10/28/2011 05:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

Reverse Windowing: Publishers Experiment With EBook Releases Before Print

By Collin Kelley

When Vanilla Heart Publishing announced it was going to release my mystery/suspense novel, Remain In Light, as an eBook in October and wait until January to release the trade paperback, it made me pause.

VHP had published my debut, Conquering Venus, in print and eBook on the same day back in 2009. But that was sooooo two years ago. "Haven't you heard of reverse windowing?" VHP's managing editor, Kimberlee Williams, asked.

Sheepishly, I had not. Looking at my royalty statements for Conquering Venus, I realized that the large majority of my sales were eBooks. It suddenly made sense. And the rest of the publishing world -- large and small -- is also starting to catch on to the idea of reverse windowing -- or "digital first" in publishing jargon.

According to Publishers Weekly, eBook sales were up 152 percent in July and the imminent release of the new Kindle Fire and updated B&N Nook continues to show readers are increasingly interested in reading their books digitally.

Two years ago, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster vowed to save hardback books by waiting two to three months before releasing the eBook version of high-profile novels. Consumers, to say the least, were not happy. That valiant effort quickly fell by the wayside and those publishers are now releasing hardbacks and eBooks on the same day. Some of the Big 6 went a step further.

Random House made headlines last year when it released Deepak Chopra's fictional biography, Muhammad, in eBook format weeks before it hit print and made Rosie Allison's Orange Prize-nominated novel, The Very Thought of You, available as an eBook two months before the trade paperback was released. In October, Random House announced it was joining forces with Politico to create an eBook imprint for political texts, Politico Bookshelf, just in time for campaign season.

Knopf did a publishing blitz for Haruki Murakami's hotly anticipated 1Q84, releasing the hardcover, eBook and audio version all on Oct. 25. At a hefty 944 pages, the eBook edition sounds easier to manage and it's also half the price of the hardcover version.

Amazon, to the dismay of The Big 6, has also played a part in this latest revolution. Amazon has been cherry picking bestselling authors and adding them to the rosters of its own publishing imprints like Encore, Montlake Romance and Crossing. The eBooks come first, followed by the print. The authors are getting a big boost in sales and readers are getting the eBooks they want without having to wait.

Self-publishing and eBook evangelist JA Konrath, who also happens to be a bestselling mystery/thriller writer, recently signed on with Amazon imprint Thomas & Mercer, and his latest collaboration with Black Crouch, Stirred, will be released as an eBook on Nov. 22. The paperback won't appear until February. Konrath is thrilled.

"It takes time to format, print, and ship paper books, and it doesn't make any sense to wait to release the eBook until the paper version is ready," Konrath said. "Why punish eBook readers by making them wait? Also, why punish the author by making them wait? An eBbook published today can start making money today."

Konrath predicts a future where there are very few brick and mortar bookstores left to sell physical books, so the majority of paper books will be ordered print-on-demand. "I don't predict many midlist authors will have paper releases in the future -- there won't be enough bookstores left to justify it," Konrath said. "Paper will be special order, nonreturnable, and will come after the eBook version."

VHP made no bones about its move toward reverse windowing with my novel and its stable of mystery, romance and spiritual authors: the economy and changing habits. "With print sales plummeting during this economic downturn, it makes sense to gauge reader interest on the lower cost eBooks, which still produce income for both the company and our authors," Williams said.

Like many authors, I've learned to adapt to this new way of thinking. As a collector of books, I have treasured first and autographed editions all over my house, but I'm also a convert to eBooks. I've been reading them on my iPhone and I'm eagerly awaiting delivery of my first Kindle.

Collin Kelley is an award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist from Atlanta, Georgia. You can find out more about him and his work at and on Red Room, where you can buy his books.