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The Cost of Self-Publication: Ebook vs. Print - One Person’s Story
February 3, 2009 6:30 PM   Subscribe


 
Meant to thank lovecrafty for pointing out this blog.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:33 PM on February 3, 2009


Great find. I have a friend who is self-publishing a second book who will be very interested in the data, since she isn't sure at all about an electronic version.
posted by briank at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


That's pretty cheap for an ISBN and card catalog info. I should write a nonsensical advice book like Godin's 'The Dip' and get a couple of copies printed so I can call myself a published author. It seems like there's a market for a 'get an english literate MBA offshore to cull through everything I've written online, lay it out and have a dozen copies printed' type vanity service. 'The Boom Years, 1994-2001', 'The Angry Years, 2001-2004', 'The Bubble Years, 2005-2008', 'The Broke Years, 2008-Present'.
posted by jeffkramer at 6:57 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I found this article about the recent history of ebooks and why they will take over pretty convincing.
posted by euphorb at 7:02 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice find.
posted by klangklangston at 7:45 PM on February 3, 2009


It doesn't seem like she's really anti-ebook, just anti-Amazon, because they are maintaining a much higher margin on Kindle ebook sales than they are on physical book sales.

For physical books they apparently (and I'm assuming this is just for small publishers; no way Steven King lets them get away with this) take a 55% cut of the retail price. For Kindle ebooks they demand 65%, and then they apparently drop the retail price or something, and between the two the net profit per item to the author is lower than on paper.

Of course, the cost of the book to the reader is significantly lower—75% lower, in this case—for the Kindle version as opposed to the paper copy. So the question really becomes, do you sell enough additional copies at $10 retail ($4.50 profit) for an ebook, versus $40 retail ($5.10 profit) for a trade paperback, to make it a better distribution channel. Evidently she doesn't think so. That's a fair decision and one anyone selling just about anything needs to make.

Where I'm not so sure I agree with her is on looking at ebooks based on a "cost per format" rather than a cost per unit. Sure, the cost of setting up a new ebook format is large. But the price of the first book off of the printing press, if you want to say that it includes all the setup costs, is very high too. It's just that with ebooks, the cost of the second book is very close to zero, while the cost of the second paper copy is markedly greater than zero.

She certainly seems to understand this, but I'm just not sure I agree that looking at "cost per format" numbers is really instructive. The nature of almost any publication (except POD) is balancing setup costs versus the retail price, and that retail price against the number of copies that will sell. It's a sort of three-way balancing act. Electronic formats have the exact same issue.

What's missing, I think, is a standardized ebook format that anyone can read. With paper, you have hardcovers and trades and mass-market paperbacks, which are admittedly different formats and serve different purposes and markets, but they're all compatible in the sense that anyone can pick up and read any of them. (Well, most anyone can, anyway; I'll leave Braille books and talking books aside.) With ebooks, that hasn't happened quite yet, unless you're content to publish in ASCII.

Amazon and the other e-reader producers are at fault, at least in large part, for this situation, since each of them seems to feel the need to promulgate a new and incompatible format (no doubt so they can try to get 65% "discounts"). But I don't think this is a stable situation in the long run; consumers won't tolerate it, and eventually a standard will emerge, in the same way MP3s became the de facto standard for digital music devices, despite the best efforts of a lot of people to own the market themselves. It might be PDF, it might be HTML+CSS, it might be something else, but it's eventually going to happen. (I suspect it'll happen as the e-ink displays get cheaper, and some manufacturer somewhere produces a sub-$50 device that floods the market and becomes ubiquitous.)

Once that happens, and especially as prepress workflows start to get built around it and produce it without much additional effort (if the format is PDF, it's pretty close to being "not much effort" right now, at least based on the typesetting/DTP systems I've worked with), then most of her objections start to disappear. Then, the real challenge becomes getting people to pay for your book in an environment where making a perfect copy of it is as trivial. That's not a question that programmers or engineers are going to solve.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:03 PM on February 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


I've been looking into this stuff just today and I must ask, in all ignorance: what's wrong with using Lulu for this? Reading through their costs page makes it seem a lot cheaper than all this. They offer ebook downloads, pay per sale, take only manufacturing costs plus 20% margin for physical copies. You can even get an ISBN number through them so Amazon will list the book, if I'm reading it correctly.

Someone, set me straight.
posted by JHarris at 8:19 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


(I should have said charge per sale, mostly. ISBN would be extra up front of course. Anyway.)
posted by JHarris at 8:20 PM on February 3, 2009


While waiting for affordable e-ink readers, I've had a Sony Clie* (well, several) since 2003 and I just ebay-ed an old NX80 for a little over a c-note, CDN expressly for reading novels.

