Dan's Blog

February 2, 2010

Why eBooks aren’t free…

Filed under: eBooks,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 4:00 pm

What’s the deal with selling eBooks?  Why do they have to cost anything?  Once you’ve got the book in electronic form for printing (the pBook), all you have to do is save that file in PDF form to make an eBook, right?  It’s a virtually free byproduct of the print product, right?  And hey, once you’ve got the digital file, you just post is and the only cost to the publisher after that is the bandwidth required for a customer to download it.  How much easier could it be?

NOT!  All of this might have been true when an eBook was just a flat PDF file, but eBooks are much more now and perhaps there are consumers who don’t understand what goes into making an eBook.

My eBook experience is in the textbook industry, so I can’t speak to any other kinds of eBooks, but here’s a discussion about some of the things that go into the eBook version of a textbook.

To start with, there is usually the flat PDF file.  I’m pretty sure most publishers these days have updated the book development process so that the PDF file does just drop out automatically, and you do get this file pretty much for free.  But the book development process up to that point isn’t free, and the eBook needs to cover some portion of those development costs.  And since eBook sales are growing at the expense of pBook sales, publishers can’t necessarily count on the pBook sales to cover the development costs any longer.  If the eBook sells for almost nothing, and sales of the pBook don’t cover the development costs, a lot of eBooks have to be sold to make up the difference.  And maybe the total market for that particular textbook isn’t large enough for eBook sales to even reach the break-even point.  Publishers can’t stay in business if they don’t make a profit.

But very few students would buy a flat PDF eTextbook any more; if they are buying an eBook, they want the bells and whistles.

Some of the bells and whistles are: videos; animations; simulations; interactive exercises; historical reenactments; links to paid news services; links to online live tutors; content management tools so you can make notes in the book; additional content that’s not in the pBook, and in the case of online eBooks, content that is regularly updated.  Maybe an online language lab, or graphic calculator, links to spreadsheet templates, and I’m sure there are lots of others I can’t recall right now.  Plus, someone is paying Web hosting fees and bandwidth charges.

You might think video is easy; the publisher I worked for had thousands of hours of video when we got into eBooks, which should minimize the cost for videos, right?  Unfortunately, having a video on a video tape doesn’t instantly translate to having downloadable video; even converting video tape to a digital movie file costs money.  And making new videos is expensive; an educational publisher can’t just use a cell phone or handheld video camera in a classroom – the place I worked had a reputation for high quality and the videos had to match that quality.  That means a studio, at least one professional-grade camera and camera operator, someone to write a script, people to read the script, cutting, editing, content verification, etc.  If a math book had a 2 minute video to illustrate every concept in the book (and some of the do), the cost for new video could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

Animations, simulations and interactive exercises aren’t free either; they share some of the same costs – someone has to write the script, and then software developers go to work, and someone has to review the final product and content.  Software developers aren’t free, and a textbook might have several of these items per chapter.

In fact, everything that is part of an eBook other than the flat PDF file is an additional expense, some of which didn’t even exist before eBooks.  And every publisher is currently looking for new types of content and services that can be added to their eBooks to provide a competitive advantage over all the other publishers.

I don’t know how the cost of developing the eBook bells and whistles compares to the cost of sale plus costs of printing, warehousing, distributing and dealing with returns a pBook, but if a textbook publisher totally dropped pBooks and their eBook sales had to cover the total development costs, I’ll bet the minimum eBook price to stay in business would surprise a lot of people.

Of course, I worked for a textbook publisher, and I hope to remain in publishing, so I’m clearly biased against free eBooks.  But I think the perception is that publishers get eBooks for free, and that’s far from true.  I also buy books, and as a consumer I want prices to be as low as possible, without driving the publisher out of business.  It seems to me that a new business model might be needed to satisfy both publishers and consumers.  What might that look like?  I’m sure there are a lot of people, much more aware of the financial facts than I will ever be, who are also considering this question right now.



  1. They are… Look at Stiltjack.

    Comment by Ned Cutler — February 2, 2010 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  2. An interesting discussion in the DigitalBookWorld newsletter today.


    The topic is that publishers deliberately make the eBook less attractive or less valuable in order to drive pBook sales. They problem is, they lump all publishers together. The fact is that educational publishers make the eBook by starting with the PDF of the pBook and then adding many valuable features. There is a lot more content in the eBook than the pBook, and it sells for less.

    Comment by ddswanson01 — February 23, 2010 @ 12:11 pm | Reply

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