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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

One big misunderstanding?: The problem with misconceptions and epublishing

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 /…

2) E-book
– 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 twopart 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.

14 comments on “One big misunderstanding?: The problem with misconceptions and epublishing

  1. Saul Hudson
    October 10, 2012

    I think you might be missing something here. The process of getting the book into an ebook format is a one off. Only ONE copy needs to be made and uploaded, not thousands or millions so the real cost of producing an ebook is minimal compared to that of producing a physical hardback version. It’s file size is also quite minimal so bandwidth costs are not high. I personally have no objection to paying full price for a hardback but I object strongly to paying the same money for an electronic version. It stings even more because we all know the author is not receiving the lions share of that money.

    • Anonymous
      October 10, 2012

      It’s not about how you distribute the file, it’s how the content is built. It can take years to develop and produce good content, all time and money invested in the CONTENT ever before it is determined which mode of distribution is used. Whether you typeset that content into a file which is destined for print, or you convert it into a ebook format (or both), there is a huge cost sunk in developing the content. Besides, as the article points out, formatting content for digital is not easy and not a one-off. If the publisher really wants the ebook to work on all devices, the current recommendation of e-reader developers is to make a UNIQUE FILE FOR EACH DEVICE. That’s one for Amazon, one for Google, one for B&N, one for Kobo, one for Sony…….Or, you can hang your hopes on media queries to re-render your CSS on different devices….This is not easy, and for anything other than straight block text, lots of care, time, effort (aka money) goes into creating a properly functioning ebook. And see above about how much time and money went into developing the content.

  2. David Stockman
    October 10, 2012

    Saul, you’re missing the point. The actual cost of printing a book has fallen dramatically over the last decade but book prices are still rising.
    The printing costs are only a small portion of the cover price and most of the costs of producing a book are incurred by things like editing, proofreading, layout, design, promotion and cover design.
    These costs don’t just go away when a book is published in digital format. In fact most books are still designed initially for print and then the print ready files are passed over to the ebook production department who have to unpick all the page layout and print specific features before they even start work on getting the book into ebook format. This is highly specialised work and can be very time consuming and hence very expensive.
    Another reason ebook prices are higher in th UK is because our greedy government put 20% VAT on ebooks but none on printed books.

    • John F. Harnish
      October 10, 2012

      I’ve been involved in some aspect of publishing for more than half a century. I can remember the sales promise when labor intensive letterpresses were replaced with more cost-effective offset presses that the retail price of books would come down. Of course that didn’t happen!!!

      There’s still hope that in this digital age of publishing digitally printed on paper books will drop in price simply because they are more economical to produce and print—especially when digitally prepared forms are used as the make-ready for web-fed offset presses and digital printers are producing more impressions per minute. But of course the price decrease hasn’t yet happened.

      Wise authors are releasing an ebook edition first to test consumer reactions. When the ebook achieves a respectable number of sales then it’s time to consider the financial investment to produce a printed on paper version. Born-digital just makes more sense than saddling the ebook with all the additional costs to prematurely produce a pbook in an ill-fated effort to do a simultaneous launch. Look at the “previously published” ebooks that have been acquired by mainstream houses after they’ve sold in significant numbers to ebook consumers at affordable prices.

      Think of the ebook as the dime novel that came into being during the first “Great Depression.” Most consumers in the 1930s couldn’t afford to buy a hardcover book, but they could spare a dime for a paperback novel. In the sluggish ecomony of 2012 the price of the ebook matters more to the consumer than a premately launched pbook—this is especially true with ebook sales surpassing pbooks.

      Enjoy often… John

      • Amilcar
        January 9, 2013

        Ebooks for Fireworks are very rare, so there is defadiadnitely a maradket (I also have been thinkading of makading one or two) . As an oldadtimer FW user, I peradsonadally dont have need for furadther trainading but I would buy ebook just to supadport the author’s efroft. As for the conadtent, I would recadomadmend to go with the least covadered subadjects — Web Design. There are plenty of assets and artiadcles of proadtoadtypading and develadopadment, but the actual beef is still there. Ebook about how to make developer-​friendly web-​layout (with FW speadcific workadflow) could be a hit among old and new FW users (and open-​minded PS/​AI-​users).

