An American Editor

January 9, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)

Publishers are losing the battle over ebook pricing for many reasons, but the core reason is poor product quality. Publishers are so focused on the quarterly return that they have forsaken what once made publishing giants and made publishing a glamorous profession: quality editing — publishers fail to equate price with quality.

I guess I should back up a bit and make this disclosure: I am a reader of both ebooks and print books; I buy a lot of books each year. In 2009 I bought more than 100 books in each format, but no duplicates. I also should say that I am a book editor. I work independently and for many publishers and authors, and have for 25 years. Early in my publishing career I worked for a couple of major publishers and at one time ran a small independent press. I say all this because (I hope) it adds some credence to my commentary.

Back in the olden days of publishing, 5 to 10 years ago, publishers hired editors for one purpose: to take a manuscript and improve it — improve its organization, its grammar, its readability, its consistency. Poor editors were not rehired, good editors were reasonably paid. There was a balance between price and quality: a consumer generally could feel confident that the book was well produced — editorially and physically — and that the price was justifiable.

Fast forwarding to today and everything has changed. Not a year goes by without consolidation in the industry. The industry has changed from small (relatively) local publishers to giant international media conglomerates. The guiding philosophy of publishing in the 1950s and 1960s — produce quality books and the readers shall come — has devolved to the quarterly returns of the 2000s — cut costs, quality be damned! Yes, there are still publishers who care, but they are a struggling minority in terms of market share.

Increasingly publishers are outsourcing what they used to do inhouse. The 1990s saw the beginning of the rise of the book packager, an independent company who promised publishers that it could more quickly, more efficiently, and, most importantly, more cheaply produce the books for the publisher. Often the packager was a printing company that expanded its services to editorial and design. These promises appealed to the accountants and to those who had to face shareholders, so the packagers got the work.

Well, the packagers also have to make money, and if they are cutting the publisher’s costs, they have to hire more cheaply and locate where costs are less. It’s not rocket science to understand this. As a consequence, something had to give. Because the packager’s roots were in the typesetting/printing end, what flexed was editorial. Packagers discovered that savings couldn’t be made in their physical plants and equipment but could be made by outsourcing to less expensive and less experienced editors. And so they did and do.

Just a few days ago I was solicited by a packager wanting to hire me to edit STM (science, technical, and medical) books. The price offer: 80 cents a page. And the solicitor stated that for that high sum, a careful detailed, quality edit would be required. Just ain’t gonna happen.

As I pointed out in my reply, quality STM editing requires a well-skilled, knowledgable, experienced editor who has an eye for detail (after all, do you want to have your doctor pickup a medical book that says the dose is 5 grams when what is really meant is 5 milligrams?). And experienced editors will tell you that a quality edit of such a book means a rate of 3 to 5 pages an hour, sometimes up to 8 or 9 if the book is well-prepared by the author. To make a living in America, the editor would have to edit 20 to 30 pages an hour at minimum at the offered price. So how high a quality edit should be expected for 80 cents a page? (And it also makes me wonder what the price would be for fiction editing? 40 cents a page?)

How does this relate to the pricing battle? Consumers aren’t blind and are generally literate (a topic for another day). When the publisher pays an editor what amounts to $4 an hour for editorial work, is the publisher likely to get a quality job? Is the editor likely to know the difference between effect and affect, between emotional ringer and emotional wringer, between roll and role, between boarder and border, between acceptable and exceptable? Will the editor really care? And when the consumer reads “John entered the house in hopes of becoming a border” or “Their laid the brief case with the money,” will the consumer be thankful they paid a price for the ebook that is higher than the paperback price? Or will there be resistance? With their lax approach to quality, publishers are shoring up the $9.99 threshold they so want to resist.

Consumers are complaining about the high price being charged for ebooks for lots of reasons, but whereas a publisher might have some response to most reasons (acceptable or not), there is no response to the poor quality complaint. Smart publishers will rethink their book strategies and begin to chip away at consumer complaints by tackling immediately those quality issues that underly much of the unhappiness of consumers. Once this the quality issue is laid to rest, the other issues  can be addressed in a more measured manner: It is much easier to compromise when there is only one problem than when there is a plethora of problems.

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