The world of print publishing isn’t squeaky clean. The potential for theft and fraud, though, is multiplied a thousand-fold with digital publications. As I do so much work in and about China, I’m often asked if I worry about intellectual property (IP) rights there. I do, but I worry just as much about such rights and their impact on revenues here at home.
IP concerns are just one problem facing publishers today and just one factor that adds to our costs. The public doesn’t recognize these difficulties, though. Ebook buyers and acquisitions librarians assume that it’s cheaper to do things digitally. As Dave Tyckoson, associate dean of the Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno, wrote recently at LinkedIn, Publication must be simpler and less expensive electronically, since sources do not have to be produced and shipped in physical formats. Updating in the electronic version is easier, so sources will not go out of date.
A colleague told me about a confrontation with someone from a state department of education who wanted free ebooks because the publisher was saving 60 percent of its costs by not printing. Told by the publisher that her printing costs were actually about 10 percent (and that sounds high to me‚ Berkshire’s costs are mostly in development and design), he shouted, Prove it! and stormed out of the room.
Some background on what makes digital publishing a challenge is clearly in order. First, let’s agree that in some ways the model reduces costs. It’s true that we don’t have to pay for printing, warehousing, or shipping. The additional costs and risks, however, tip the scales the other way. Listen to senior publishers, even from companies with a huge digital presence, and you’ll find agreement that digital products increase revenues but not profits. Some even argue that print revenues make digital resources possible, and that digital editions serve primarily as print marketing tools.
Theft is easy The 1960s saw a famous title called Steal This Book . Today, that instruction is hardly needed because it’s possible to get free digital versions of so many volumes. I asked the FBI not long ago about how to tackle torrent sites, where I was finding many Berkshire encyclopedias reproduced. They asked about our chain of custody‚ what we’re doing to secure files on our server, at the printer, and with our digital partners. Not much, I admitted, though now we add unobtrusive marks to every ebook file, which enables us to track the provenance of illicit files we find on torrent sites or elsewhere.
Sales pricing and fraud Distributors take a larger share of the sales price for digital products, and there is greater potential for fraud. The auditing of digital sales and licensing is new territory. Once I’ve sent a digital file to another company, I am almost entirely at its mercy when it comes to reporting sales. There is no easy way to verify how many copies the publisher has sold and no easy auditing because of all the channels into which digital content can go. This problem becomes even worse when distributing electronic content internationally.
Higher production costs There’s no standard workflow for getting material into different ebook platforms, so we’re doing more work with content than ever. We have to reflow and check material after any conversion and come up with workarounds for different platforms. Amazon’s Kindle, for example, can’t handle Chinese characters; this has led to creating image files for the hundreds of Chinese words and phrases in This Is China. If we cut out print publication, we’d save money on page composition, but many people, and many libraries, still want the print option. Remember, too, that authors may want digital access to their work, but many also want to know that it exists in a print edition that’s been well edited and designed. And even if books are available only as print on demand, we still have a lot of traditional publishing expenses. Indexing should be done differently‚ and better‚ in ebooks, but no good system for that exists yet, either.
Marketing and support aren’t free Most companies with digital products spend massive amounts on sales reps and promotional materials, go to conferences, and run webinars, and customers still don’t know what’s on offer because it’s so difficult to show the full range. Support and user training on a 24/7 basis are a whole new cost, too. Publishers must now offer support by email and phone, and those of us who work with libraries are expected to be open the same long hours. We can easily sell our online publications globally, but that means assisting customers in different time zones, not to mention that many professors need a refresher every semester.
Expectations of added value Yes, articles can be updated online in a way that isn’t possible in print, but that new material has to be solicited, reviewed, edited, formatted, inserted, and proofread, and all those stages must be tracked. And updating is not fun. I work with thousands of wonderful authors who write for us over and over, but few want to update articles regularly; they’d rather write something fresh. Then there are the de riguer social media add-ons‚ Twitter feeds, blogs, videos, and webinars. Each requires staff time, expertise, and a good deal of managerial oversight.
Let’s talk about how we can prove it to decision makers, customers, and especially to young people who have become used to downloading music for free. My hope is that the threats we face from pirate sites, Amazon, and others, as well as the changing needs of our customers, will make us cooperate more energetically. The human community needs publishers, and publishers need a sustainable model for doing business in the 21st century.