Saturday, September 22, 2012

Does It Really Cost Nothing to Produce an e-Book?

The Rationale behind Five Directions Press


This is not a new question, but it resurfaced for me with a recent post I saw on Goodreads. Someone was objecting to paying $20 for an e-book because, to paraphrase, e-books cost nothing to produce.


Well, I too object to paying $20 for an e-book. In fact, I object to paying $20-25 for any book, even a hardcover or a nonfiction book. In the days before e-readers, I routinely borrowed hardbacks from the local public library or waited a year for the paperback release rather than shell out full price. For an e-book, which requires no paper and no physical storage, existing solely as a tiny bunch of electronic data on huge servers that would be running anyway to meet the world’s computing needs, $20 indeed seems excessive.


But does it follow that because electronic books cost negligible sums to store and to read and nothing to print, there are therefore no costs associated with e-publication? That e-books should be free or $0.99 or some other negligible sum? That proposition is much more difficult to sustain.


In their defense of high prices, traditional publishers note that they maintain staffs of editors, cover and book designers, compositors, art directors, marketers, and more. They pay rent and upkeep on buildings, furniture, and equipment. They pay taxes. They run advertising campaigns to promote their titles. They hire freelance copy editors and proofreaders to ensure that the books they produce correspond to house style and go to press as free of spelling, typographical, and other errors as is humanly possible. These people are meticulous and often extremely talented. Their expertise is the reason that print books produced by traditional publishers look professional—and their absence explains why self-published books often, regrettably, don’t. But they cost money. Lots of money, even if you don’t pay them full salaries and benefits but just hire one as you need him or her for a specific job. Those costs are reflected in the e-book price, just as they are reflected in the print price. There are additional expenses for printing and storing and distributing physical books, but they are much smaller than you might think.


Of course, self-pubbed authors and small presses don’t bear all those costs.  Their offices exist within their homes; they write their books on their own computers using software they purchased for other purposes or dedicated novel-writing programs that sell for $30–$60. Unless they hit it big, their royalties are folded into their taxes. ISBNs cost little or nothing; CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, PubIt, Apple, and Smashwords do not charge for uploading or storing finished files. They do take a portion of the sales, but compared to the amount retained by traditional publishers and literary agencies, these fees are low—especially for e-books, where the author can easily pocket 60–70%. In that sense, you could argue that a self-pubbed e-book costs nothing to produce, and a print book costs $5-10, depending on length, trim size, color vs. black and white, and certain other factors. (These prices refer to print-on-demand publishing; the math for traditional publishing differs.) If the author is willing to discount the time s/he spent in writing the book, formatting the file, and plugging the e-book to everyone s/he knows, then a person could claim that a self-pubbed e-book should sell for author royalty plus whatever the platform charges, and a self-pubbed print version should sell for that sum plus the actual production costs (the $5-10). 


But that argument also assumes that the author can manage all the different tasks required to produce a result professional enough to attract a reader accustomed to the beauty and elegance of traditionally published books. As soon as the author falls down on one of the tasks—editor, book designer, art director, cover designer, publicist, advertising specialist—and has to hire help, the math breaks down. A good copy editor charges $3-$10 for a 250-word page, which works out to $1,200-$4,000 for a typical 100,000-word novel. Graphic designers, publicists, and techies who can figure out the intricacies of HTML, MOBI, and ePub have their own pricing schedules. To get a sense of the high end of potential costs for self-publishing, see this article from Poets and Writers Magazine. Either the author recoups those costs through the purchase price, or the author absorbs them: there is no other choice.


So what is an author bent on self-publishing to do? 


What my writers’ group decided to do was to establish Five Directions Press. We bill ourselves as a writers’ cooperative, because no money changes hands. Instead, we pool resources. One of us has experience editing and typesetting (and has been funneling a portion of her paycheck into Adobe software since Adobe came out with PageMaker 6.0). Another is a graphic designer; a third worked with art museums and supervised card design for an international agency; a fourth had a career in advertising before she began writing fiction. We’re hoping to add another editor over the next year.


Because we don’t charge one another for our services, we can’t operate according to an open-business model and accept outside clients. That’s why our website lists us as closed to submissions. But we do charge for our books, including our e-books. Not $20, but not $0.99 either. Because the amount of time that goes into editing, designing, typesetting, proofing, creating appropriate covers and ads, maintaining and updating the website, and developing promotional campaigns runs into hundreds of hours per title that we could devote to writing—and that doesn’t even count the years of effort that went into creating and critiquing and revising each book before it ever reached that stage. The payoff, we hope, will be high-quality books that people will want to buy.


That solution won’t work for everyone. We were lucky in that we happened to have a unique blend of skills associated with publishing. Even so, it’s an idea worth considering. As the recent launching of the WANA Commons group on Flickr shows, creative people often have artistic skills in more than one area, and if you ask around, you may find other writers willing to barter graphic design for advertising or proofreading for a good character critique. Which brings me back to my original question.


Do e-books really cost nothing to produce? No. Behind the scenes, vast amounts of effort go into publishing even the simplest e-book. Into any book, by any author who devotes months, if not years, to developing a story and studying the craft and making the effort to imagine multidimensional characters that s/he can shove into conflict-ridden settings and force to grow. Worlds take time to create, much longer to nurture. And as my first boss once told me, “time is also money.”


Come to think of it, maybe $20 isn’t so out of line after all. 


(Joke: Five Directions Press will not be charging $20 for its print or its e-book editions anytime soon.)

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