Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
One of the biggest misunderstandings that plagues the publishing industry today is that ebooks are inherently cheaper, faster, and easier to produce than their print counterparts and, as a result, should cost the consumer significantly less money.
This popular assumption, aside from being off the mark, is dangerous for a couple of reasons: first, it decreases the perceived value of an ebook and encourages a lower acceptable threshold for cost, and second, it creates a disconnect in the relationships between publishers, authors, and readers. These beliefs also encourage a particularly sour stereotype that publishers are greedy, resistant to innovation and progress, and clueless about “real world” economics.
But why do these misconceptions exist, and what can be done about them?
The “print overhead” conundrum
There are many who believe that removing printing overhead should miraculously slice a significant portion of an ebook’s price right off the top. Take one particular commenter’s reaction to an article on ebook vs. hardcover costs, for instance:
1) A hard cover book – from the forest to the rertailer [sic]
– People at the forest cut down the tree.
– The tree is processed at the mill.
– The wood-mill then transports the paper to the paper-mill.
– The paper-mill then makes paper.
– The paper-mill then sends the paper to the printing house.
– The printing house then prints and binds the book.
– The book is then shippes/transports to the retailers.
– Retailers then add their markup and sell the book.
# people are hired to cut the trees down, equipment used to cut the trees down, fuel and trucks needed to transport wood / paper / books /…
– Editor approves final book
– Using software, converts into various formats for ebooks (.epub, .pdf …)
– Adds to online retailers who then sell
# there is no transport needed, no paper is made, no trees are killed, there is no shelf-space needed….
e-books should be 80% cheaper than hardcover books….
I don’t mean to put this comment here to “flame” anyone, but I think it’s a good example of how misunderstood the publishing industry is. Truthfully, I’m not sure why this commenter would feel that printing costs take tree logger employment numbers into account when setting book prices. (And by that logic, then, he should have added the software engineer costs to the ebook development ratio. Which would also be a false calculation, but at least it would be slightly more fair, no?)
Unfortunately, these beliefs exist. For real. And it’s a hurdle that publishers are going to have to overcome in the digital space.
But ebook conversion is easy!
In the age of social media, instant gratification, and all things digital, perhaps it seems logical that ebooks would be oh-so-easy and painless to produce. Particularly when users can easily export Wikipedia articles to ebooks, or send webpages to ereaders with one of several web-plugin solutions like GrabMyBooks, Send to Kindle, or dotEPUB (“a push-button cloud-based e-book maker”).
Easy, right? Given that these are all free solutions, you’re probably not going to complain much if the visual appearance is not quite up to par on your device. Don’t get me wrong; I think these solutions are a fantastic way to take your web reading with you on the go, but the fact that these push-button solutions do exist in some capacity can help populate the belief that ebooks take under fifteen minutes to produce, no questions asked.
Bad conversions can create big problems.
Another danger to the sorely misunderstood ebook: because people believe that ebook conversion is so simple, when an ebook file breaks down somewhere, it creates outrage and near-riots.
Unfortunately, we saw one such case happen with a highly publicized and highly anticipated book just recently—none other than J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. As this TeleRead article notes, this situation was a double whammy because not only was the ebook priced at $17.99—considerably higher than most ebooks up for sale—it also had formatting errors that made the Kindle version completely unreadable.
Although this error may do nothing more than add fuel to the fire that ebooks need to come down in price, I like to be optimistic and think of it as a testament to how finicky complex the eproduction process truly can be.
Truth: ebooks are not so easy.
If there is one thing my ePUB class has learned early on this semester at Emerson College, it is this: there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to making ebooks. One file can render quite differently from device to device due to varying vendor specs, and ebook designers have to spend significant time adapting their cascading style sheets and ePUB files to make sure that books display correctly on a ever-growing number of screens.
Furthermore, and let’s be honest here, when you buy an ebook, are you just looking for something that is minimally readable? Don’t you want images that render clearly, beautiful fixed-page layouts on your iPad, and well-linked navigation? I know I do. All of this takes time, resources, and skill—something that (sadly) cannot be achieved merely with the push of a button.
Yes, publishers do need to rethink their traditional workflow processes in order to make the conversion from print to digital more expedient and cost-effective. But for those who think that publishers are living in backwards land, believe it or not, these conversations are happening.
So how can publishers overcome these hurdles?
Aside from revamping traditional workflow to more digital-friendly outputs and continuing to develop more technical skill sets, I think the key to clarifying all of this is a lot of conversation and a heaping dose of transparency.
For example, Richard Curtis just wrote a great two–part installment at Digital Book World explaining how publishers arrive at ebook prices, which inspired great discussion in the comments. Publishers like Random House have produced great videos explaining exactly what it is publishers do. Transparency and honesty cannot be understated.
A few additional thoughts
I also think it’s important to keep things in perspective and remember that format is still the vehicle used to contain and deliver the content; we often become fixated on the cost of the package so often that we forget about the value and the quality of what is inside. (And I do not mean to undermine the hard work that goes into the design by any means.)
The truth is, I am not opposed to a good debate about lowering the price of an ebook. But if these arguments are based on the grounds that “it is easy to make a quality ebook,” then you’ve already lost me.