Why are ebooks so expensive?

It’s a question that came to me and a friend over coffee when we started to discuss Flyte, the newly launched ebook section of online Indian giant Flipkart. Ebook is not a physical book, it’s not printed on paper, it does not take more money to produce more numbers. It does not need distribution channels which eat off a big cost pie of the publisher. It does not need retail space to be sold. In other words, producing ebooks brings down production, distribution and storage costs for the publisher.


Right? Readers would assume so. For them, ebooks are just another medium but doesn’t exactly mean they own a book. Once you as a reader buy it, you cannot share it with someone or resell it if you don’t like it. In a way as this New York Times article states: You have only rent it from an Amazon or iTunes or Flipkart and your rights on the product are severely limited. You cannot resell and it’s gadget limiting and app-dependent. Logically, if the reader was just renting a book, the ebook’s price should have cost something like a library’s book rental cost – atleast half of the cost of a new book.

Then let us look at what it costs to make an ebook. Most Indian publishers, even the ones who have MNC counterparts, outsource their typesetting work (What is typesetting) to a third-party where plates are made digitally and then a physical final converts into a physical book at the printing press. Since the work is outsourced, the final typeset plates might have been deleted from the printer’s computer or put into raddi . So even if the editors and authors exchange drafts of Word documents and emails, the final version of the book (the typeset one with spacing, font setting and other stuff, etc) is not there in the hand of a publisher, especially in the case of older books, which have already been published say five years ago.

Since most of Indian publishers, especially in non-English languages are still producing books in outsourced press, to convert those into ebooks, they have to incur costs on getting them converted from paperback to OCR (optical character recognition) and then have it professionally proofread for scanning errors. In case they don’t have display rights or digital rights, they might have to procure them. This is a huge roadblock for many smaller traditional Indian publishers.

Then there are new costs associated with producing ebooks. As a New Yorker article put it:

“E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing. They also eliminate returns of unsold books—a significant expense, since thirty to fifty per cent of books are returned. But they create additional costs: maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, digitizing old books. And publishers have to pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead, not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.”

Another article in Huffington Post sums up the costs that it takes to produce an ebook from a publisher’s perspective.

1) Software to create an ebook – Adobe Indesign (One copy costs $699), Photoshop and other softwares to create and edit. Going digital in other words.

2) Cost of hosting the ebooks – maintaining servers themselves or paying rental for third-party hosting service

3) Paying hefty royalty to the new retail giants – “Amazon keeps a bit over 30 percent of every book, because it also charges a “delivery fee” above and beyond the percentage it makes. B&N keeps about 35 percent. Google kept 48 percent on my last report.”

4) More royalty to the author (somewhere between 15-25 percent).

Both New Yorker and Huffington Post’s articles are from old-style publisher point of view. When faced with ebooks, old publishers are panicking and even resorting to illegal measures. In the USA last year, book publishers S&S, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan and HarperCollins were sued by the Justice department for colluding to raise ebook prices. Out of these three (S&S, Hachette and HC) coughed up money and gave them back to the US customers who had bought up ebooks from 2010-2012. The USA scene happened because publishers were afraid that ebooks will kill the traditional market practices. Some of the publishers were following the traditional market pricing as they simply were in deep sea—not knowing how to proceed in the ebook market.

The Indian market is still nascent. Most Indian publishers shy away from ebook markets citing piracy fears and the fear of the unknown—technology. This fear converts itself into a new cost, a new way of thinking, a new business model. Copying what you were doing traditionally is not enough to keep you afloat. And they are being pushed by demand from readers who have tablets in their hands and want to see the book on various mediums —different ebook devices, audio, print. This generation likes to be served on individual plates. Their way or the highway.

How does one bridge the gap between the MRP that a publisher wants to put on an ebook vs what the reader is willing to pay for it? Maybe a traditional publisher will come up with a new business model which cuts costs. Or maybe we will see exclusive ebook-selling publishers sprouting around us. The Indian publishers need to drastically change their business models, figure out their costs and see the writing on the wall, that they have to change with this paperless times. Else perish.

As for authors, especially people like me who are just starting in the career of creative writing and storytelling, the more mediums I can get to my reader to read on, the merrier for me. Till readers are coming do I care how they read that particular story? I hope the publishers catch up to this reality soon.

Fall of the great Indian editor

I gifted a recently launched book to my husband who loves to read breezy novels. This one was published by a top publishers in India and written by an established author who happens to be a famous Mumbai socialite. After reading, my husband pointed out how a character in the book who was supposed to stand on the dais in a scene magically enters the event a few paragraphs later. (No, it wasn’t a fantasy novel).

Another newly launched book which I am reading currently (based on a famous mythological character) is completely riddled with typos, repeat sentences and just lazy line editing. I apologetically wrote to its debut author on how my reading experience was being destroyed by the typos, spelling mistakes and loose paragraphs. He was kind enough to respond to me almost immediately expressing that the typos had cost him not only bad criticism but also a prestigious award. The publisher had outsourced the copy editing job and the freelancer made a complete mess of it. Now the publisher is re-publishing the book after editing it again.

There’s a lot written and spoken about bad writing and falling standards of writing in Indian English. Every time I go meet a publisher or an editor, invariably the discussion includes the kind of manuscripts that they get in their inbox every day or about the falling standards of writing in Indian English (cheap books, cheap bad writing). However, none of them seem to mention a need for a good editor.

Editing is a hard, frustrating, badly paid and anonymous job and I really bow down to those in the line. You are not recognised by anyone in media or publishing (you haven’t written the thing, so what’s your job again). And the everyday stress of typos is bad for your skin and back. But that doesn’t excuse the publishers from putting badly edited books on the shelves, less the top publishers of the country. What could be the reason that editing standards are falling down in spite of electronic editors, Microsoft Word’s automated correction and other technological help (or handicap as some editors I know might call them).

I can think of two . One, that most publishers get away with paying woefully low salaries (half of editors in the Media industry) to their editorial teams. Some of the small publishers outsource line editing and copy editing to a low-paid, newly out MA (English) graduate to save money. The result is a badly constructed book which is then blamed on authors (since editors are seldom named except in Acknowledgements from the author and who reads that anyway?)

Second, even in big publishing houses where the editorial team is a good 5-15 size, the weeding job is usually done by the lowest and the newest. Copy editing is given to the most inexperienced of the editors when you need a lot of experience to weed out a page.  That’s because weeding is considered a low-level job by experienced editors, who would rather move up the ladder to plot editing and managing of a team of editors.

Or could it be that there’s just too many books and the editorial team is too small and the number of books to take out each year, just too high? Editing is hard and has to be done in layers – multiple readings of the same paragraph till words start to swim in front of your eyes. If there are a lot of titles in a week, the editor will get exhausted.

I cannot think of any other reason for the falling standard in Indian books in English. Can you? Do email me if you know of something. I would love to include it. Till then, here’s a celebration of typos (all copyrights are included in the cartoons). Enjoy madi!










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