It’s been really interesting for me to watch the complex discussions about e-books online, because I work for a digital publisher. My company provides digital sheet music files to our customers and there are a lot of similarities between our industry and the publishing industry. However, books have a broader market than sheet music does, in part because more people know how to read text than music.
One of the biggest challenges that I see is two-fold: one, inconsistent pricing models and two, proprietary platforms and formats. E-book pricing is based of a number of different factors that go beyond what a writer, editor and/or publisher earns. First, you have the cost that the e-book retailer charges for every book sold. That charge varies from site to site, but it can comprise as much as forty percent of the book’s value. Second, you have the cost of laying out and creating that digital file in the appropriate formats. Third, you have to pay an artist for cover art and fourth, you have to pay the additional cost of online marketing to get people to buy the book. I believe that publishers have a challenging time coming up with a set price for e-books that people will respond to, because the costs of doing business may be different depending upon the product. Graphics, tables, high page counts and other file format issues can easily tack on more time to the e-book production process.
Unfortunately, these “invisible” costs are not apparent to the reader. Many readers believe that e-books should be less expensive than their paperback or hard cover counterparts, because they assess a different value to the production of a printed book differently than an electronic file. (This is also why I believe piracy is such a huge threat to digital publishers, too.) Part of that assessment is their experience with the internet where information has been “free.”
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I feel that it’s going to be pretty challenging to educate readers on what the production value of an e-book. I don’t feel that being transparent about the cost of doing business for a publisher is the answer, but I also feel that the e-book “evolution” is still in its infancy stages.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that one of the biggest challenges e-book publishers face is proprietary e-readers and formats. Why? Without having a standardized format that all e-book readers can use for the books they want to read, you’re immediately limiting the market to a select few. I’ve heard many comparisons between e-books and the digital music industry, and while there are similarities, they are still very different. Imaging the cost of archiving these e-books at a library, for example. Now, instead of needing physical space, you need electronic space. Instead of a standardized format that works on all e-readers, you need several different types of readers and several different formats (e.g. duplicates) of the same book.
For the reader, you’ve now increased the cost of being able to read their favorite books. The accessibility of where you can buy a proprietary e-reader, the cost of upgrading them and the cost of maintaining them or replacing files adds in a layer of “cost” to the e-books that wasn’t there before. Now, instead of just buying the books like you would in a physical store, you have to buy the platform and then buy the books, which inflates the cost of whatever e-books you buy. This is also why I believe readers expect that e-books should be cheaper. They aren’t looking at where their money goes, they see it as “I spend $350 on an e-reader and now I have to spend $7.99 on a single book. Why are they so expensive?” As a result, reading a book is no longer available to those who can’t afford the platform to read it on.
In my opinion, copyright restrictions and the threat of digital piracy aren’t the only reasons why the music industry has evolved the way that it did. In part, it’s also because of the volume and the demand. For this reasons and many more, I feel that the e-book “evolution” will not happen overnight. This will be a long process that publishers, retailers, readers, libraries, authors and editors will need to go through. My only hope is that there will be more long-term discussions on how to move toward accessibility to more readers and some standardization.