Why aren’t ebooks free?

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Our ebook vendors

Since we started publishing ebooks for library platforms back in 1999, we’ve often pondered on what the correct pricing for ebooks should be. In 2011 we started publishing each new book, and a large number of backlist titles, on all major consumer ebook platforms (like Amazon Kindle, Apple iBookstore, Google Play, Kobo, Nook, Ebooks.com and many independent ebooksellers) and the question of pricing has come up again. We are often asked “why aren’t your ebooks free, or extremely cheap, given that they cost nothing to produce?”  and so, in this post, I’ll outline why we price them like we do.

While we don’t have print, warehousing or shipping costs for ebook sales, these are only a small number of the total costs in book publishing. The majority of the costs in producing an academic book come from the huge investment of time and resources that the publisher, the author, and the academic series editors have put into a book. For example, this month we proudly published “Language Planning and Policy in Native America”, a book which we first started discussing with the author over 12 years ago. During that time, the manuscript has undergone several reviews, and many revisions, with the knowledge that we would not start to receive any income until the book was finally published. As a responsible academic publisher we are committed to not publishing books until they are fully and rigorously reviewed and revised so that they are not only factually accurate but as easy to read and as well-structured as possible to enable the reader to get the most out of the book. Anybody that has ever read an unedited self-published volume will be able to tell the difference that an experienced and careful review and editing process brings to a book project.

Sarah, our production manager, checking proofs in the office
Sarah, our production manager, checking proofs in the office

During the development time we still have to pay the office rent and the salaries of those members of staff working on the book. The author and academic series editors are not paid a penny for their work until the book is published and starts to earn royalties. We always pay our authors and editors a percentage of all income earned by the book, whether we as a publisher have covered our costs or not, and these are the cheques that we have the most pleasure in sending out. If we are sending our authors a large royalty cheque, it means a job well done.

Once a book goes into production, we work with our copy-editors and typesetters to ensure that typographical errors are corrected and that the files are laid out in a way that makes the book readable on the variety of different devices and systems that our customers use to access our ebooks. We continue to research developments in the ebook publishing arena, and make sure that our company is ready to respond to new developments as and when a reliable industry wide solution is made available. We pride ourselves in being among the early adopters of most new publishing strategies.

Govinda, our Indian Rep, at the World Book Fair in New Delhi
Govinda, our Indian Rep, at the World Book Fair in New Delhi

The cost to the publisher doesn’t stop on publication. We support all of our books with marketing mailings, email announcements, displays at conferences, review copies and so on. Furthermore, we regularly visit our international library bookselling partners and meet with our international reps to make sure that our publication information is available to top research libraries and customers around the world. Although it is easy these days to make a book available on the internet, or in a library database, we believe that each individual title deserves specific publicity to make sure that it is not only available, but also, that the people who would benefit the most from that research are made aware of it. This takes time, expertise, and funding.

What people sometimes don’t realise is that not all of what the customer pays for a book is passed on to the publisher. Therefore, each time we sell an ebook, our bookselling partners take a portion of the income and pay us after taking off the discount that we give them. The work that booksellers and library suppliers do on behalf of their customers does not come for free, and neither should it.

Another cost to the publisher is monitoring file sharing sites and illegal pirate copies of the work, which we do on behalf of our authors to ensure that their work is not read without them receiving reward for their hard work. File-sharing sites might seem idealistic, but the owner and host of that site may well be receiving valuable advertising revenue, driven by the amount of traffic that visits their site. So they are getting paid, while the people who have spent years creating the content are not. As soon as we discover our content on these sites, we write to them requesting that they stop illegally sharing material that belongs to somebody else.

Tommi at the TESOL conference
Tommi at the TESOL conference

As a publisher we believe in supporting the main associations in our fields, whether that is by regular conference attendance by senior staff at the CAUTHE conference, annual top level sponsorship of AAAL, or long term grant projects like the Multilingual Matters-AILA Library Award and Multilingual Matters-AILA Solidarity Award. We strongly believe in contributing towards the future development of the fields in which we work, and although we don’t tie the costs of these sponsorships to individual book or ebook publications, this is where the money comes from.

Given all the time, effort and expense that go into running a truly international, responsible academic publishing company, surely the real question is “why should an ebook be free?”

Tommi

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