A Brief Drunken Comment on the Cost of Making Ebooks

(Well, it’s Ambien, but I am tired and it does have the same effect.)

Inspired in my late night reading via Andrew Wheeler’s rant against the idea that ebooks are cheap because of X.

As someone who has been working with creating novel-length ebooks based off both public domain works, non-public-domain Creative Commons works, and permission granted copyrighted works… here are some observations.

First. The main cost of creating an ebook is not the digital creation itself. That is expensive now, but streamlined workflow automation is possible, and speaking as a software developer, there is a niche for the guy or gal who can automatically convert works and manage different venues, or develops enterprise-level software for publishers to do so. This is what people focus on, either to say it’s impossible to do cheaply (but it is), or to claim this is the whole of publishing (which it isn’t), both arguments that miss the point by, not miles, but parsecs.

Second. The main cost of creating an ebook in fact remains the main costs of creating a book, period. The writing. The editing. The fact-checking and cross-checking. The images. The index building, oh gods, the index building. The cover. The marketing. The accounting. Making deals with the distributors. Negotiating with the goddess Ingram, goddess of the bottleneck of publishing. The poor bastards who have to clear copyright issues for, say, song lyrics. ((Do not do this kind of thing, by the way, to your first manuscript going out into the world in the hopes of getting bought. It’s an expensive venture for any agent or publisher. They’d have to really, really, really like you and you would have to sell Dan Brown level of books, and even then, I’m not sure you could get it.)) All of this adds up to the point where the cost of paper printing is dwarfed, as is the cost of creating ebooks (once we get a standardized workflow. Printing sure wasn’t fun before people knew what they were doing).

So basically, digital alone isn’t going to save publishing. What saves any industry’s ass when said ass is firmly in the fire is streamlining processes. Can’t streamline an already lovely process (of which I know little of, save for the small piece that is moving towards a usable workflow for the layman)?

Big deal, no one cares. Streamline down. As general advice, streamlining doesn’t work from a simple “reduce people” metholodgy; it involves rethinking your processes and invoking your inner kai zen. It involves change. Any industry that couldn’t do this—and trust me, I’m part of an industry that would love to stay stable but we can’t, because we live in an ever-churning vicious fast-turn-around marketplace—is gonna get steamrolled.

So the process is complicated. So you need all these layers. Blah blah blah. At work we need all this software. We need all this hardware. But we need to work smarter and find ways to use, choose, and change software, hardware, and development/testing/vetting/marketing processes to fit with the market.

Of course, it’s one thing to chase the market, and another thing to chase your competitors. Former is good advice, latter is a great way to generate death march projects that ultimately fail.

Oh, where was I….

Yes, publishing is going to go through a really ugly phase. And new guys will be trying to break the rules or create new ones. Screaming at digital, or pointing at digital as a savior, is so, so, so missing the point. Then there are alligators.


6 thoughts on “A Brief Drunken Comment on the Cost of Making Ebooks

  1. Totally agree, ebooks are usually fairly priced. I’d be more convinced by arguments that hardcover books are overpriced.

    That’s the reason they’re released first. They have a larger profit margin, because people who won’t wait for the paperback are willing to pay an inflated price(beyond differences in binding costs).

    It’s unfortunate for me. I’m willing to wait, but I want a book that will last for 100 years. My paperbacks that have been around for 20 yrs. are in horrible shape.

  2. My textbook contract with a major publisher has royalties at 15% on the sale of hard copies. For electronic sales, I’d get 50%. That may suggest a willingness to spread the benefits with reduction (elimination?) of some production costs…

  3. John,

    Yeah, the hardcover has nothing to fear from e-editions. Market paperbacks, in their physical suckitude, do.


    Textbook publishing is a bit different (and indeed, far more lucrative) than normal publishing, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the first folks to bring digital into their processes as an art.

  4. Arachne, alas, what you say makes sense. So much for a career in novel-writing when the mortage comes due every month…

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