The invisible elephant in the room
Addendum: Be sure to read the comments from Tim O’Reilly and Electric BookLab—they cover additional factors I forgot to bring up myself or are outside my primarily print-based experience.
So once again Hachette and Amazon are in the spotlight as their Bleak House drama staggers on. Lots of side-choosing and rhetoric, with a side dish of “I’m weighing in because nobody’s raised this point I consider very important.” Count me in the latter camp.
I’m not fond of Amazon and avoid them when and as I can; I won’t cut off my nose to spite my face, but I’m willing to go to a little more trouble in taking my business elsewhere. I have no particular feeling about Hachette one way or the other, though their willingness to carry this whole affair to the ends of the earth certainly doesn’t help their image in my eyes.
But leave all that aside. The dirty little secret I haven’t seen anyone else raise—in fairness, possibly because it isn’t well-known outside publishing circles—is that a good part of a physical book’s cost is not in the printing and binding. Most people, I suspect, would be greatly and unpleasantly surprised by how much of a book’s cost (not its price, I should add) is fixed, regardless of final format.
Why? Because it’s the labor, not the ink and paper, that makes up that fixed cost. The writer, editor, proofreader, and typesetter—at least—put in the same number of hours on a book, regardless of whether it’s a hardback, a paperback, or an e-book. They still need to get paid, and they sure as hell are not going to accept less money just because people don’t value a digital product as much as they do a physical one. I certainly won’t put up with it.
There are differences, of course. The incremental cost of a digital copy is, practically speaking, near zero once a publisher’s electronic distribution is set up, and that is the basis of the argument that e-books should be cheaper. Moreover, the labor costs of the print house are gone along with the physical costs.
All well and good, but just because a book is easier to get doesn’t mean it will sell better. A publisher (even a self-publisher) still has to estimate how many copies he or she thinks people will buy, and base the cover price on that estimate. It isn’t going to be infinite, and frankly, I doubt sales even will be significantly greater—lots of people just don’t read all that much. Textbooks are grotesquely expensive because there’s no economy of scale: Only a small number of copies are needed for a very limited audience, so the costs of writing, proofreading, editing, and typesetting them have to be covered by relatively few buyers. On top of that, textbooks require more of all those costs than just about any other kind of book.
Maybe it’s true that e-book pricing currently is inflated, especially if it’s pegged to the price of a fancy hardback rather than the cheap paperback that is the e-book’s real ancestor. Maybe ten bucks US is a good floor when taking into account these fixed labor costs. Frankly, I don’t know—I know only what I charge as a designer and typesetter, and I’m not qualified to comment on the financial arrangements common in other parts of the production chain.
I just want people to be aware that the floor exists and that it won’t go away. Too many people apparently think digital arts (including software) appear as if by magic and thus should be free or nearly so. I’m here to tell them that, no, in fact these artifacts are created not by fairies but by people who are working for their livings and want to make those livings.