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Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Reader Response to e-Book Costs (Posted for Your Comments)

I received this email from a reader, and asked for and received his permission to publish it here for public comment.
Dear Mr. Savas---

I’m a fan of “A Publisher’s Perspective” (particularly when you blog more often than every two weeks). But I’m writing today because I worry that you may have missed the point on your March 29 post, a quick observation on “Print Books and E-Books”.

I certainly acknowledge (given my own experience) that researching and writing a quality non-fiction book is expensive. You know the cost ratios far better than I, but I grant the expense in acquiring that book, developing it, editing it, designing it, marketing it and producing it. “How many publishers can do that for an e-book that retails for the cost of a trade paperback (or less?), you ask. “Not many, I fear,” and I would agree.

But what if the buying public doesn’t care about the services you offer? Or, worse yet, what if buyers are unable to discern the value you and the authors bring to book?

I’m a former sales and operations executive of a nationwide commercial printing company. As manufacturers of fine offset lithography, we produced dot-to-dot color resolution, color matching closer than a human eye could perceive, and scoring that never broke a paper fiber. National companies and their advertising agencies paid a fair, cost-based price for the service we performed.

Starting in the 1990s, however, we began to sniff what I termed a “degradation of expectation.” The color laser printer on the client’s desk was churning out color pages (and doing so in minutes, not weeks). Sure, the blue sky in the digital images wasn’t the CMYK cerulean we could produce on a Heidelberg, but it was blue, wasn’t it? And digital imaging was faster. And available in more convenient quantities. And faster. And able to be personalized.

As the quality gap between digital printing and traditional lithography narrowed, more buyers opted for the cheaper/faster/more flexible alternative, and willingly lowered their quality expectations. You (and every other publisher) did the same thing when you abandoned hand typesetting for the benefits of digital. If you could find an old-school typesetter today, he’d give you an earful about the poor kerning and unattractive baseline positions in your books today. Simply put, you made the (reasonable) choice to sacrifice high(est) quality standards for digital economies and efficiencies.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Savas. I’m a lover of quality books, and I’d be sick at heart to think we’d lose the value that a fine publisher like Savas Beatie brings to them. As an author, I love working hard to produce an interesting, accurate, worthwhile story, and I worry that readers may someday be satisfied with retread research and cut-and-paste writing.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the future looks just like the past. You, of all people, should know better.


Rusty Williams
author of My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (University Press of Kentucky, May 2010)


J David Petruzzi said...

Wow, fabulous letter, and it really does hit home. So many of us take so much pride in being up on the latest technologies, but when it affects something like our good 'ol paper books that we write, we feel that time ought to stand still.

I think the key word may be "adapt" - as always...

Paul Taylor said...

I had the opportunity to converse recently with an old-school bookman about this very issue. He is convinced that the typical hardcover book bibliophiles have treasured for eons is, relatively speaking, in its death throes. The internet, Kindles, Ipad's all offer or soon will too many alternatives that are quicker, easier, and cheaper than the traditional book. (Just look at today's modern library - while they are busier than ever, fewer and fewer are there to check out books) In his opinion, books are obsolete or at least about to be when viewed solely as an information or data delivery system.

In the broad scheme of things, book lovers who viewed books as something more than mere words on a page are an graying, aging breed, and unfortunately, he sees no new bibliophiles to take their place.

On the other hand, he does see books always being made for those buyers who want an artifact that they can hold and put on the shelf, but this will be a fraction of where the book industry is or certainly once was.

Time marches on....