Thursday, February 28, 2008

The true cost of ebooks

There is an interesting conversation going on in The Guardian about the Hollywood Writer's Strike and how authors should follow suit. Go read it. Lots of smart things being said, a few dumb things being said (and I'll leave you to work out for yourself which is which!), but not enough representation at the moment from the publishing community.

Whenever one of these Publishers Are Evil articles comes out, or I see it on an author blog (usually on wannabe writers blogs rather than their published colleagues!) I have one of two reactions. One is exasperation, the other is considerably less polite.

Yes, publishing is a business. Yes, we want to make money. Yes, we are gatekeepers out to ruin YOUR life, personally. One of these things is not true, the other two are the same point...

Anyway, want to know the real cost for a publisher of creating an ebook? I've replied in the comments but - while for obvious reasons I can't give you numbers - here is my thinking:

As someone who is project managing a digital content backlist project for a
‘household name’ publisher I’d LOVE to beg, borrow or steal that '20 mins'
system that is being used by my learned colleague in the small press.

In my experience creating a decent digital version of one of our pbooks is a lot more labour intensive than that – everything form updating the imprint pages, removing blank pages (to ensure that the reading flow is as comfortable as possible) and the quality assurance at the far end. Assuming, for one moment, that someone else manages the schedules and the conversion and loads the thing in to systems for accounting and distribution and that the ONIX files are automatically created and distributed etc etc etc…

The time spent decreases the more you do in one hit (this is a workflow that scales
comparatively well), and better yet when you work on dual production, but there
are costs in human resource terms – in addition to the dosh required by conversion houses – in creating an ebook!

If there's a justification for a 15-20% royalty on digital downloads, I want to hear it!

Right now? It’s that we all need to invest in infrastructure to cope with this new market. Digital asset management – the backbone of these sorts of workflows – is massively expensive. Think lots and lots of 0’s. And unfortunately we all need to pony up for systems that can cope with ebooks the moment we walk in to the market – it’s a mandatory investment and that cost has to be covered.

Also keep in mind that the CURRENT ebook market doesn’t break even for most authors looking purely at conversion costs.

This all changes when the VOLUME of sales is there. Right now in my market? Sell 3 copies of a single ebook in a single day and you have a #1 bestseller. That is changing, but it’s not changing as quickly as I personally would like.

BTW, I DO love ebooks. And one day I think there will be cause for authors to negotiate royalty rates, but right now the market is so small it's an acedemic argument. Mind you, as a member of the Big Bad Publishing Conspiracy I want all of my lovely authors to starve to death. Make of that what you will ;)

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