The true price of publishing

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.

11 commentaires:

Jason said...

I feel that an eBook *should* be cheaper. By most of what the publisher is saving by not printing me a copy. I don't expect to get all of that savings transferred to me, but I'd like the bulk of it.

That's only going to be a couple of dollars, but for those of us who tend to buy a lot of books, it can add up.

Skip said...

Of course, there are different ways to figure out what the text is worth to me. Consider, say, A Dance with Dragons. Huge book, about $19 on amazon right now, I think my preorder was a hair less than that, and it was $19.99 at costco today. I buy the book on day one, read it, and then walk down to half price books and sell it - it's a NY Times bestseller, selling like hotcakes, and lists MSRP at $35. So they're going to sell it for $17.50, and they'll probably give me about $10 for a hot seller like this. So the ability to read the words once (which for most books is all they'll ever be read) is about $10 right now. Therefore, the ebook, at $15, is overpriced by a factor of 50% unless it's a book you plan on rereading.

Now, in about fourteen months you'll be able to pick up remaindered hardbacks for about $8, and the paperback for probably $9. At that point you'll probably be able to sell each used for about a dollar or two. So the value of the words at that point has gone down.

Ash said...

$15 for the Dance with Dragons ebook? I only paid $9.99 for it (which with Skip's logic is pretty much the right price). I was going to wait for the paperback until I saw it at that price.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like alot of... unnecessary work, Skip.

ClothDragon said...

My big issue is that paper books can go on a shelf. They will last forever. Ebooks will change format as technology advances. Electronically, you are renting more than buying. That's why I prefer to pay less in that format. My paper book will either last forever or get resold. My electronic book will almost certainly last 5 years. Beyond that? The ebook reader I bought when my 4 year old was newborn -- I tossed in that trash last year because it was out of date so much it wasn't really functional any more.

Unknown said...

He's providing a half truth (based on the excerpt). A great deal of publishers are doing a lot less than they used to do and charging the same price. There are plenty of cases where big time publishers are on record telling new authors to hire editors on their own, and many publishers do very little in terms of editing and so on. Marketing still costs a ton, though.

That's not to say *all* publishers are like this. Most still fulfill the "higher fixed cost" that he's talking about, but to pretend that every publisher is somehow putting the same value in terms of editing into the product that they used to is disingenuous.

Daniel said...

eBooks should be considerably cheaper, and I speak solely from an environmentalistic POV. To produce a paper book you have to use wood to make the material, ink and other chemicals for the printing and lots and lots of gas and manpower to distribute the finished product to all the corners of the world. Compare that to what it takes to produce an eBook: power to keep the computer going while it converts the text from a word format to .mobi?
I'm no fervent environmentalist but the reduced damage producing eBooks does to the environment is one of the main reason why I only buy digital books nowadays. That and because buying digital from the internet means I have a wider range of books to choose from.

Anonymous said...

In essence this is the same argument that the music industry used forever. That the successful books support the unsuccessful books and that maintaining these prices allow for the support and discovery of new and not-yet a listers.
Websites like this and other ones that review straight-to-e book authors will eventually lower the prices, as authors find alternative ways to find success.

Anonymous said...

In reality, Kindles, Nooks, etc are not really THAT environmentally friendly. In no time at all the techonology is obsolete, ends up in the waste and creates an environmental issue. I'd rather recycle paper, buy books on recycled paper or used over purchasing an Ereader that will need to be replaced in a few years.

Baptiste said...

I only marignally buy the argument of costs. If it was really all this was about, publisher wouldn't shriek so much at the idea of an e-book + real book bundle that would only cost one or two dollar more than just one version.

The situation is very similar to the music industry faced with mp3, with much of the same issue.
Up to now editors have followed the same kind of logic which will generate the same kind of problems.

Trying to make an outdated economical model survive as it is seldom is the solution.

Baptiste said...

According to this article, publishers are far from being honest in their dealing with e-book pricing. I certainly hope they pay the high price for this :