I've always had a romantic fondess for dead-tree books, but lately, I'm starting to find reading a physical book... inconvenient. While standing on the bus, I can read perfectly comfortably with one hand. Now even when reading in bed, it's about 50:50 with a PDA:book. Sure, battery life is an issue, but it's become much less of one. Screen resolution? 320x480 with MobiPocket is just fine for my lasered and still-youngish eyes. Contrast ratio is a bit of a problem during the summer on the beach... but sand and water already present issues with non-hardened hardware.

Some newer e-ink-based readers now even have touchscreen capabilities (ie, using a stylus or your fingernail to write on pages). I predict that once the price comes down, market penetration in the academic textbook market is going to explode. I'm just afraid that publishers will 'expire' textbooks or smother the readers in the cradle due to licensing/copying issues.

/really really looking forward to inexpensive, rugged, aesthetically pleasing** e-ink (or similar technology) readers in the PDA-sized range

*I love those things, especially the clamshell models. The thumb jog dial is perfect for ebook reading. The UX50 took a terrible, terrible direction when they moved the jog dial. Horrible shame that Sony got out of the PDA market. Sure, they were overpriced, but they were nice.
**damn, but is the Kindle ugly. I'm convinced the manufacturers designed it to fail in the marketplace.

posted by porpoise at 8:22 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, yes, there is a significant side to ebooks. You can't show off what you read/own on your shelves.

But then again, you don't have to hide your guilty pleasures, either. And moving? Yeah, I love my books but just barely enough to lug them around when I move.
posted by porpoise at 8:28 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


$3,500 for editing

Oh, thank you for that.
posted by grouse at 8:37 PM on February 3, 2009


Amazon and the other e-reader producers are at fault, at least in large part, for this situation, since each of them seems to feel the need to promulgate a new and incompatible format (no doubt so they can try to get 65% "discounts").
Amazon's format is basically just mobipocket with a different encryption scheme.
posted by snookums at 8:47 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]




There is something appealing about printing your own books, but how is self-publishing 100 copies of a book different than vanity publishing from a boutique printer, other than the amount of effort involved ("hundreds of hours")? Any printer will tell you, the first copy is the most expensive, with lower per-unit cost as the quantity goes up. Same old story -- pay to play, get a publisher, or languish on the web -- take your pick.
posted by greensweater at 8:54 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are *chan imageboards and IRC channels now for trading electronic books. I've seen these readers and in a few years they're going to do to books what MP3 players did to music. Not to as great a degree as some things will be best to have on paper, but on the other hand it could be convenient to have a big collection of bus and airplane novels without having shelves full of paperbacks.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


"What's missing, I think, is a standardized ebook format that anyone can read."

Eh? HTML (CSS is optional) works fine. I've read numerous ebooks in HTML, on my Palm handheld, on laptops, on a handheld linix computer (a Sharp Zaurus), on my iPod (ick), on my iPod (with replacement software that worked better), and most recently on my eee901. HTML is better than PDF, because unlike PDF it doesn't force a rigid page layout, but reflows to your display's size.

I have lots of books; many are in storage and inaccessible. eBooks are much more portable, easier to organize, easier to search. And easier to read: turning the page on my handhelds (Palm, Zaurus) was as easy as clicking a button with my thumb, making reading in the bathtub easier than with a paperback. Reading on my eee901 is in some ways even easier, as the laptop sits open without having to be held at all.

But I'm not going to pay more for an eBook than a mass-market paperback; for all the pluses of an eBook, I still have to carry around a pc (my 901's almost exactly the size of two mass-market paperbacks side by side) and power it. At half the price on a paperback, I'll buy scores of eBooks. At more than a paperback, I feel taken.

And I'm not interested in DRM or proprietary formats; I'm not going to replace any great portion of my already owned library of paper books for a dead-end format that only works on your special hardware and software, that'll I'll have to replace in turn if you upgrade or go out of business. I'm not going to pirate your books (just as I don't pirate the DRM free mp3s I've bought), but I don't want to deal with incompatible formats that mean all the books I collected for my Palm Pilot I can't read on my linux machine. But at $4 a book or less, you can re-sell me a good portion of what I already bought from you at $6-$9 in paperback.

Today I spent $15 for two* books in a package deal from Baen; one a old Heinlein juvenile, the other a recently published sequel in a series. It was an impulse buy -- the juvenile wouldn't be available in a physical bookstore anymore except by special order. I got sucked in to the site because Baen offers a Heinlein short for free, and Google indexes that. Baen knows how to market these too: the free short leads to the $5 juvenile that's hardly popping off the shelves anymore, leads to the package deal for just $10 more.

