No, this isn’t about a bondage cult.
As you can imagine, the whole Amazon-Macmillan kerfuffle has had a lot of us here at Casa Book View talking amongst ourselves, not just because Macmillan, through its subsidiary, Tor Books, publishes a lotta-lotta SF and Fantasy (ritual disclaimer; I’m a Tor author, and used to be a Tor employee). We’re writers, and we’re very interested in where publishing is going and whether it’s going to take us along for the ride. So we’ve decided that if we’re going to talk about this, we might as well let readers hear the wide range of opinions and ideas the BVCitizens have on the matter. And I’m going first.
When technologies change there is fallout. It’s inevitable–both the change and the human costs; that’s one of the things science fiction has always spoken to. When the horseless carriage came in, one bit of fall-out was the buggy whip industry. Okay, it wasn’t a huge industry, but there were people making buggy whips and suddenly there was no market for their product. Jobs were lost, people couldn’t feed their children, pay their rent, etc. If you were in the buggy whip biz it was a bad time.
Right now (as the recent upheavals suggest) the publishing industry is going through some “buggy whip” shakeouts. And one of the defenses of Amazon’s “Every e-book $9.99 or less!” policy I’ve been seeing from posters on the ‘net is: why do the publishers want more than that? It costs them nothing to produce an e-book!”
Okay, let me breathe slowly. This may take a moment…
First: e-books don’t cost publishers “nothing.” While unpublished writers may rail at the “gatekeeper” system of publishing, let me promise you: you as a reader want those gatekeepers in place. You want an editor who sees something in a book and fights to buy it and get it in the schedule. You want that editor to help the author make the work as good as it can be. You want a copyeditor to go through the book and make sure it’s consistent and says what the author thinks it says. You want proof-readers to check over the text. All of this happens before paper and printing presses and binderies come into the process. All of these people have rents and food; all of them need a living wage (and the wages of publishing are traditionally on the low end of the spectrum). That’s one cost.
Second: there’s the cost of acquisition. If Macmillan buys a book by Madeleine Robins it’s not going to cost them much, comparatively speaking. Certainly not the kind of money that they’d spend for a Stephen King or Joanna Rowling. The cost of any acquisition is spread over the various editions (which means that, at least as far as the publisher is concerned, an e-book version might have some author advance money to make up; or not, depending on how they account things). Publishers know they can’t make back the money on Stephen King’s books in the hardcover edition, even with a bajillion sold; they have to calculate the trade paperback and mass-market editions–and any sub-rights sales that King’s agent has let them retain the rights to–to edge into the black and to profitability (they need profits so they can invest in authors like, oh, Madeleine Robins).
Third: there’s the time factor. Time factor? Macmillan buys my current-almost-finished book, The Salernitan Women*, as the second book in a two-book contract. First I write and turn in the first book. Then I write, finish, and turn in the second book. Then it takes some months for the editor to read and edit it; then a month or so for me to make the requested changes. The book goes into the schedule–maybe it is (for reasons having nothing to do with the author or editor) not scheduled for a year. The book goes into production (for the industry average of nine months between “start the production ball rolling” and “look! it’s on the shelves at Borders!”). It’s possible for Macmillan to pay me the first part of my advance five or six years before they have any hope of recouping that money. Yeah, they knew the job was dirty when they took it, it’s the way the business works. But this adds additional cost to the book: the company calculates interest on money paid out and not yet earned.
Oh, and fourth: as any member of Book View Cafe can tell you, crankily, massaging original text into a format useable by a Kindle, a Sony Reader, a mobile phone, even a PDF download, is full of pitfalls and takes longer than you’d ever think. In other words: there are costs to everything, even the stuff that looks transparently easy.
As a writer, I want my publisher to be able to make enough profit on my work so that my editor and the people in production and the person who painted the cover art and the book designer–not to mention the people in accounting who cut my check, get paid. I do not want them going the way of the workers in a buggy whip factory. Right now we’re in a period of flux where books are available in all sorts of formats, but even if and when e-books rule the earth and paper and ink books go the way of the dinosaurs and the buggy whip, they will not cost “nothing” to produce.
Okay. I got that out of my system. I could say more–like about Amazon’s tendency to loss-lead prices on e-books to maintain their Kindle price policy, but I’ll let someone else do that. Next?
Madeleine Robins is a founding member of Book View Cafe, and the author of Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and many short stories available on her bookshelf. *She is currently working on The Salernitan Women, an historical novel set in medieval Italy.