I wrote earlier this week about an ebook I purchased which was riddled with extremely obvious copy errors. The article sparked an interesting discussion about the true cost of editing, what steps are involved—and how much it would cost to make those steps happen. There is a piece of this whole puzzle that is still really puzzling to me, as you’ll see below. But I wanted to clarify a few matters in hopes that we can arrive at a more productive dialogue here.
First of all, when people say that ebooks should be cheaper, they don’t mean so in an unfair way. I would not expect an ebook version of a current hardcover release to be $2, for instance. I would (and have) paid a premium for a new release I badly wanted. But I would not expect to pay that same premium for an ebook of a decades-old mass market paperback, either. I would expect that since the paper version is now so much less, I could get the ebook version for commensurately less as well. To keep things simple, I’ll go with the statistic often cited by publishers themselves that the actual physical object costs for a paper book only account for 10-15% of the price of the book. So, calculating a fair ebook price using that number, let’s average that to 12% and say that for a $10 book, the paper and paper-related costs account for $1.20 of that price. To me, a fair price for that sort of book would be $8.80, or ‘$10 minus the $1.20 paper cost.’
And what does this cost mean from an ‘ebooks are expensive to edit’ standpoint? It means that it’s nonsense. We’ve taken off that $1.20 physical object cost, but the whole rest of it is still the same! The ebook editors have exactly the same $8.80 per book that the print ones had to play with. We are not short-changing them or treating their ebook like a lesser entity at all. Where we ARE making it cheaper for the customer, we’re doing it by taking it solely out of the physical object cost.
Now, if, as Marion Gropen asserts in her thoughtful (and appreciated) comments on my earlier story, the problem is that the ebook version will sell so many fewer copies that the same $8.80 per book will not be enough to finance its costs, then the publishers have a few choices here besides ‘short-change customers by charging them full retail price for an inferior product.’ They can improve their marketing to sell more copies and therefore bring down the cost and bring up the profit, or they can reduce their costs per book by streamlining any outdated or inefficiency work-flow processes.
But isn’t this true of any business? It’s certainly true in mine! I run an after-school program, for instance, for which we charge parents an extra fee. The school gets a cut. I get a cut. And there are certain costs—direct ones, such as buying supplies for a craft project, and less direct ones such as the liability the school assumes (which may or may not ever materialize for them in any sort of dollars and sense way) for me and my students while I am using their facility and their equipment and their students. So what we did when we decided to launch this program is sit down with the money guy and work out a sort of target for ourselves, to make sure that the program would both run well and be cost effective. Taking into account all of these details mentioned above, plus the desire of both the school and myself to make a profit, we arrived at a minimum number: 3 kids. If we had at least 3 kids, it was worth our mutual while to run the program. If we didn’t have three kids, we wouldn’t run it. That’s fair, right?
But…know what would NOT be fair? Run it with TWO kids and just don’t feed them the snacks or let them do the craft projects. You see my point?