At $7.50 each, the cost is slightly less than what I'd pay for a paperback version of the series sequel that is available in a bookstore. So an easy choice (especially as it was really $15 for a total of six books; so I got four "filler" books I may or may not enjoy, "for free" -- or if I do like them, call it $2.50 apiece for all six). And of course, I was able to read the books a minute after giving my credit card number -- no wait for delivery.

Two things were essential for that purchase: the books had to cost less than paperbacks, and the format had to be portable. (Baen incidentally does html formatting well -- it looks good, includes any illustrations sensibly, and internal links (previous and next chapter) work. My only quibble is that the file names for each chapter are obscure catalog numbers; but once any one chapter is loaded in the web browser, that's not noticeable because all the rest of the book has internal linmks to the other chapters.)

Having bought these books as DRM-free HTML, I'm not going to need to buy a new bookcase to store them, or lose them and need to re-buy them, and they'll always be at hand on my PC (or at worst burnt to a backup CD).

So please, more eBooks (and fewer PDFs that think a page is portrait orientation when most screens are landscape). But no Kindle books; they're overpriced and proprietary.
posted by orthogonality at 10:07 PM on February 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


I must confess, I download all the audiobooks I read from bittorrent websites. However, it's only because I tried buying from audible.com and discovered that they didn't support direct-download to my mp3 player, and their format was not playable on my mp3 player. I couldn't convert it to mp3. I had to listen to it on my computer with their proprietary player. This pissed me off so much that I vowed to pirate all my audiobooks until they did away with the god-awful DRM that makes them useless to me.
posted by tehloki at 10:23 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm a little disturbed at the "hundreds of hours" spent designing the book and cover, etc. If this was a real business, there is no way in the world you do those yourself--one, you are almost certainly going to do a suck job compared to a pro, and, second, even paying a pro for a week's worth of time has got to be a far saner business decision that taking hundreds of hours you could have spent generating more "product."

If you want to do that, cool, but it's a hobby, not a business. I guess it all seems really odd, obsessively pinching the pennies while the pounds are thrown out the window.
posted by maxwelton at 11:36 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


I feel like if I buy a physical copy of a book, I should get a Kindle version as well. If Amazon did that, I would buy a Kindle for sure. But if I'm going to buy a book for $20 I want a physical copy to stick on my shelf. But I'd also like to read it on an e-book reader as well.

Interesting, the last book I got on Amazon I got an offer to "upgrade" it for like $5 to a copy I could read (and annotate, apparently) online, but not on a Kindle as far as I know.
posted by delmoi at 11:40 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where'd she get the text?
posted by From Bklyn at 1:17 AM on February 4, 2009


Like Apple, Amazon has a compelling device that customers can get product on very easily. Like Jobs with music, Bezos wants to make electronic book publishing more than a niche market, and he wants to own control over that emerging market. It costs money to create the platform and delivery mechanisms, so I'm not surprised the margins are so high. Without rights management, publishers won't buy in. This is pretty much the iPod story all over again.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:46 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


This whole story made me a bit sad. As a reader, the ubiquity of electronic text has really improved my enjoyment of the world: it's not jetpacks, but I always assumed the future would include some sort of electonic library, like the WELL promised all those years ago. But looking at it from the author's side has always troubled me.

I remember when they first started culling mid-list authors in the nineties: then the problem was warehousing costs, because the government had removed some tax advantages of printing enormous runs and then dumping the excess in a warehouse somewhere to sell a few at a time over the next decade. They started printing just what they could sell, which meant that a mid-list author's second run would be half his first, and the third half again, until there was nothing left. You were either a blockbuster or out of a job.

A lot of this is just corporate folks squeezing the authors. There's still money to be made if writers go outside the major market presses or start from scratch. The woman who wrote this piece ought to get together with some like-minded authors and start a publishing house. They could do in-kind trades for the editing, share the costs of the software and put those hard-earned cover design skills to work. Once they've got a good stable of authors, they could renegotiate the 'discounts' and other costs with Amazon.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:01 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you want to do that, cool, but it's a hobby, not a business.

Unless you consider it startup costs for a small business. If she hits a degree of popularity that brings steady customers, then over a few years the availability of ebooks and POD is pure profit.
posted by sammyo at 5:17 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


tehloki: "I must confess, I download all the audiobooks I read from bittorrent websites. However, it's only because I tried buying from audible.com and discovered that they didn't support direct-download to my mp3 player, and their format was not playable on my mp3 player. I couldn't convert it to mp3. I had to listen to it on my computer with their proprietary player. This pissed me off so much that I vowed to pirate all my audiobooks until they did away with the god-awful DRM that makes them useless to me."

