How Fast is Electronic Reading Replacing Print? Ask Bob Woodward

Last Updated Nov 9, 2010 4:13 PM EST

It continues to be a big week for e-books as the Wall Street Journal reveals that John Grisham's latest book, The Confession, had a third of its first week's sales in digital format. But that didn't stop Penguin from announcing that it was essentially doubling down on printed books by hiring former Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal to build his own imprint.

The WSJ says Grisham sold 70,000 e-books during his first week and 160,000 print copies. Overall, Grisham's first week sales were marginally higher -- at 230,000 -- than the first week sales of his previous book -- 223,000 copies -- released just this January. So that's good.

But the loss of 70,000 higher revenue -- for both author and publisher -- units wasn't compensated for by the additional 7,000 sales. Grisham's protected by whatever contract he's still publishing under, but Random House is feeling some pain from this transition.

The author tried to put a positive spin on the news suggesting that he was reaching new readers with his e-book sales. But these numbers suggest the opposite: the kind of reader who rushes out to buy a new book by a well-known writer is an old friend buying a familiar product.

E-books are converting heavy readers into heavy e-readers at a surprising clip. It's small wonder that they're buying big-name authors to read on their Kindles. What isn't at all clear, though, is how long it will take to convert the occasional reader -- if that's even possible.

Publishers continue to hire people who specialize in digital marketing even though there's been no solid evidence that books can get sales traction through social media or other digital marketing. On the editorial side, publishers seem to be moving further into the territory of poaching market share from each other.

Announcing David Rosenthal's arrival at Penguin this January, Susan Peterson Kennedy made her ambitions for the hire fairly plain when she told the New York Times that Rosenthal "has a lot of people he's been working with for many, many years. And perhaps at some point, some of them will join him."

Relishing the idea, Rosenthal added that he was looking forward to making "lots of trouble." But for whom? Each book one publisher bids away from another only increases the aggregate cost of publishing at a time when revenues are shrinking due to deflation. Hardcover books bring in $14 in revenue but bestselling e-books only generate $7.

Meanwhile, the rest of the print world is getting giddy with excitement over electronic publishing. The Washington Post betrays its demographics when it put together this video touting the paper's new iPad app:


Who knew Bob Woodward was a better actor than Ben Bradlee?