all major houses have announced delaying the release of e-book editions of select frontlist titles.) “The entertainment business in this country has always 'platformed' releases this way,” DeFiore explained. “Consumers who want the experience earliest pay the most. It makes intuitive sense.”

Many industry observers, however, are viewing the e-book release lag in a harsher light. Some are already cautioning that publishers are going down a dangerous road, one that got the music and film industries into serious financial straits. Forrester analyst James McQuivey, in a blog post dubbed “Urgent note to book industry: There's a better way to window eBooks,” argued that S&S and Hachette are making a classic old media mistake in a new media world. McQuivey told PW that publishers need to accept that, in the digital world, books cannot stand at their existing price point. In short, publishers need to face diminishing revenue in the near future and react accordingly. “If you look at every media industry that's come before,” he said, “they're settling into half to three-fourths of the revenue they enjoyed under analog.”

McQuivey championed something along the lines of what HC hinted at—offering premium digital editions for higher prices than the reigning $9.99, or allowing customers to pre-purchase the $9.99 e-books upon hardcover publication and wait for the download months later. He believes that if publishers withhold digital copies from the marketplace the industry will see a significant spike in piracy.

Results from a forthcoming survey sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group, “Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading,” found that 30% of consumers who read e-books would wait three months after the release of the hardcover to buy an e-book, while 24% said they would buy the hardcover immediately; 34% said they weren't sure what they would do under the circumstances. (The full survey will available from before the end of the year for $135.)

Many within the business don't see why digital content needs to be cheaper content. DeFiore said retailers are going against the “sense of the marketplace” by pricing e-books so low. “Why aren't the retailers setting price expectation for digital books in a way that consumers already understand: that the most highly sought-after new products are priced higher?”

For McQuivey the consumer modes of behavior, and the place digital has in those modes, has already been set. He thinks price differences for varied paper formats makes sense, but that e-books can't simply be squeezed into that model, because the “digital format is living in peoples' minds in a different place.” DeFiore argued that it is premature to judge how readers will react and that it doesn't make sense to let retailers lead the charge. “It's still too early in the rise of digital publishing for us to allow digital retailers to use the biggest bestselling titles in the biggest money-generating format as the ones to experiment with.”