One can easily convert Audible to DRM free mp3 files. I've saved 100s of audiobooks as MP3 that way, and no pirating. Search on "Total Recorder", but there are other similar tools for every platform.
posted by stbalbach at 5:50 AM on February 4, 2009


delmoi Many of Baen's hardcover releases include a CD with not just the book you bought (in various formats, including blissfully DRM free and multi-platform HTML), but dozens of other books to boot. I wish other publishers would jump on the bandwagon there, I'd love to get ebook copies of everything I buy.

Incidentally, Baen also offers a number of books on the web, with no DRM, in HTML, for free. The Baen Free Library was started as and experiment when Eric Flint got into an argument about the benefit of DRM (he was opposed), and put up some of his own books, for free, online to prove his point. According to Baen it's been a tremendous success in the area of selling books, they report that when an author puts a book up on the Free Library sales of that book get a noticeable bump.

At least one publisher seems to be getting it, and that gives me hope.
posted by sotonohito at 6:59 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


a standardized ebook format that anyone can read.

ePub

(The Kindle is the big holdout here, though.)
posted by nev at 7:59 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


One can easily convert Audible to DRM free mp3 files.

Not, I suspect, without breaking the law.

This is pretty much the iPod story all over again.

In my telling of it, "the iPod story" gets to a chapter where people realize that if their natural desire to listen to their stuff where they want to is going to make them into criminals anyway, rather than paying Apple (or Audible) for the privilege, they might as well eliminate the middleman and start pirating.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:03 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


Price is one of the biggest annoyances for me when it comes to ebooks. Outside of that I am in love with e-books, it haven't picked up and read a dead tree book in years unless it was like one of my Brian Froud books where the large format art and physical page layout is a major part of the experience. But novels and the like I will always read in e-book format.

I admit in college most if not all of my e-books were pirated, however I pay for them all now. The only time pirate them is if a publisher doesn't put out an e-book version, in which case I'll gladly buy the paperback and then download a pirated version. All that said, I won't pay much more than $8 tops for any e-books. This woman confirms what I already knew, e-book prices are usually inflated for one reason or another.

Surprisingly you can go comparison shopping for e-books. Sometimes I can find the same book on different ebook sites with up to a $10 price difference, what's up with that. I also second the mention of Baen Books and their free library. I've bought several series based on the first book I got for free and their prices are perfectly reasonable.

I'm only half way thru the Ars article that euphorb posted but so far it's good, y'all should read it.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:16 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Eh? HTML (CSS is optional) works fine. I've read numerous ebooks in HTML, on my Palm handheld, on laptops, on a handheld linix computer (a Sharp Zaurus), on my iPod (ick), on my iPod (with replacement software that worked better), and most recently on my eee901. HTML is better than PDF, because unlike PDF it doesn't force a rigid page layout, but reflows to your display's size.

This pretty much assumes that your book collection doesn't include anything with hefty page design or illustration. No graphic novels or Dr. Seuss.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on February 4, 2009


This pretty much assumes that your book collection doesn't include anything with hefty page design or illustration. No graphic novels or Dr. Seuss.

This is true, you don't want to read House of Leaves in an e-book format, or graphic novels. I think Dr Seuss could maybe survive the transfer to some displays.

That said however, I think the majority of the books read by the majority of the people are comprised primarily of text without special page formatting.
posted by MrBobaFett at 10:13 AM on February 4, 2009


Sort of tangential but Ars Technica had a great piece on ebooks just the other day. Fantastic read about all that's wrong with ebooks today blaming most of it on the term—ebook—and the false expectations it creates. link
posted by Toekneesan at 10:22 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


btw, I'm having a busy day at work today so I can't really go into all of the sketchy assumptions being made, but consider this bit of news that's just arrived in my email box from an industry newsletter (Publishers Lunch) about Kindle's market saturation and the margin numbers.

"New Kindle Guess: 500k in 2008
It's ironic that the analysts at Citi--home of catastrophic banking losses--are still considered by Wall Street to provide the best appraisal of Kindle sales. On Tuesday analyst Mark Mahaney's team updated their earlier guess of 380,000 Kindles sold to a new estimate of 500,000 units sold. The number may well be in the ballpark, but it's important to keep in mind how little the Citi analysts actually know.

