iBook Lessons: Hardback-only Memory of Light release frustrates would-be epurchasers

iBook Lessons is a continuing series about ebook writing and publishing.

I was rather surprised this morning when, upon visiting Amazon, I found myself unable to purchase Brandon Sanderson's Memory of Light from the Kindle store. A major Tor release, Memory of Light wraps up the Wheel of Time series originally penned by the late Robert Jordan.

With its e-only inventory, the iTunes iBookstore leads only to a placeholder and a note about unavailable items. That's because Tor isn't planning to release the Memory of Light ebook until April 9th. (The U.K. option is, by the way, only a pre-order. Their release date is the same as in the US.)

iBook Lessons Are ebooks the paperbacks of the modern world

I found this a curious decision in the age of the instant purchase gratification offered by Amazon and the iBookstore. I had been ready to drop my $20 this morning and quite looking forward to the book.

Instead, I suppose I'll either head off to the library today to hope I can snag one of the "New and Hot" copies that my library always keeps back from the standard holds list (it's a strategy that has occasionally worked in the past). Or, I might visit Target or Walmart to pick up a heavy and smelly dead tree version that I frankly would prefer not to buy. There's something about Tor's hardback ink and paper choices that really makes my sinuses ache.

To anyone paying attention, which clearly I wasn't, this ebook release date shouldn't have been a surprise. Tor announced it in a press release almost a year ago. Like me, most purchasers haven't been keeping track of things at such fine detail and today's hardback-only release came as an unwelcome shock, as you can see from the reviews from the first hours of the book's release.

iBook Lessons Are ebooks the paperbacks of the modern world

A majority of reviews, including both one-star and five-star items take a stance on the ebook status. The one-starrists say they are applying pressure on Tor to rethink their stance. Several five-star reviews attempt to counterweigh the negatives.

iBook Lessons Are ebooks the paperbacks of the modern world

Meanwhile, rumors are swirling as to why Tor made the decision it did: specifically, whether Jordan's widow and editor forced their hands, and if the NY Times bestseller ratings could be skewed by a simultaneous ebook release that would limit the prestigious hardcover fiction numbers in favor of less desirable ebook listings. TUAW contacted Tor for a statement on this policy but did not hear back before this post went live.

We're very much living in a different world than three years ago when the iBookstore debuted. We carry entire libraries around on our iPads and Kindles (or in my case, the Kindle app on my iPad, my preferred reading poison). To be guided (I'd rather not use the word "forced", as I am perfectly capable of waiting until April) to a hardback purchase is something that feels distinctly retro.

Back in 2009, publishers began delaying ebook releases, as they noted that ebook sales cannibalized hardcover sales. Even then an Amazon spokesperson was quoted by the NYT saying, "Authors get the most publicity at launch and need to strike while the iron is hot. If readers can't get their preferred format at that moment, they may buy a different book or just not buy a book at all."

Fast forward 3 years. This year, ebook sales surpassed hardcover sales for the first time, according to the Association of American Publishers. With a growing demand, lower distribution costs, and a shorter production schedule (no printing and shipping needed), you'd think that publishers would be moving towards simultaneous release if not, as my publisher Pearson does it, ebooks and then print.

As for striking while the iron is hot, I know that quite a few potential purchasers of a Memory of Light were surprised this morning, and then sad. Here's hoping that Tor pushes up the ebook release date to meet customer demand.

[Thanks to former TUAW editor Scott McNulty for the tip]