Wednesday, December 10, 2008

E-books, royalties, and the hidden costs of nothingness

Have I mentioned this before? I don’t remember. But I’ll do it again, anyway, because the issue is on my mind, and because I'm in a mood to rant a bit.

Let me start with a few background statements.

I have a great sympathy for authors who are publishing books with e-presses, and with traditional presses that offer e-book formats. I completely understand the desire to make a greater royalty percentage. And I do believe that high e-book prices are a barrier to getting readers to buy into the format. With e-book readers costing $300 a pop, I personally would not shell out an additional $24.99 for an e-book to read on it, when I can buy the paper book and save myself the cost of the reader. They need to make the economics work out in favor of the consumer for long enough to saturate the market with e-readers.

So, in general, I support the idea of an author making a larger % of a smaller $ for each e-book sold.

Where I start to disagree is where authors and readers make comments like “E-books should be cheaper to buy, after all, you’re not paying for the paper or the printing costs.”

Listen, folks. You cannot hold the bytes of an e-book in your hand. But that does not make them free.

Was your computer free? I guarantee you that the servers used by the publishing companies and retail stores (like Amazon) to store your e-book were not free. In fact, they cost 10-20x more than an average home PC. And a company with a big online presence typically has more than one. A LOT more.

Ever call the Geek Squad (or that neighborhood computer whiz) for help? Was that free? Even the neighborhood kid probably cost you a favor. When you maintain corporate-type computer systems and networks, you hire your own Geek Squad. Sys admins aren’t cheap. Actually, they make quite nice, middle-class incomes. And you probably need more than one, since no one person can work 24/7 (and you want your e-book available to readers, even on the weekends, at Christmas, and at 3am, right?)

Is your internet service free? No? Well, its not free for big corporations either. And they don’t get any $9.99 a month specials for the amount of data that they have to provide. Plus, you need more than the average home cable-modem’s worth of downloading power in order to serve more than, say, 2 customers at a time for downloading or transferring those e-books.

And, especially for you published authors, was your fancy, graphics-intensive website free? No? What, you built it yourself? Ok, how much is your time worth? Because website layouts, content updates, maintenance, etc, cost money and time. And you definitely want your e-publisher’s website to look 2009 and not 1995, right?

Now, it is true that you do not need a single server, 2+ administrators, dedicated fiber lines, and fancy website for one lone e-book that might sell 1000 copies. The costs of all of this are shared across all books that a company maintains and offers for sale. And, because I’m not privy to any e-publishers budgetary information, I cannot say exactly how much the per-book cost of all of this is. But it’s not 0. It’s definitely not 0. And for someone to assume that it is, or to complain that it should be, or expecting a publisher not to make a profit on their work, is not productive.

The publishing industry is going through changes; probably much like the music industry did when iPods and MP3 players hit the scene a few years ago. I am not a fortune teller, or a crack business analyst, or even a published author (yet!). But I can say that the publishers and the authors will have to work together to make this new system work. Maybe publishers need to give a larger cut to authors. Maybe they need to lower prices on e-books to make them more attractive. Maybe e-published authors need to promote the e-readers, give a few away in drawings, offer up ideas on alternatives (like those new mini-laptops, fancy cell phones, print-on-demand discounts that allow a reader to buy a printed copy of an e-book…something!). But for goodness sake, stop complaining that publishers have no costs associated with producing an e-book. Because it just ain't so.

And, for my parting thought, why on earth is this considered a soapbox? Seems to me that a box made of soap would get awful slippery if you stood on it for a while….

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