In his forthcoming book Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, the American author Robert Levine has an excellent chapter on publishing in which he interrogates the forces driving the pricing of books, in both their paper and digital forms. And some of the explanations he gives are (to me at least) surprising. For example, 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.
Questions of this sort have become especially pertinent recently, of course, with the arrival of an entirely new publishing format: the ebook. Most people instinctively feel that ebooks should be substantially cheaper than paper books, because an ebook is not physically "made": there are no printing costs. But if, says Levine, the real value of a book resides in the "text itself", then the delivery method shouldn't much matter. The fixed costs – acquiring, editing, marketing – remain unchanged.
Read the entire article here.