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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cost and the future of the e-book

My posting from a couple days ago on the future of the e-book generated a few comment-posts and some e-mails. I decided to take one of those comment-posts and make it into a regular blog entry. Here is the comment-post:
Anonymous said...
I am a prolific reader. One of the things that I do not understand about e-books is the cost. Why do publishers want you to pay so much? If you consider that e-books have no paper, ink, glue, etc. the cost should be much less than a hardcover or even a paperback book. Until the price of an e-book goes down to a reasonable level I will not buy into this technology. I'll continue to read for free from the library.
June 18, 2008 9:13 AM

Cost of e-books has been complicated. As one publisher noted to me, they did not know what to charge for the content separate from the format. The two have almost always been linked, but with digital, that linkage is potentially broken. That aside, there are some differences when talking about trade publications versus textbooks.

Textbooks are the more costly to produce in a digital format. It can cost upwards of five times as much to convert a textbook to different formats as it does trade books. Why? Some of it is in the complexity of the material -- inserts, graphics that might span pages, more complicated indicies, etc. With textbooks in general, there are also additional expenses that come from producing ancilliaries to support faculty (e.g., test banks, powerpoints, etc.), required peer review processes, and other factors all of which increase the cost. As we look toward digital textbooks, creating the "pdf version" of the book is one thing, but producing a "born digital version" is another. Producing such interactive versions, incorporating full multimedia and a richer learning environment is far more costly than producing the traditional version of the textbook. Reproduction and distribution costs may be lower, but development costs are significantly higher. The skilled labor to develop such born digital texts is expensive and in fairly short supply, plus we are still in the early stages, so the costs of assessing the learning outcome from different digital approaches makes things more complex yet. This gets back to the question of what is a proper price for the content. Business models are still in flux.

All this raises some degree of question around what is the source of the cost of a book -- is it for the format or for the content (plus marketing, etc.)? It is possible that the format itself (i.e., print versus electronic) has little impact on the final price. I learned this morning that the SPARK (?) group for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has apparently done some good work on evaluating the costs of distribution versus costs of content creation, but I have not seen the information yet. I do know there are a number of publishers who read this blog on occasion. Anyone willing (even anonymously) to share some information or shed some light on some of the economic complexities of digital versus print books?

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