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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-10 13:18
Subject: [publishing] The value of ebooks; or contents vs container
Security: Public
Tags:books, publishing
The perennial "ebooks should be free, charging for them is theft" argument is now playing out at io9.com. Still thinking through the licensing issue I raised recently, I said the following:
When you buy a print book, you aren't buying the content, you're buying the edition. Otherwise everybody who bought a hard cover would be entitled to a free paperback, a free audiobook and a free movie ticket if the book were filmed. It would unethical for you to steal the paperback, pirate the audiobook and sneak into the movie. Why is it ethical for you to pirate the ebook?

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User: polydad
Date: 2010-04-10 20:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I disagree with you on this one, Jay. If I buy a hardback book, I am buying both the physical artifact and the informational content. A paperback book is another physical artifact, which means I have to purchase that separately, even if I already have the informational content. An audiobook represents both the informational content and the performance of the reader, and may also represent a material artifact, if we're discussing, say, a cassette or DVD. Similar for a film; there are performance and recording costs, and a possible material artifact.

An ebook, OTOH, is *nothing but* informational content. Unless you're trying to claim that you do all your work directly on paper and *only* on paper, and thus have to do a monumental data-entry task to put your work into electronic format, the effort of copying your text file to an ebook format is somewhere between minimal and nothing at all.


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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-10 20:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
the effort of copying your text file to an ebook format is somewhere between minimal and nothing at all.

A widespread understanding that simply isn't true. This is one of this business facts that doesn't pass the common sense test, but is nonetheless the case.

Only about 10% of the cover price of a print book is a function of print costs and distribution. Ebooks share the same aquisition, editorial, marketing, and royalty costs as any other edition. They do have some conversion and distributioon costs, which partially offset the savings from print production and shipping. Not to mention the IT systems for indexing, distribution, long term storage and rights management.

So while there's no incremental cost for digital distribution, there are plenty of other costs that have to be accounted for in the ebook sell-through. And given that current ebook numbers are well less than 10% of print numbers for the vast majority of authors, those costs get borne out of proportion on a per-unit basis.

In other words, it's a lot more complex, and costly, than common sense about "the effort of copying your text file" would suggest.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2010-04-10 23:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Every time someone says "copying your text file to an ebook format is minimal" my teeth gnash.

As part of Book View Cafe, an author's collective where we make backlist work available for a nominal fee or, in many cases, for free, I can tell you that the effort of transferring my text files to electronic format is not trivial. If you work in Word, it involves stripping out all the Word code, then going through and reformatting the work in the program we're using for the site.

For people who are selling their work for multiple platforms (Kindle, Nook, PDF, mobile phone, etc.) it's that many times more non-trivial (and frankly, part of the reason I haven't started selling my backlist this way is just this: I don't anticipate the coding and recoding of my work with any particular joy). I want to have my backlist out there working for me--God knows some of my older stuff could have made me a grandparent by now--but it's not going to take a trivial investment of time and energy to make it happen.
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User: jackwilliambell
Date: 2010-04-10 23:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Is an ebook really different from an MP3?

I buy a CD and rip it. I can now listen to my music on my computer and media player and I have paid for it. No ethical problems. In this case I rip it myself because it is easy.

I buy a CD and download the files instead of ripping myself. I can now listen to my music on my computer and media player and I have paid for it. Ethical issues are a little more murky, but in the end it is the same thing as if I had ripped it myself. The music was paid for.

Do you agree or disagree with the previous two statements? Do you listen to music on a media player which you did not purchase separately?

Now: I buy a hardback book. Is an electronic copy of that book in some way ethically different than an MP3 where I also own the CD? Yes, unlike ripping a CD, scanning a book is difficult and requires special equipment many people do not use. But is it ethically different?

My opinion? Ethically, getting a free electronic copy of a book I already own is a better bet than buying a used book because the author and publisher get a cut. Yet used books are not widely considered an ethical problem and how many of us have never purchased a used book?

All that said? I am purchasing ebooks even if I own physical copies right now and I haven't downloaded anything which isn't CC licensed. Why? I'd rather be on the side of the angels in this debate.

But I'm still concerned that many people are delineating books from other media in ways that are not warranted.
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They Didn't Ask Me
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2010-04-11 02:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It seems there's a mismatch in expectations here. An ebook is a file, just like an MP3, just like an application program, just like your tax information, etc. But... analog and digital sound information can be converted relatively simply. Sure, you could do added value like remastering, or re-equalization, or optimizing compression, but that's not required.

