The costs of ebook production are higher than you might think

If you think producing ebooks is a cost-free affair, think again. For publishers, many of the same processes are needed as for print publication.

In response to my post yesterday on publishers and the profits from ebook sales, reader jenk1974 added the following comment:

I fail to understand how publishers can fail to make money from ebooks. Authors these days submit their books electronically. No typesetting, no printing, no spell checking, no grammar checking, no binding, no distribution costs etc. It is time that publishers climbed out of the 19th century and embraced this growing medium by offering ebooks at a realistic price, which has to be a fraction of the paper price.

Jenk1974 has some valid points in that for a straight ebook release, there are ought to be less expense in the production process. Since, I've been an author (as well as an editor and contributor) of multiple books (one of which was written exclusively for publication as an ebook), I thought I'd share some insights into why ebooks still require production costs regardless of whether they are being sold alongside a traditional print title or solely in electronic form.

First, it is true that most (maybe all, at this point) authors submit their work electronically. Historically, this has been done in Word (usually in a publisher-provided template), though there have been shifts to more collaborative, server/cloud based options at some publishing houses (things like SharePoint and Basecamp). In some cases, these options are available to the author, but in others they may be used solely by the editorial and production staff.

Even so, a copy-editing process is absolutely critical (and always will be) for things like spelling, grammar, adherence to style guides, correct use of formatting, proper use of tables, and appropriate insertion of images. This is needed both for general clean-up of the author's work and to ensure the work meets the publishers design and printing guidelines.

Whether intended for print or electronic publication, there also needs to be a production editing process (typesetting and layout) that places the content into the appropriate design container(s), ensures proper structure of chapters, heading, tables, sidebars, and so forth. This process is almost identical or ebook or print production and almost always involves conversion to a professional layout solution that would be unwieldy for any author to write in (and would probably require too much technical knowledge for many authors to use at all). Following layout, there's typically a conversion to pre-press format that can be sent to a printer that includes all specifications, fonts, color profiles, and other technical output details. There's also a final proofing phase of the output that goes through various levels of editorial scrutiny as well as approval by the author.

There is also the design processes involved in creating a cover, which can include graphic designers, copy writers, and artists. Similarly, copywriters are needed to generate cover and book flap content. An editorial process may also be needed if any recommendations from other authors or experts in a field are included as part of the cover or front matter of the book. Front matter usually includes the title page, introduction, foreword (almost always written by another author or expert), dedication, acknowledgements, and contents.

For non-fiction books, there's also the creation of index. This is usually done by a dedicated team within a publishing house or is contracted out to a firm that specializes in this type of work. It is almost never done by the editorial staff or the author because creating a usable and accurate index is a very specialized skill.

This doesn't include the actual editorial review process, where an editor works with an author to review a manuscript, offer suggestions to tighten the language, better ways to advance the plot, or tips for better explaining technical concepts (obviously, this process varies depending on the type of book). For technology books, there's also almost always a tech review or editing process in which one or more experts on a book's topic review the manuscript as its being written to ensure everything included is technically and factually accurate and well explained. A similar review process exists in many non-fiction books such as DIY guides, cookbooks, and scientific or history-related texts.

For a straight ebook, there may not be physical publishing or distribution costs. However, there will be costs to convert the book into a variety of formats - ePub for Apple's iBooks and Nook, Amazon's Kindle format, or even a secure PDF (not to mention some review of the resulting material to ensure that it meets any needed design or readability criteria). There are also the related costs/processes of legal and administrative tasks like registering the book for an ISBN number, ensuring accuracy and approval of any cited sources or quoted works, marketing, working with ebook stores, arranging for international sales, and overall accounting.

Obviously, these are serious tasks that are absolutely part of any publishing process and that are critical to a book's production for either ebook or print publication (or both, as the vast majority of ebooks are also released in print at this point). Needless to say, it takes more than a village to produce most of the books that you see in an ebook store or a brick and mortar bookstore.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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