Math Of Publishing Meets The E-Book
In the emerging world of e-books, many consumers assume it is only logical that publishers are saving vast amounts by not having to print or distribute paper books, leaving room to pass along those savings to their customers.
Publishers largely agree, which is why in negotiations with Apple, five of the six largest publishers of trade books have said they would price most digital editions of new fiction and nonfiction books from $12.99 to $14.99 on the forthcoming iPad tablet — significantly lower than the average $26 price for a hardcover book.
But publishers also say consumers exaggerate the savings and have developed unrealistic expectations about how low the prices of e-books can go. Yes, they say, printing costs may vanish, but a raft of expenses that apply to all books, like overhead, marketing and royalties, are still in effect.
All of which raises the question: Just how much does it actually cost to produce a printed book versus a digital one?
Publishers differ on how they account for various costs, but a composite, and necessarily simplified, picture might look like this, according to interviews with executives at several major houses:
On a typical hardcover, the publisher sets a suggested retail price. Let’s say it is $26. The bookseller will generally pay the publisher $13. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about $3.25 to print, store and ship the book, including unsold copies returned to the publisher by booksellers.
For cover design, typesetting and copy-editing, the publisher pays about 80 cents. Marketing costs average around $1 but may go higher or lower depending on the title. Most of these costs will deline on a per-unit basis as a book sells more copies.
Let’s not forget the author, who is generally paid a 15 percent royalty on the hardcover price, which on a $26 book works out to $3.90. For big best-selling authors — and even occasionally first-time writers whose publishers have taken a risk — the author’s advance may be so large that the author effectively gets a higher slice of the gross revenue. Publishers generally assume they will write off a portion of many authors’ advances because they are not earned back in sales.
Without accounting for such write-offs, the publisher is left with $4.05, out of which it must pay overhead for editors, cover art designers, office space and electricity before taking a profit.Now let’s look at an e-book. Under the agreements with Apple, the publishers will set the consumer price and the retailer will act as an agent, earning a 30 percent commission on each sale. So on a $12.99 e-book, the publisher takes in $9.09. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about 50 cents to convert the text to a digital file, typeset it in digital form and copy-edit it. Marketing is about 78 cents.
The author’s royalty — a subject of fierce debate between literary agents and publishing executives — is calculated among some of the large trade publishers as 25 percent of the gross revenue, while others are calculating it off the consumer price. So on a $12.99 e-book, the royalty could be anywhere from $2.27 to $3.25.
All that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54, before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances.
“If you want bookstores to stay alive, then you want to slow down this movement to e-books,” said Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of the Idea Logical Company, a consultant to publishers. “The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap.”
For many authors, pricing is a thicket of confusion. “None of us know what books cost. None of us know what kind of profits hardcover or paperback publishers make,” said Anne Rice, the author of “Interview With a Vampire” and the “Songs of the Seraphim” series.
She said she did not know whether publishers had struck the right price for e-books. “For all I know, a million books at $9.99 might be great for an author,” Ms. Rice said. “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam. It’s not going to work.”