ebook apologetics

I’ll say out of the gate that anything I’m writing here has absolutely been written elsewhere, and probably with more eloquence. Also: I’m not in a unique position in that I’m certainly not the only person who left publishing for librarianship. Still:

This has come up a couple of times when I’ve delivered a guest lectures on publishing to library students; they want to know why ebooks are so expensive if no one needs to print, ship, or distribute them. And, sure, fair question. Note: they ask this as book buyers, not librarians (not touching that issue with a barge pole right now).

My explanations — the entire lecture, really — come from someone with 15 years’ experience in trade book publishing. I can and do opine about a lot of things related to publishing but I did book production for the bulk of those years and that’s where I can actually say I know stuff versus I merely think/believe/saw stuff. And so, why do I think ebooks should actually cost something more than pennies a glass? Two things: one is from stuff I know and the other is from stuff I believe.

Here’s what I know: all published books cost money right out of the gate. There’s the advance on royalty (not all of which is guaranteed to earn out), the cost for the substantive, line, and copy edits, interior design, interior typesetting, the proofread, the jacket or cover design, and the cost (though not always) for the image(s) on the jacket or cover. In my experience, this can run anywhere from $8,000–$12,000, depending on what is freelanced and what happens in house. (And if it’s in house it’s part of overhead.)

That money needs to be paid no matter how many books one prints. And that money, rightly, should be amortized over however many editions of that book are published, including ebooks. They all derive the benefit from it — why should the hardcover take the entire hit?

This is important to know, though: costs very similar to these need to be paid even if the book is only published as an ebook. Why? First: the book still needs all of those editing stages. And: still need a cover or jacket. Also: more time is taken than people think to produce ebooks. Or good ebooks, ebooks that don’t feel like someone spat out a Word document in XML. Someone decided on the navigation; someone set up that navigation; someone broke out the chapters; someone made any images look good on screen; and all of this is subject to some pretty serious QA before it heads out the (electronic) door to vendors.

That’s just the book itself. All books, irrespective of format, also need marketing and publicity. It’s either part of the publisher’s overhead or a person who expects to be paid but it has to happen. And there’s the cost for print and online ads, for touring the author, for booking space (and — budget willing — an open bar) for book launches.

That’s enough about what I know.

Here’s what I believe: authors deserve fair compensation for their work. The author should not bear the brunt of a “cheaper” format — it’s still their work. If an author is paid a 10% royalty on a $29.99 hardcover they get just under $3.00 per book. If an author is paid the same royalty on an ebook — the book whose upfront budget is probably now more like $15,000 with publicity factored in — and the book is sold for $9.99 or less, which appears to be what the market wants?

Pennies a glass, you might say.

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