Respected literary agent Nat Sobel has an email up this morning arguing that publishers should wait to release ebooks until at least 6 months after a hardback's release. "Notingwith alarm that movie exhibitors had recently pulled a film after learning that an early release of the DVD had been scheduled, Sobel drew the analogy with booksellers whose hardcover sales are cannibalized by early release of e-book editions."
Sobel is correct that ebooks are the mass-market paperbacks of today. For example, my mother used to buy tons of paperbacks. Nows she simply downloads titles to her Kindle.
However, Sobel is wrong to draw a connection between publishing and the movie industry. I mean, that's like saying book sales are hurt when a movie based on the book is released. The reverse is actually true. And what about the example Sobel gives to support his view:
His reasoning is by no means theoretical. He recently demonstrated its correctness by asking Tor Books to hold back the e-edition of a series by the late bestselling fantasy author Robert Jordan. "Now," he writes, "four weeks after its release in hardcover, The Gathering Storm has sold 24% more copies than the previous volume, even though the work was completed by another writer."
I suspect the reason why The Gathering Storm has sold so many more copies is due not to the lack of an ebook release, but to a very important marketing detail: Jordan died. This brought massive attention to the series and the other author completing the books. A similar effect is seen with Michael Jackson being one of the top-selling musicians of the last year. Did Michael Jackson's CDs start selling like crazy because there were no iTunes versions of his songs (which is obviously not true, but would have to be the case if Sobel's example was valid)? No. His music began selling like crazy across all platforms because he died, which has a massive marketing effect on one's fans. Just ask Elvis or Tupac Shakur.
I suspect ebook sales help overall book sales because more people are willing to make an impulse purchase of an ebook (like my mother does, for example). If someone wants a hardback, they'll buy it. But at nearly $30 for most hardbacks these days, they are not going to be purchased by impulse buyers. Ebooks will be. So don't imagine that waiting 6 months to release the ebook helps sales. In fact, since a book's marketing will be well passed by that point, meaning impulse buyers will miss out or be angry they can't purchase the title, I suspect the opposite is true.