Good grief, I’m a publisher. I’m not sure how it happened, but I see all the signs. It’s like I was a garden variety caterpillar (or author actually) and now, without realizing it was happening, I’m a butterfly. Except the reality of publishing is not butterfly-pretty, at least from where I sit.
Look at the things that now concern me. They have nothing to do with content or crafting a lovely sentence. No, instead of those things I am obsessed about the cost of printing in North America. Someone suggests it could be done in China and you bet I want a quote. But never mind printing, mailing is worse. I am outraged at the cost of postage. And I want to know what kind of tax credits I’m going to get, because I deserve them.
Maybe I should backtrack a bit and say that after two experiences with mainstream publishing, I decided to go the ‘artisanal’ (self-published) route this time around. As I wrote in a previous blog, the first part of that process was just fine. I wrote the book, got saw awesome help with editing, and produced a book that I humbly consider to be my best so far (Economorphics: The Trends Turning Today into Tomorrow, and yes that is a promotion). But that was the easy part.
Actually, I already knew that writing was the easy part. In my previous experience, the hard part was promoting the book. Blogging, getting column mentions, finding media coverage and doing a good job of it, speaking and signing copies and hopefully selling a few–I knew that took a lot of work, and I was fine with it. What I did not know, however, was how tedious the distribution part – actually printing the books and getting them into a place that people could buy them – could be.
Printing is expensive and getting books places is expensive, just to start. Production costs aside, there are also some weird things that go along with book publishing. To get your book into bookstores, you have to be listed with a major distributor, and that’s true even if a bookstore wants your book. Then when you get your book into stores, you live with the possibility of ‘returns’ since stores only take things on a consignment basis and if they do not sell, they can return them to you. It is a crazy retail model. After all, if the Gap orders some jeans from a factory and cannot sell them that’s their tough luck. Bookstores, however, apparently demand a different set up and they have it. More outrage.
But here’s one thing I have learned and that other publishing companies must have learned as well: printed books are a pain and ebooks rock. Ebooks cost next to nothing to manufacture, and even less to send. They are not heavy, and they take no physical storage. And the margins on them are wonderful compared to physical books.
Like many self published authors, I am so, so tempted to not worry about a ‘real’ book at all. Except, some people still like them. They talk about the ‘feel’ of a book in their hands. Which is fine I guess, as long as they are willing to pay for them, and pay a much higher price to boot. The spread between books and ebooks at traditional publishing companies is not actually that great though: a quick check of amazon bestsellers shows that there is only a couple of dollars between the two in many cases. I presume that is because the latter is subsidizing the former, although I’m not sure what the pricing model is for large publishers. From the vantage point of my own artisanal press, I do know I have to charge a lot more for ‘real’ books.
From what I can tell, physical books are a ‘luxury’ item and sooner or later have to be priced as such—if they are even available in the future. Think that is far-fetched? Well, I am told that at some point in the past (maybe just within my memory, but it a faint one) you used to be able to pull your car into a gas station, then just sit there while someone filled it up. That’s gone now though: it was just an inefficient model, and the technology that allowed you to pay-at-the-pump over took it. Ebooks, I think, are going to move things the same way.
‘Oh can you send me an actual book?’ asks a friend when I say I’d be happy to get her thoughts on Economorphics. ‘To me there is no substitute for a real book. There’s just something about it’. Sorry but I can’t: as an author I may be indifferent as to which version you read, but as a publisher the ‘something’ is something I can quantify in real dollars and it’s a lot of them.