Over on barbarienne's LJ, she's posted about a cadre of Kindle owners who are making claims that the big publishers don't want ebooks to succeed as a viable format for reading. I leave it in her capable hands to debunk that nonsense. However, one comment that I read there, and have seen elsewhere, drives me insane.
The comment is that "printing makes up almost all of the costs of a book". People couldn't be more wrong. It is certainly part of the cost, and a not-insignificant part, but it's not "almost all". In order for a major publishing house to release a text for publication (ie: to make it a quality product with the added value of having come from a major house (because otherwise, everyone could just publish with a vanity press), the publisher has certain costs that do not go away even if we eliminate printing and binding costs.
First, there is an editor who needs to be paid to help the author fine-tune their work (or in some cases, bring out the sledge-hammer and beat the thing into publishable shape). This is a person who spends more than 40 hours per week reading submissions, multitasking a dozen or more books through various stages of the publication process, all while trying to maintain quality control. It's a skilled job, and one that needs to be properly compensated.
Then, there are the contracts people (c'est moi and my ilk), without whom the publisher cannot legally obtain the rights necessary to publish the work in the first place. If there is no contract, there is no book or ebook. And if neither the publisher nor author is comfortable with the terms, there is no contract. That's why editors don't negotiate contracts (or shouldn't). They have to focus on finding and editing books. Another specialized position.
Hand-in-hand with the contracts people are the lawyers. Yes, publishers of books need legal teams. These not only have to worry about actual legal problems created by authors, alleged to have been created by authors (you know, by all those litigious people out there who think that having gone to summer camp at age 4 with the author MUST be the inspiration for the galaxy eating demon lord in the author's new novel), but also have to review the text even if there are no such problems, just to make sure there are no such problems. Lawyers = expensive, specialized personnel.
There are copy-editors and proofreaders who check and correct mistakes in the text (yes, authors make them, and editors miss them). A painstaking task to be reasonably compensated.
There are designers who need to format the text for the end product. This is as equally true of an ebook as a printed book. Don't you just hate ebooks where it's clear all the publisher did was run raw text through a converter? Bad page breaks. Hyphenation errors. Want quality ebooks? It costs money.
Then, there are marketing people, who have to find a way to get people to know the work is out there. And, if it's only an ebook, getting publicity is about as easy as getting my son to give up Beatles Rock Band for Lent (ain't gonna happen). These creative, talented people still have to write copy for websites, ads and sometimes YouTube book trailers. Again, not cheap labor.
Then, there are the sales people, who have to try to get the book picked up by vendors. "AH!", I hear you say, "but if there is no book, you only have to upload the ebook to a server." "AH!", I hear myself respond, "That's not all there is to it." There are staff members dedicated to liaising with the ebook vendors, just as print books have sales reps who travel the country getting shelf space in bricks-and-mortar stores. And placement on ebook sites is not entirely random. These are still necessary people in the process.
Then, there is the publisher's own web staff. Yes, it may be an ebook on Amazon or B&N.com, but it's also going to be an ebook on our site. Someone has to make sure that keeps running 24/7/365(6). Someone has to organize publisher's blogs as part of that marketing effort I mentioned earlier. Someone has to make sure that we have the rights to post excerpts, or to get author approval to do so when necessary. Someone has to manage all of that digital content so that it doesn't get corrupted (or, if it does, that it gets fixed ASAP). Ever check out what good, creative IT people get paid?
Then, there are the rights staff, the people who try to get the text excerpted in periodicals (print and electronic). Or get the books distributed via book clubs (think they won't go electronic shortly? Who's not thinking progressively about electronic publishing now?) Or get translated editions licensed. Or, yes, sometimes, make that movie deal the author wants. Paid professionals.
There are other departments in a publishing house whose jobs do not dry up and blow away just because there may be no print edition. Royalty people who make sure the authors get paid. Accounts Payable people who make sure that all the other bills get paid, including the utilities and rent that allow the publisher to operate. Human resources people who make sure that the publisher's employees are treated fairly, and have reasonable benefits so they can retain their jobs, and so that someone can vet potential new employees when people leave. Office services people who make sure all these other people have the supplies they need to get their job done reliably and efficiently.
All of this is called "overhead" and none of these costs disappear just because a publisher switches to all electronic publications. So, please people, learn a little something about the publishing industry before you spout off about how greedy the publishers are, and how ridiculous our mark-ups seem to you. Publishing runs on a VERY lean profit margin, and most books do not make a profit for us. Very few authors ever see much money beyond their advance. It's a volume business, and one big book can make or break a publisher's year.
No one takes a publishing job to get rich (if they do, they should be locked up in a rubber room). Publishing is consistently one of the lowest paid professional industries. Each of us, particularly those of us whose job does not directly bring in income to the company, is irreplaceable in bringing the books you want (print or electronic) to you. Without covering all of this overhead as part of the products we sell to our customers, we'd be out of business, and everything would be self-published. I welcome you to shutter the major houses, acquire rights, police copyrights, edit, design, market and license your own line of ebooks (not one-offs here, but an on-going line of books), and cover your other costs at $0.99 per copy (or even at $9.99). Once you do, I'll split the cost of a cup of coffee with you when we are both on the unemployment line.