The ugly if not predatory mechanics and economics of the just-renamed Harlequin Horizons imprint bring to mind a question I’ve had about the book business for some time….
Over the past few months I’ve read post after post from apparently knowledgeable sources such as agents, editors and publishers — people who’ve been in the publishing business for years — speaking to the issue of publishing costs. Here’s a recent example:
Packaging (cover design & production): $5,000
Typeset & Interior layouts: $3,000
Printing & binding: $18,000
Author royalty (a typical advance is calculated in this model): $25,000
Leaving out the royalty issue, all these numbers seem to jibe (loosely) with other numbers I’ve seen — as if this is pretty much the going rate. What I’ve yet to see, however, is how much profit there is built into these rates. What does it really cost the publishing industry to provide these services?
The reason I ask is that I keep looking at numbers like the packaging cost of $5K quoted above, and my mind keeps saying: Wait a minute…. What does that $5,000 cover? Assuming a publisher already has someone on staff who’s done this kind of thing dozens (if not hundreds) of times, what’s the real cost of the service? Between computers, digital cameras and image-editing software, I think I could buy everything I needed to make just about any cover design imaginable and still have several thousand dollars left over. And that’s just for one book. Spread the tech costs over multiple books and the per-book cost for packaging seems to plummet.
Now, obviously I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe there are normal, necessary tech costs I know nothing about. And maybe the best cover designers charge $500 an hour. And I’m sure there are all sorts of legitimate miscellaneous expenses that add up, as they do on any project.
And yet…I still wonder how much of the $5,000 cost of packaging is a usual-and-customary charge that has little or nothing to do with actual costs and everything to do with an established and entrenched business model that had (until recently) few if any real competitors. I mean, I know the record industry is awful in the way it cheats musicians, and the publishing business is less awful in comparison, but I find it really, really, reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally hard to imagine that publishers have never pushed the envelope to see what they could get away with in overcharging authors — and then stayed at that limit.
Which brings me to the Harlequin scam, the internet, self-publishing for the masses, and how price pressure might force publishers to take a fresh look at the rates they charge for services. Because unless I’m missing the whole point of the self-publishing movement, it’s about how the price of getting a message out went from whatever publishers could charge to whatever your ISP charges for a year of hosting. As in a hundred bucks.
From where I sit, that’s the new publishing price floor. (No, this says nothing about profits, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. Publishers aren’t charging against their expected profits, they’re charging against their costs plus whatever mark-up they think they can get away with.) Everything added on to this floor price now needs to provide some service or advantage or return on investment. Yes, the more ‘professional’ you want your end product, the more you’re probably going to have to learn and/or spend. But that’s a judgment call you get to make.
Publishers can of course argue that all of their packaging is inherently professional, and that’s a valid point. But it’s also valid to point out that I’ve seen more than one hideously, ghastly book cover that was produced by the professionals at publishing houses. (To say nothing of the myriad ways publishers might use a cover design to mislead consumers about the contents of a book, or how publishers can simply force authors to accept cover designs that some authors find objectionable.)
Point being: nobody ever talks about what it really costs to do all these jobs that everyone seems to know the cost of. Which makes me wonder how all that conventional wisdom and industry knowledge is going to hold up as the internet lava flow continues to melt the calcified publishing industry brick by brick.
— Mark Barrett