Book Publishing in the Digital Age: A Reality Check

>The Internet tsunami that has swept through the newspaper and magazine industries, transforming the landscape and leaving debris everywhere, has at last arrived at book publishers. According to today's New York Times, publishers now acknowledge that e-books cost less to produce than the traditional paper models and therefore ought to sell for less. Amazon has been selling them on the Kindle for $9.99, much to the publishers' dismay. Now several large publishers have agreed with Apple to sell books on the iPad for $12.99 to $14.99. Hoping this line will hold, publishers scold that (as the clearly sympathetic Times puts it) "consumers exaggerate the savings and have developed unrealistic expectations about how low the prices of e-books can go."

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Book publishing involves many expenses that book buyers may not appreciate, the publishers say. That is indeed true. The average hardcover book, says the Times, sells for $26. Here is just a partial list of where that $26 goes:

  • $2.00 for lunches
  • $0.05 to $7.00 for the book party
  • $1.05 for the author tour
  • $0.65 for seven editors to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair
  • $0.60 for lunches at the Frankfurt Book Fair
  • $1.50 for drinks at the Frankfurt Book Fair
  • $2.00 to cover wild overpayments to 15-minute celebrities or Washington bigshots for books that will never earn back their huge advances but the cost has to be amortized somehow
  • $0.50 for lawyers
  • $0.40 for editors
  • $6.00 for free review copies
  • $17.50 for employee health care
  • $1.60 Whoops! Forgot these lunch receipts from last month. Sorry.

The book industry is one of the most custom-laden and set in its ways. It still can take over a year from the time an author submits a manuscript until the time the book comes out. Even if a manuscript is submitted electronically, it may very well be printed out, edited in pencil with sticky notes, and then keyed back in with new typographical errors. It remains to be seen who has "unrealistic expectations" about life and books in the digital age.

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Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

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