The equivalent to ripping a CD to an MP3 would be to scan your physical book into a series of JPEGs. Ever try to read documents as JPEGs? Ever try to re-size them to fit various aspect ratios and screen sizes for different reader programs and ebook readers? Not an efficient system.

Just taking a Word document and "printing" to Acrobat to create a PDF file isn't a clean 1:1 process. Because of the vagaries of printer drivers, I often have to reformat documents to create PDF versions -- and I'm just talking about Physics exams and solutions. And that's just one of the re-formatting and production options.

Finally, if there's a difference in the production method such that the average person can't do it themselves, then why would there be no ethical difference? And how does your taking of a "free" electronic copy give a cut to the author and the publisher? Yes, they got a cut when you bought the physical copy, but your taking of an additional "free" electronic copy when they offer an ebook for sale is not giving a cut to the author and the publisher.

I think a lot of people are trying to use arguments to justify whatever they're doing, no matter what. When I was in college, lots of people would make cassettes off of one LP, claiming that the artists and the record company were already paid -- once. I'm not a big fan of some of the hysteria regarding piracy, but that's not a blanket Get Out Of Jail Free card to one and all, either.

Dr. Phil
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User: icedrake
Date: 2010-04-11 15:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Pardon me while I think out loud here. I'm undecided about the subject and, having neither purchased nor read an ebook to date, I'm largely just watching from the sidelines.

Editorial expense is a sunk cost, regardless of whether you print one book or one million (and, presumably, whether you issue an ebook edition or not).

If a publisher is planning on releasing an ebook version, do they increase the marketing budget for the title by 10%?

Royalty fees are the most obvious incremental cost when it comes to ebooks. Nothing to argue with here: Do you want your favourite author to get paid when you download an ebook? Buy it from an official distribution channel (or send them a cheque).

Adjusting the layout for ebooks is also going to cost, but again -- doesn't scale linearly with the number of units sold. I also take issue with madrobins' objection regarding reformatting. This is most definitely something that can be automated.

IT infrastructure costs are not insignificant, but again, aren't linear. Your server can and network connection handle up to x thousands of connections per day. If you expect to have higher peaks and *really* want to capture the potential lost sales, you'll need two servers, or five, or fifty. It's a question of weighing the expense against the extra income gained at the crest of the wave of sales (new release, successful marketing campaign, mass hypnotism...).
But load balancing isn't a new problem, and what might be unreasonable expense for one book is much more acceptable when you're publishing fifty a year.

I'd be curious to

Bandwidth isn't free. It's only nearly so. I don't have the figures from the corporate end of things (not surprisingly, no one will disclose those), but let's count. Suppose you're selling 1 million ebooks in a month. You're serving up five pages do to so, in addition to the ebook itself: A search page, a book information page, a shopping cart page, a billing information page, and a purchase confirmation/download page.

Let's say these average 750KB, with all the images and scripts and whatnot. Let's say the ebook itself was 500KB (pretty heavy for an ebook, innit?). Each transaction, then, consumes roughly 4.25MB of bandwidth. In a month, you've used up just over 4 gigs.

On the more brutal, unreasonably outdated, *retail* pricing schemes I've seen, 1GB of overage tended to cost $1. Suppose my ballpark estimates are off by a factor of 10: The bandwidth expenses are now up to $40 a month for a million sales, or 0.004 cents per sale. Why are we even talking about bandwidth as a cost?

Indexing I can't say much about, having never dealt with large databases in a corporate environment. I know it's not easy, but I (once again) expect the cost to not scale linearly with the number of sales.

Long-term storage is a tricky one: Presumably the publisher is already storing and backing up all the electronic versions of their authors' backlist. The cost of doing so is most certainly not going to double for two different editions, nor quadruple for four. Backup infrastructure isn't cheap, but once it's in place, additional storage space is in the range of cents per gigabyte per year.