    • Saul Hudson
      October 10, 2012

      Well I’m not sure what it’s like for you guys but over here in the UK where my brother runs a small publishing company I can tell you from my own experience it costs very little to produce an ebook. The file format thing is really a non starter. It’s easy to publish straight from something like Open Office to epub using the free Epub Generator extension. From there it’s simply a matter of converting tp .mobi etc using another free tool, Calibre. It’s also very easy to get the books listed with Amazon so really the electronic way of producing a book is not very problematic or time consuming at all.

      If your not already writing for ebook format first then really you have missed the train. As Jon mentioned, you should be testing the waters first with a less costly to produce ebook before you go anywhere near publishing in paper/hardback format.

      I fully appreciate that you may put a high value on the “content” of the book but really how can that be justified until you have started to make a name for yourself? Start small and work up I think is the best way forward.

      Established authors can indeed command a higher price for the electronic version of their books but that’s because we, as consumers, already know and appreciate the value of that content. Even so, I still think there is vastly more profit being made on the electronic version than on the print version.

      Either way, I’m not here to offend anyone. I look at it from my own knowledge and experience in both publishing and the web server business. It costs very little in terms of bandwidth to distribute an ebook and given the vast resources of companies like Amazon I should think their margins are even better.

    • Mathys
      January 12, 2013

      Hi Dicey, thanks for jniniog our discussion. But I’m not quite sure what you mean do you mean that print books with CreateSpace will cost more than ebooks, or more than some other option?

  3. John F. Harnish
    October 10, 2012

    The pleading for higher priced ebooks can be rightfully attributed to one word: Overhead!!!

    The push by the “big six” publishers to inflate the price of ebooks above the consumer-friendly threshold of $9.99 is to cover administrative costs and to pay a return on the investment of shareholders. I’d wager the bulk of the ebook revenue goes to pay the salaries of people who have nothing to do with the production and distribution of their overpriced ebook. The massive infrastructure maintained by the giant publishers is nothing more than deadweight that increases the ebook price to the consumer.

    I’m an ebook author. I know when I create and produce an ebook what my out-of-pocket costs are for cover design, copyediting, and formatting for nonfiction—the free, direct publishing conversion programs do right well with novels. Much ado is made about formatting, but in truth many of the subtle design nuances matter not to the consumer because the ebook price matters more. The most essential requirement for ebook formatting is that it’s readable—and all the words are there!!!

    If I price my ebook at $3.00 and earn approximately a 70% royalty I know how many downloads need to sell to surpass the breakeven point when income covers production costs. Achieving the breakeven point doesn’t mean I’ve made a profit, far from it. As the author, I’ve invested many long hours in research, writing and rewriting the content. Therefore I need to sell more ebooks to be compensated for the investment of my time to create the content. When production expenses and content creation compensation have been realized from ebooks sold, then, and only then have I earned a profit from my ebook. My operating expenses are minimal, and I’m not burdened with paying six figure salaries to a CEO and CFO.

    Enjoy often… John

  4. Erica Hartnett
    October 10, 2012

    Thank you all for your thoughtful responses!

    Saul, no offense taken here; I think it’s great to have a variety of opinions, especially because this is a situation that doesn’t have an easy answer right now. You and John both raise interesting points about content valuation. I don’t necessarily mean to argue for equally priced ebooks and hardcovers, but rather to show that the pricing issue is far more complex than saying ebooks should cost less because they’re cheap and easy to produce. I don’t think that’s always the case, as a couple of the other commenters mentioned. It depends on the type of content we’re talking about, too. (And there we go with content value again.) This definitely is not the case for every ebook across the board, but I think far too often there is a natural tendency to jump to the conclusion that digital is cheap; just because something is in digital form does not mean it wasn’t expensive or labor-intensive to create.

    • Saul Hudson
      October 10, 2012

      Hi Erica

      Yes I think it all really does come down to “content” or rather the value of it. Now I am not one of those people who think ebooks, any ebook, should cost just a couple of dollars simply because the overheads are low to produce it but what I am saying is, there should be some differential in price between a hardback copy and a digital copy. It’s a little like how I can buy a hardback copy of a book Off Amazon that will often be 25% cheaper than the same book bought from the local book store. Amazon has no stores to keep running, no store staff to pay, no associated costs in terms of taxes and staff wages. They run from large warehouses in a few strategic locations and mostly use the mail service or specialist couriers to get your book to you, often next day. So, bottom line is, they deal in volume, keep their overheads low and pass on the savings to the customer. An ebook likewise “should” be low cost to produce and distribute and that needs to be taken into account in the sale price. Here’s an example of what I am talking about. I am a big fan of cookbooks and my latest acquisition is Nigellissima by Nigella Lawson. Here in the UK the hardback version if bought in a book store is between £15-£20. I can buy the same book from Amazon in Hardback for £12.00 including delivery or, here’s the important bit, in Kindle format for only £8.00. Now that sort of price differential seems about right to me and let’s not forget, we are talking about a well established author, here in the UK anyway. Any thoughts?