They admit the only "credible sources" on Kindle sales are Amazon (not talking) and component manufacturers like Hon Hai (also not talking). What they find is a disclosure in Sprint Nextel's recent quarterly 10Q that reports "certain wholesale devices are activated on the network by our wholesale partners prior to selling the device to the end customer, which resulted in approximately 210,000 such additions being activated on our network during the third quarter 2008." Citi concludes these activations are Kindle stats, without offering further evidence. And they claim "additional sleuthing...suggests that there could have been 100,000 wholesale device activations in each Q1 and Q2 of 2008." Or not, as our additional sleuthing through multiple quarters of Sprint 10Qs reveals.

Having guessed at 500,000 Kindle sales for 2008, they still assume an iPod-like adoption curve that magically estimates 1 million Kindle sales for 2009 and, hang on, 3.5 million units sold in 2010. Except that iPod and Kindle are not nearly analogous (nor are the respective distribution approaches of Apple and Kindle). And there's nary a mention of the rapidly-emerging competition in ebook for smartphones that do not require purchase of a separate device.

Most disturbing--and most flawed--is that for all their sleuthing, Citi doesn't know how the book business works, despite citing the fancy-sounding "understanding of AMZN's book unit economics (based on public disclosures) and analysis done by our Media & Entertainment Equity Research group on book publishing industry economics." They posit that Amazon is paying publishers 60 percent of Amazon's artificially low retail price for Kindle books, which magically provides almost four dollars of margin on a $9.99 Kindle book. They don't realize that Amazon is paying based on the publishers' ebook list prices, at traditional discount schedules, which can leave Amazon little or no margin on many titles at a $9.99 price point. And where some publishers once priced ebook versions of new hardcovers somewhat below the print versions, that trend is turning as well, reducing Amazon's margin further. (As an example, starting on January 1, Simon & Schuster has gone to parity on suggested retail prices between ebooks and the most-recently published print edition (hardcover or paperback)."

Publishers Lunch is available through email only but if you'd like to subscribe, go here.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that these debates about ebook pricing seem to come 'round again and again, with the same arguments made about how much they *should* cost based on some kind of equation like cost of goods + overhead + reasonable profit = fair price (as long as it's not more than $9.99!). This is not how book publishers price their products. List prices are certainly affected by cost-of-goods issues (longer books, expected print run, large/weird formats, color, special cover treatments), but for the most part it's set to "what the market will bear", which in turn is influenced by retailer discounting, costs of competing products (other books or other media), and a certain amount of handwaving. There is not enough sales history for ebooks to conclusively nail down that magic what-the-market-will-bear number, so sometimes they get it wrong. Authors and agents have to be appeased as well, and most of them are primarily concerned that their print sales not be impinged, since that's where they get a better royalty rate.

I'm convinced that most mainstream book publishers don't really want ebooks to succeed. Having watched what happened to the music industry when its distribution went digital, can you blame them?
posted by libraryhead at 11:22 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Certainly I am a technological Utopian, but it seems increasingly clear to me that personal creation and distribution of art is increasingly inevitable, and the professional creation and distribution is vanishing.

Anonymous in the original post said that Amazon was basically just advertising--not really a distributor at all, in that person's final calculation--and increasingly advertising is the only thing that J. Q. Public can't do as well on their own (or by hiring skilled but local professionals).

This is true for music, for literature, for movies, &c. I suppose that there will always be art that requires physicality (like oil painting, perhaps) and those artists will still need a distributor / publisher / dealer, but in general I think that those days are dying.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 12:39 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Except that iPod and Kindle are not nearly analogous (nor are the respective distribution approaches of Apple and Kindle).

The technical solutions are different, but the end goal is the same: make it ridiculously easy for customers to buy digitized products. iTMS and WhisperNet are just means to an end, so focusing on the approach seems to miss the forest for the trees.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:48 PM on February 4, 2009


"Eric Flint got into an argument about the benefit of DRM (he was opposed), and put up some of his own books, for free"

Flint's book Rats, Bats, and Vats is not particularly well plotted, or at all plausible -- even suspending disbelief, it's not internally plausible. But it's humorous, and something of a page turner in the Space Opera tradition. I'd have felt taken if I'd bought it for the price of a paperback. But for free, it provided an evening's diversion, and left me open to reading more of his stuff.

Since then, he's matured as a writer, offered better books for free, and I've responded by buying a number of his books in paperback. The option of getting a bunch of his back issues on a CD may even make me spring for hardback.

I should note however, that this won't work for all authors: reading Cory Doctorow for free made me resolve never to read him again, unless he paid me ten times my hourly rate.
posted by orthogonality at 7:00 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


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