Ebooks have reignited the question of what we're really paying publishers for – the physical product, or what's written inside? That's the question William Skidelsky explores in a recent article for the Guardian Book Blog. Here's a teaser:
For example, it turns out that "publishers only spend $3.50 to print and distribute a hardback". (Let's say it's £3 in Britain.) So when, this autumn, you go into your local bookshop and spend £30 on that gorgeous copy of Claire Tomalin's long-awaited Dickens biography, you really are just putting a large amount of profit into the hands of her publisher, with some knocked off for the retailer. Right?
Well, yes and no. If you think of books primarily as physical objects, then off course they'll seem a rip-off, because printing and distributing them is cheap. But as Levine points out, what you're really paying for when you buy a book is something different. You are buying the "text itself". And why is that so expensive? Because the publisher will, in many cases, have paid the author a considerable sum for the right to sell it. And because that same publisher will also (if they're any good) have ploughed considerable further resources into editing and marketing it.
In other words, publishing is a business that incurs high fixed costs. And it's this, to return to my initial question, that accounts for the high price of (indeed the very existence of) hardbacks. The publisher needs to maximise revenues in order to defray its outlay. Some people are prepared to pay top dollar to have the premium product – a hardcover copy that comes out, crucially, months before other versions. So it makes sense for the publisher to offer it to them.
Questions of this sort have become especially pertinent recently, of course, with the arrival of an entirely new publishing format: the ebook. Most people instinctively feel that ebooks should be substantially cheaper than paper books, because an ebook is not physically "made": there are no printing costs. But if, says Levine, the real value of a book resides in the "text itself", then the delivery method shouldn't much matter. The fixed costs – acquiring, editing, marketing – remain unchanged.
Follow this link to read the full piece.