There’s an interesting article in the Guardian that considers the real price of a book, and there are some paragraphs I wanted to share:
…it turns out that “publishers only spend $3.50 to print and distribute a hardback”. (Let’s say it’s £3 in Britain.) So when, this autumn, you go into your local bookshop and spend £30 on that gorgeous copy of Claire Tomalin’s long-awaited Dickens biography, you really are just putting a large amount of profit into the hands of her publisher, with some knocked off for the retailer. Right?
Well, yes and no. If you think of books primarily as physical objects, then off course they’ll seem a rip-off, because printing and distributing them is cheap. But as Levine points out, what you’re really paying for when you buy a book is something different. You are buying the “text itself”. And why is that so expensive? Because the publisher will, in many cases, have paid the author a considerable sum for the right to sell it. And because that same publisher will also (if they’re any good) have ploughed considerable further resources into editing and marketing it.
In other words, publishing is a business that incurs high fixed costs. And it’s this, to return to my initial question, that accounts for the high price of (indeed the very existence of) hardbacks. The publisher needs to maximise revenues in order to defray its outlay. Some people are prepared to pay top dollar to have the premium product – a hardcover copy that comes out, crucially, months before other versions. So it makes sense for the publisher to offer it to them.
I remember being on a panel with Dan Abnett and Al Reynolds at Alt Fiction, in which we covered the culture of digital publishing, and discussed how there was a kind of an intellectual void on what your money actually pays for when you buy a book. All of us were very worried about the impact of piracy, too, in being part of a culture that encourages the attitude that people should get a book for nothing (and once they do, they become reluctant to buy books, which is a vicious circle in itself).
Anyway, it’s worth reading that article – there are a few things I don’t fully agree with, but it’s certainly hitting the right notes. It ends on an worrying point:
It’s still early days in the ebook story, and no doubt there’ll be many disputes and disruptions along these lines in the future. But here’s a final thought for now. Was it wise to allow a situation in which a single company – Amazon – became market leader in terms of both a digital product (the ebook) and the hardware through which it’s delivered?