We always knew that long books cost more to produce than short books, just because of the production cost. So long books are priced higher to cover that higher cost. It’s not just the paper in the books–or even that fat books need bigger covers (which they do.) It’s that longer texts take longer to edit, copy-edit, typeset (even with electronics working there, too) and proof after typesetting. However, the materials cost is still the big problem, due to the ever-rising cost of paper and (related) the per-pound cost of shipping.
Some of us (points at self) thought that e-books would solve that problem, because a long electronic file (though yes, it takes a bit more bandwidth to download) isn’t that much more costly than a shorter one. Within limits. And paper & shipping costs are now out of the equation (“shipping” cost now consists of what the customer pays for a download…it’s no longer the publisher’s problem.)
Today, thanks to a call from Editor, I learned another factor involved and it’s not what I thought it was (the need to format differently for different readers, which does add to the cost of converting my submitted manuscript in Word to something that looks OK on your e-reader.) It’s the cost of producing a paper copy and the various e-versions when the e-sales overtake the paper sales (especially the hardcover sales.)
And the existing models by which publishers figure out what a book will cost to produce and what its break-even point is…all based on the sales of hard-copy books sold at standard discounts to stores that have the right to return books for credit. Publishers in the “old system” (no or minimal e-book sales) were actually pretty good at figuring out what the average book in their sales list would do. As they moved into e-publishing (whether fast, like Baen, or slow like some others) the cost of producing e-books could be subsumed into the cost of producing the paper books, which brought in nearly all the sales…so the model for satisfying the bean-counters upstairs didn’t change that much.
But that model works only if most of the income is from sales of hard copy books. When the facts change–as they have in the past year and will continue to change–suddenly it’s not hard-copy sales subsidizing a toehold in the e-book market. Suddenly it’s e-books subsidizing hard copy…only out of a market situation in which the pressure is to price e-books very low (because “everybody knows” they’re cheap to produce. Though friends of mine now putting out their rights-reverted books in various e-formats are finding that it’s not cheap when it’s their own hours of time going into it.)
And so the materials cost of the hard copy book–the paper, the printer, the bindery, the cover–and the shipping cost (fatter books weigh more; shipping’s charged by the pound) suddenly looks even more daunting, and there’s a firm push to shorten long books. As I’ve said before, many books benefit from being shortened…up to a point. I’m satisfied that Crisis of Vision–though it will be shorter than Kings of the North–has not been hurt by the cuts Editor requested.
But it’s a sign of things to come. Producing hard-copy books–and especially hardcover books–will begin to be seen as a drain on the profits more readily made by producing e-books, at least until the publishing industry has a handle on what the real market for hard-copy books is. Most of the writers I know have been asked to keep their books far shorter than mine.
I suspect a reverse trend will start when the publisher’s economic model for books switches to e-book dominance…if there’s a demand for longer e-books, with a small print run in hard-copy, then length requirements may loosen up again. Right now, though, we’re all in the maelstrom.