Meghan's post last week about the Barnes & Noble color Nook drew some great discussion. I think everyone in the publishing industry has been someone holding their breaths to see just how this whole digital publishing thing shakes out. Well, not holding our breaths, exactly. We're all doing things, hiring more people, creating new divisions, but we're all kind of stumbling around in the dark a bit. Some of us are excited about all of the changes going on, and some of us are worried if we'll all survive. And some of us are both (me).
In terms of the question "Why do eBooks cost so much," I thought I'd link to this publisher's perspective. In it, the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers states that there are three new costs associated with eBooks: digital preparation, quality assurance, and digital distribution. He also states that:
physical manufacturing and distribution expenses cost less than you think. Some people assume that these two items represent the bulk of a book’s costs. They don’t. Together, they account for about 12% of a physical book’s retail price. So eliminating these costs doesn’t do much to reduce the overall cost structure.As I mentioned in the comments, another new cost associated with eBooks is fighting piracy--Hachette Book Group has partnered with a company that monitors the internet and send take down notices when necessary. Incidentally, if you ever see an illegal download available for one of our books, you can report it here, and someone will look into it.
I'm not crazy about eBooks myself. I have yet to actually read a published book on my Sony Reader, although I do LOVE LOVE LOVE my Sony Reader for reading manuscript submissions, and am so happy I don't have to lug heavy manuscripts around with me wherever I go. But for published books, I still prefer paper books, and I probably always will. I especially love paper picture books. Although I will say, the color Nook and the iPad are more appealing to me for published books than the Kindle or Sony Reader, because the design of the book stays more true to the paper book, and that's important to me. And some of the picture book apps I've seen on the iPad are pretty darn cool. But I see eBooks as another format of the book, just like a paperback, hardcover, or audio edition. It's another opportunity to reach consumers.
The change isn't really being initiated from the publishers or authors. Just as with the music industry, the change did not come from the record labels or musical artists. It came first from the technology sector. A product was created that consumers embraced. And I suspect that's what's happening with the publishing industry. Some feel that there will be a demand for electronic readers. They never really stuck before, but it's starting to stick now--although to what extent remains a mystery. Will eBooks replace paper books completely in the future? Or will they plateau and coexist with the other formats? Either way, we have to work to adapt, and we're all finding our way. I think a case in point is this article about a e-Books rights panel in September. Publishers and agents argued about the royalty rate and the costs of making eBooks:
Inevitably, though, the conversation looped back to that digital royalty issue. Moderator Jim Milliot’s question about what the costs for publishers actually are in creating digital books not only led to Aiken’s aforementioned math but, again, to a back-and-forth between the panelists. While DeYoung said profitability needs to be measured across all publishing formats and that a publisher’s costs can’t be measured “in a vacuum,” Aiken pressed the notion that the current digital royalty rates cannot stand.
I don't know the right answer to Meghan's question of how authors and illustrators will get paid fairly. Right now, I do feel that publishers are incurring all of these new costs, and who knows what will work and what won't. But eventually the market will settle into a model that works for both the publishers and the authors and illustrators. Well, that's the hope. Because all of the players involved--the publishers, the authors, the illustrators, the agents--want to make sure that we all stay in business and stay profitable, and that all parties can earn a living,
Just this morning I read this fascinating interview of Cambridge University professor John Thompson, who wrote the book Merchants of Culture on the book publishing industry, spending five years researching the industry in the US and UK. He claims that the changes the publishing industry are going through right now are not mainly due to the rise of eBooks:
It’s at a bit of a critical juncture but it’s not necessarily because of the rise of electronic books. It’s the outcome of two interwoven processes—one that is social and economic and one that is technological, each of which has its own history. On the social-economic side is a process that began in the 1960s and led to a gradual transformation in the field of trade publishing. This process was shaped by three factors: One was the growth of the retail chains and the revolution of retailing, the second was the rise of the literary agent, and the third was the consolidation of publishing houses under the umbrella of large corporations. And those three processes led to a social and economic transformation in the field of trade publishing that’s effects are felt today.
He also mentioned the rise of the agent as a factor in forcing the consolidation of the publishing houses, forcing smaller houses like FSG to Knopf to be swallowed up by the big corporations:
But once the agents became significant players they demanded high advances at a time when retail chains were growing and houses like Simon & Schuster and Random House were coming under the umbrella of large corporations and were able to afford the large advances. Farrar Straus and other publishing houses could therefore no longer play the game—they couldn’t keep their authors and they were out-maneuvered by the larger houses. So they had to decide to sell to corporate owners and it was no longer possible for those once-independent publishing houses to remain independent. So the field became polarized where you have a small number of large, corporate groups that now own the former independents because they have deep pockets and then small presses.
It was a quite enlightening interview to read--I think I may have to read his book! And I was happy that he ended the interview on a hopeful note. I do love the hopeful endings, could be why I'm editing books for kids and teens.
I think it’s important not to take an apocalyptic view of the future of the book and the future of publishing. You have to counter that with the fact that books really matter to people. There are many people who just love books and they love the ideas that are expressed in books; they love the stories that are told through books and all of it. They’re very attached to it. You only have to go to a book festival, of which there are more and more these days, like the Brooklyn Book Festival, and see the hundreds and thousands of people who flock to these book festivals—more than ever before—pack the audiences, pack the halls, to hear their favorite authors, or even an author they don’t really know very well but want to get to know, and listen to them talk, hear them read from their books, buy their books, get them signed by the author. They cherish the book. And they believe that this is an artifact that they want in their lives. And some of the technological commentators in this industry just completely miss this point. They fail to see that books have this cultural value in the lives of ordinary people which is very deep and very profound and which is not likely to go away very quickly.
Cherish the book!