      • Erica Hartnett
        October 11, 2012

        Saul, I do agree with you — I like having the hierarchy in price as well. It does get tricky when places like Amazon “underprice,” but I do tend to value a physical format with a higher price point. (And how is the Lawson cookbook, by the way? I am starting to purchase more and more cookbooks in digital form.)

    • John F. Harnish
      October 10, 2012

      Hello Erica… Content is omnipotent!!!! I agree with you completely that different content requires appropriate pricing.

      My nonfiction “Ebooks about Ebooks” series is priced higher because of the proprietary material and research involved—in addition to the time writing and rewriting. These ebooks are priced at $3.00 or more because they’re worth it and I want to earn the 70% royalties—I’m not interested in fame, but a modest fortune would be appreciated.

      Ironically the one ebook in this series that’s priced at $1.00 is titled “Ebook Formatting Guidelines.” My motivation for writing and epublishing on this topic was to help authors understand simple formatting procedures they can do with their word processing program that will enhance the appearance of their ebook. Following the guidelines will also assure a smooth conversion when using Amazon’s and B&N’s direct publishing programs. With all things considered, these two giants dominate the ebook marketplace and the lesser ebook vendors just aren’t worth the hassle.

      My six part “The Professor and the Erotic Coed” series is priced at a buck an ebook, or all six parts can be purchased as “The Professor and the Erotic Coed Saga” for an enticing $4.69. My pricing aligns with similar ebooks offering an entertaining and stimulating read. Yes, my pricing is less than “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Bared to You” simply because I don’t have the overhead they’ve both incurred.

      Publishers have a rather rigid pricing formula bean-counters utilize to determine the selling price of a pbook. Unfortunately their contrived pricing formulas result in an overpriced ebook. As previously mentioned they have a horrific overhead.

      Too many authors publishing their own ebooks don’t have a clue about how to effectively price their work. Frequently their work is either underpriced or grossly overpriced, and most authors don’t have a clue about how many ebooks need to sell to cover those out-of-pocket production costs and their investment of time to create the content. The first-book author sees a novel by a famous author person priced at $14.99 and the newbee author figures their novel that they invested years to write must surely be worth $12.99. Then the author is totally crushed when only a few copies sell.

      Every author worth their salt has slowly built a fan base of readers hungry for their next new offering. The content in the current title is usually intended to hook folks into wanting to read the next novel that’s a work-in-progress.

      With nonfiction it’s usually a once and done sale—unless you’ve authored work on related topics. Thusly the higher price for nonfiction—which can be increased when content is added or updated. Every few months I’m updating my “Ebooks about Ebooks” series—doing this wouldn’t be cost-effective with a pbook.

      The content of a novel can evolve from a short story, to a novella, and eventually to a full blown novel—if the ending receives an adverse reaction from readers, well now do a rewrite and with the swapping of files the new and improved edition is available for sale a few hours later.

      It’s the control over the content of ebooks that empowers the publishing author, and it’s the loss of control over the content and the shrinking marketplace that’s causing problems for the “big six” publishers. Inflating the price of ebooks isn’t going to solve their problem. The Genie is out of the bottle!!!

      Enjoy often… John

      • Erica Hartnett
        October 11, 2012

        Thanks for these comments, John. There are so many options available to writers now, and figuring out the right price point and marketing strategy is definitely a huge part of the battle. I (along with everyone else I’m sure 🙂 ) would love to see more data become available to publishers and authors.

  5. Neale Sourna
    October 10, 2012

    How about the simple basis, too, that the author, who has taken so much time, psychological and emotional energy, research, grammar study, choosing the correct words and phrases to shape an emotional and intellectual moment, and so much more that would make your head spin, needs to get paid.

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