But the biggest question I'm wondering about is this: Is it reasonable for the publisher to use ebook sales to further amortize and spread the costs incurred on the print edition? The two are different products.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2010-04-10 21:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Is it then unethical of me to scan the book run it through OCR and put it on my computer? I'm not sharing it or distributing it in any way.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-10 21:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Nope. That's a personal copy for individual use, which is Fair Use under copyright law. It would be unethical (and illegal) to distribute that scanned copy to others, however.
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User: ygolonac
Date: 2010-04-10 22:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What about to other people that had also purchased a real copy of the book?
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User: nerinedorman
Date: 2010-04-11 05:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Since I'm personally acquainted with ebook publishing, I know exactly how much work goes into preparing a file for release. When people say "Oh, it's just an ebook" it makes my blood boil. As a content editor I would have reviewed any book I work on multiple times. That's translated to hours of my life I could have been doing other things, like gardening, or spending time with friends.

But I edit books, many of which are only released as assorted digital files for reading devices.

Why? I'm passionate about stories. And when I buy an ebook, I do so because it's my way of paying tribute to the author, editor and publisher who have worked hard to ready this file for me.

I buy the right to read this work and I'm happy to do so since my few dollars are a way of saying thank you.
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User: ygolonac
Date: 2010-04-11 09:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
People 'in the biz' say stuff like this, but then I see a book like this http://www.amazon.com/Long-Walk-Story-Freedom-ebook/dp/B002SQKQHQ/ref=wl_it_dp_o?ie=UTF8&coliid=I1G40B5FV7QV3T&colid=16P23UUC5WVYH on Amazon.

$10 for a 50+ year old book that has sold over half a million copies already. You really expect me to believe they need to charge such an outrageous price to recoup their editing investment?

If publishers want to charge stupid high prices for new ebooks, fine, then lower the costs of old ebooks to something reasonable.

Ah, nevermind, I'm just repeating myself from earlier posts on this subject here. Whatever.
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User: nerinedorman
Date: 2010-04-11 15:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree prices should be kept reasonable, after all the overheads from printing costs aren't there. There are certain vendors who charge the same that one would pay for a printed book, and that I disagree with. The whole idea is to pass some of the advantage onto the reader, otherwise what's the point.

But I don't agree ebooks should be free. If people don't pay for an item, chances are they won't value it. I've lost count of the free 'zines on my "to read" pile yet when I pay $5 for an ebook by one of my favourite authors, I tend to read it almost immediately.
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User: icedrake
Date: 2010-04-11 15:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If people don't pay for an item, chances are they won't value it.

I'll agree, but expand this to: If peole don't pay a price for an item that's close to what they expect its worth to be, they won't value it. There is a story of a software developer who tried selling an enterprize-level product to companies at $500 a license. No one would talk to him. Then someone advised him to set the price at $5000 a license, and suddenly he started seeing a lot more interest from the customers. $500 was so far off from what they'd normally pay, they assumed it was an inferior product and not worth their time.

All that said, charging money just so people appreciate the purchase is a really bad reason to charge money. If I paid $5 (or $2 even) for something that I completely dislike, I'll be much more annoyed -- and unlikely to revisit the author's work -- than if I got it for free. People will appreciate the transaction, but I'm not convinced that translates to them appreciating the product.

Would your attitude to the free zines have been different if your downloading of one was strongly linked to a "pay what you can" donation button?
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2010-04-11 18:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is a discussion that has gone on in the art world in a sideline way since the beginning of digitial art making and mxied media including digital images. As yet, there are no clear answers.

However, and surely there are enough technologically sensitive people on this blog to know this, the concerns about the current difficulties in maintaining formating and other problems with converting books to digital/digital to print, will be solved and relatively quickly. How long did it take for similar tech to be developed for other media? Films, photography, music?

Print is behind the curve, but it will be there and soon.

So personally, I consider the arguments about how difficult it is to make the physical change between media moot. It's gonna happen, people will have access.

Best figure out your logical arguments first for the times, they are a'changin'.

Why are books different from music if the costs to rip a book are no different from ripping a song?

Who should decide the price points?

If films can make money, why can't books make money, and how can the models be compared?

I have no answers. I'm deeply interested.

What I know is the art world is one fucked up mess over this stuff.

Best get the literary world's act together so writers don't end up disenfranchised like the majority of visual artists.
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Lorraine with the heaving zombie bosoms
User: blucola
Date: 2010-04-12 03:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's not ethical. I don't care how anyone tries to pretty it up, stealing is stealing. Why is it supposed to be acceptable just because you bought the book in hardcover or paperback? I have gone to an antique store in the past and found strip cover books for sale. Well hello there copyright infringement! I went to management, they were removed from the salefloor while I was still there. To my thinking, strip cover books and pirated e books are the same thing, because no one got paid for the content.

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