Synchronicity, Or Close Enough For Government Work

January 2nd, 2006 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

In our never-ending quest to avoid responsibility, we spent some time reading blogs yesterday. The option was clearing the inbox, and, well, that held no appeal. We stopped by Brenda Coulter’s place (happy belated anniversary) and noted a post on the price of audiobooks. Well, we thought, there’s something we can discuss with some semblance of intelligence.

Then, following hard on the heels of Brenda’s post, was a comment from Susan Gable regarding the price of ebooks. Again, our first thought was to offer our thoughts. Plus, we like to think we’re the thrifty type, though there is no evidence to support this belief.

Before we begin, we want to say something: we know there are many traditional-style book snobs out there. We have heard the arguments regarding the look, feel, and smell of books, etc. This is a given and should not be raised as an argument for or against the high prices of non-traditional publishing methods. Before we get to economics (or our misguided version thereof), Brenda poses a question regarding audiobooks:

Foolish consumer that I am, I downloaded three audio books just to see what all the fuss is about. I’m guessing that after listening to these books once, I’ll delete them from my iPod, so where’s the value to those of us who are not sight-impaired? What am I missing? Would anyone like to speak up on behalf of audio books?

Now we know facetiousness when we read it, but that never stops us. While audiobooks are a great boon to the sight-impaired — blind, low-vision, people who can’t find their reading glasses — they are also useful to those who enjoy floating in the hammock on a sunny afternoon, commuters, people who, gasp, exercise, and those who simply, for whatever reason, do not enjoy reading books. Likewise, electronic books serve a wide range of audiences. As you can see, with one exception, these non-traditional formats complement traditional reading choices. They are a good thing as they expand opportunity — and we all know that the more chances people have to enjoy stories, the better life for, well, all of us is.

That being said, prices are out of control. It can be argued that the price of an audiobook reflects the higher production cost. One must remember that if you’re listening to a 10-hour long book, someone had to talk for ten hours. Probably more. If you are a fair person, you will grant that poor, dry-mouthed soul a reasonable wage. Stars in the audiobook realm probably don’t command Tom Cruise-esque salaries, but one imagines demand ups their daily rates.

According a BBC article, audiobooks cost approximate £2,500 (which, if our trusty HP calculator is doing its job, comes to about ,300 give or take foreign exchange fluctuations). This is for the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s Talking Book Service, so one can safely presume that the costs for a commercial production are higher.

One can also presume that prices on audiobooks reflect the following:

  1. Calculated breakeven based on historical sales figures
  2. Library sales price rather than new-fangled direct-to-consumer prices
  3. Lack of re-evaluation of current market conditions
  4. Good, old-fashioned greed

In other words, it’s probably time to reconsider the cost of audiobooks in light of the fact that sales are increasing, usage of portable listening devices is increasing, manufacturing (versus production) and shipping, etc, costs are decreasing due to services like The obvious reason for re-evaluating prices is that the industry has lost potential customers like Brenda Coulter. For the cost of an audiobook, she can buy a lot of Starbucks products. No, no, don’t thank us for our brilliance. Eventually someone would have thought of it.

Now for ebooks. What can we say? Quite a bit actually, none of it nice to the publishing industry. As you may recall, we have ranted at great length on this topic over the past years (that and the royalty rates authors earn for ebooks). In today’s business environment, it is almost a guarantee that an author will be using a computer or something like it for writing. The text will be stored in a traditional text-based format (probably Word, but there are others). Sometimes, the author will even submit work electronically, live via email. For those of you who have been paying attention, given modern production processes, this saves a lot on typesetting costs. It also saves on bundle on the cost of creating an electronic version of a book.

As we all know, in addition to the cost of making a book (paper, ink, cover art, glue), shipping it, and storing it, there are other costs. Marketing, editing, electrical bills, the semi-annual elevator repair costs factored into the lease agreement. That person who answers the phone? Costs money. Usually.

Despite all of these elements, publishers manage to produce a product that ranges from about six dollars (creeping up thanks to the upperbacks) to about 30 (give or take). The question becomes interesting when you take away physical manufacturing costs. When you no longer have to ship an item via truck, train, boat, airplane, or donkey. When your warehouse houses bits and bytes.

We’re not suggesting these things are free when it comes to electronic books: manufacturing individual copies goes away, but shipping remains in the form of bandwidth, storage moves to hard drives, security costs come into play. Now, one should recall that the cost of editing a single book is spread across all versions. The nice person who answers the phone is supported by the entire list of hard-working books, not just yours. Creating an electronic version of the book — for simplicity’s sake, we’ll pretend it’s being done as a secure PDF file — is a minor incremental expense.

These costs are relatively small, especially if the book is distributed by a third-party seller. We’ll use Amazon as our hypothetical seller — already you have oodles of bandwidth, so costs will be minimal unless there’s a dramatically scary uptick in electronic downloads. Storage, well, text is small and disk space is cheap. Security remains an unknown due to the juvenile mindset of the hacking-for-malice crowd. We won’t begin to quantify the costs of maintaining a Windows-based web environment, but that would up your costs significantly.

What we believe is that electronic books should cost less than paperbacks. We also believe authors should get better royalties on ebooks. And we’re going to keep saying that. It is ludicrous to pay less than paperback rates in this day and age.

Ebooks are cheaper to produce and distribute than paper books. Prices should reflect this. Audiobook prices should reflect the new market and be set with an eye toward building readership not turning people away. Happy customers, we’ve been told, make for loyal customers.

We’ll be back to rant on this topic again. You can count on it.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

5 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Jan 2, 2006 at 11:05 pm

    Thanks, Booksquare. I had a lovely first blogiversary.

    For the cost of an audiobook, she can buy a lot of Starbucks products.

    Absolutely. And don’t mouth this around, but I’m not as unique as I like to pretend. In fact, I’m quite boringly average, so if I prefer the hold-it-and-smell-it type of book over an audio book, you can bet millions of other people feel the same way. If publishers want me and my kind to buy audio books, they’re going to have to seduce us with low prices.

  • May // Jan 3, 2006 at 5:25 am

    I like ebooks, despite it not having the ‘hold-it-and-smell-it’ tangibility that Ms Coulter referred to. For me, it’s about seeing the words. Hearing it just doesn’t do it–plus I lose track frequently.

    Pricewise, ebooks are typically only worth it for shorts and hardcovers, which is rather sad.

    That, and there’s the which format’s gonna win question still hanging over my head.

  • Bill Peschel // Jan 3, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    In one case, I’ve found audiobooks an improvement over the prose. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series, especially with Patrick Tull narrating, becomes much easier to understand with someone else pronouncing the nautical terms (not to mention the French, Spanish, Catalan, Latin and whatever other tongues are lurking).

    On the other hand, I remember vividly an Inspector Morse book in which the British narrator attempted a Southern accent. The result was the worst disaster for the South since the “Dukes of Hazzard” remake.

  • Steve Clackson // Jan 3, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    History of English Speaking Peoples Volumes 1&2 – Winston Churchill
    There has been a lot of talk about Audiobooks. The “need for speed” as in everything else we seem to do these days. We “multi-task”, and if we take the kids to swimming, hockey or to the mall then why not zone out on the way and enjoy a good book.

    the rest at Sand Storm

  • Booksquare // Jan 4, 2006 at 9:22 am

    Ouch — I have a British friend who is desperately trying to master the California accent. I have faith that someday she’ll succeed; then to move on to the old South…

    Steve, you’re making me think it’s time to stop needing the speed. I thought we were supposed to gain free time with all this technology stuff?