Length & Economics

Posted: March 9th, 2011 under Crisis of Vision, the writing life.
Tags: ,

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.


  • Comment by Ed — March 10, 2011 @ 3:42 am


    I’d actually like to see a decoupling of the two costs. I would love to be able to pay a price for an ‘intellectual property’ to cover writing, editing, formatting etc.
    And then have a choice whether I want to pay on an individual basis for an ebook, hardback, paperback.
    Some books I like owning in hardback, because they’re a pleasure to have on my shelf and read, but I’d still like a more portable copy as well. So being able to buy a hardback and get a ‘free’ (or cheap) ebook copy, with it, would be lovely.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — March 10, 2011 @ 10:22 am


    Ed, I don’t think you understand the complexities. I work in data collection and people are continually surprised at how expensive it is to put up a good (and/or complex) web based survey. It can be more than a paper one. It’s really the delivery costs for multiple mailings that really run up the paper price now for us.

    With multiple electronic formats to support the costs to convert well an already electronic document can still be substantial. Just look at the four different news feeds to the right here and you as preferred formats expand and with the foreseen expansion of fourth generation phones this will only get worse in before there is any chance that “standards” will be adopted. Everyone whats to be control the standard at the moment. That’s why some ebook retailers will demand exclusive distribution rights in the near term to try to grab market share.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 10, 2011 @ 10:34 am


    I’m not sure how feasible that is (not being a publisher myself, but having friends currently “translating” their books from print to e-book.) For one thing, the formatting necessary for e-books is not the same as the formatting necessary for printing the book (thank you, designers of readers with proprietary formats! NOT!) things like page divisions are very important in book design (where there’s concern about “widows and orphans” at page breaks) but not in e-book files. Already e-book publishers are promoting different formatting styles than have been traditional in print books. So producing the “raw” (but formatted for its eventual output) material requires different processes with different costs to the producer.

    From the consumer end, what would be ideal is complete control of the product purchased: there was a questionnaire in Suvudu on whether you’d pay more for a book with interior art. For me, it would depend on the interior art–some art, I’d definitely pay more for, but other art would keep me from buying the book. If it were commercially feasible, offering a book in all possible forms–e-book, cheap paperback, trade paper with interior illustrations, hardcover with and without interior illustrations and with different grades of binding–would certainly end up with everyone happy who wanted to read that book. But it would raise the cost of ALL of them to cover the predictable losses.

  • Comment by PocketGoddess — March 10, 2011 @ 11:10 am


    I’m sensitive to this because I’m still waiting for the B&N NOOKbook edition of Kings to appear on their site. 🙁

    In an ideal world, there would be one universal format (ePub please!), which would make things easier for everyone. Companies would differentiate on hardware (iPad, nook, Kindle, etc.) but the files would be the same so consumers could choose their desired vendor.

    I’m not holding my breath, but I’m also hopeful that we can put an end to the DRM madness as well. Folks who want to pirate will do so, DRM or not, it just takes a little extra effort. I think the vast majority of folks are happy to pay for what they want, and DRM punishes honest consumers by locking them into proprietary platforms, forcing them to rebuy ebooks if they switch devices, etc. (I’d be very curious to see if there was a jump in music piracy when iTunes music was opened up–the Plus format with better sound quality and no restrictions made me buy more music, not less!)

    I just finished Oath of Fealty again, and have nothing to read for the next couple of weeks. For some reason I thought Kings came out next week, but I’ll have to fill my time somehow. . . maybe reading Deed again. I have a feeling there’s some important stuff there regarding Sofi, southern history & politics, and such that I need to understand better before I devour the next book in the series.

    Regarding the Suvudu survey. I suspect that print-on-demand will be the answer there. Why print and warehouse all those books that will eventually be remaindered/pulped? As the technology, quality, and efficiencies improve, POD books will fill an important niche for folks who want “real” books, not just ebooks.

  • Comment by Merewen — March 10, 2011 @ 12:38 pm


    I also like to have hard-copy of certain books, and I agree that it would be great if we could also choose to purchase (for a lower cost) the e-book at the same time as purchasing the hard-copy because I really am in love with my NookColor. It would be even better if we could take a book we already own and show it as proof of having purchased it to get a deal on the e-book version somehow, but that’s probably wishful thinking. One reason that I’m having a hard time transitioning to e-book, though, is that I already own copies of all of my favorite works by my favorite authors (over 500 scifi/fantasy books alone). I’m really huge into re-reading favorites, and I usually go through my library once a year devouring books because I’m a speed-reader. I don’t love the idea of paying for a book that I already own just so that I’ll have it on my Nook as well for things like traveling. Plus, I’m also kind of old-fashioned, AND I have a slighly pessimistic/paranoid “well, what if WWIII broke out next week and nukes and EM pulses hit everywhere?” mentality. In the event of a crazy disaster like that, I would lose everything on the Nook, even if it is supposedly backed up in an account with B&N. Because B&N’s servers would also fry in this imaginary scenario in my head. Also, as a hobby-historian the mere thought that all of that data has so much more potential to be lost centuries from now just boggles my mind. So I like hard-copy, and I’m tempted by e-books, and it just kind of sucks that you can’t have both at the same time. That’s just my two-cents.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — March 10, 2011 @ 1:35 pm


    Does shorter books mean that the publisher will pay you less? Does the conversion to E-Books also diminish your earnings potential? Will the change in publishing mean fewer books as fewer people will be able to take the time to write?

  • Comment by Ed Schoenfeld — March 10, 2011 @ 3:45 pm


    For Pocketgoddess, the advent of itunes basically collapsed the pirate download market. The whole phenomenon stopped being an issue once itunes debuted, because people prefer to pay reasonable prices for clean and legal copies of their songs. Yes you can hear tunes ‘for free’ on youtube and such, but you can do the same on FM radio (if you can access a station that matches your tastes) and can stomach the variations in quality for each delivery system. So the so-called ‘pirate’ market effectively has become an advertising venue, one that savvy musicians regularly exploit by ‘pirating’ their own songs to create sales and drum up concert attendance.

    The correspondence to e-publishing isn’t one-to-one, but something similar will happen. You can see the beginnings of it with Amazon providing the Kindle format as a software option on other devices (alas my old white mac just failed the system support cut, drat the thing for being so well designed and durable that my cheap gene won’t let me upgrade yet!)

    Publishers either will begin to think of themselves as content facilitators, adapt to multiple platforms, and survive, or insist on remaining delivery system magnates and go the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers. But it will take a while.

  • Comment by MaryW — March 10, 2011 @ 6:45 pm


    Buy your ebooks from Baen and if you need a different format you can download it later. I also like the cd that comes out with some David Weber books and the Free Library. Baen treats their readers well. I just wish more of my favorite authors were published by Baen.

    I do buy the Paks books in hard cover and ebook so that I can lend them to people and recruit more readers.

    I have been downloading a lot of public domain books to my Nook. Many classics are now available and that makes it easy to have a good portable library. Calibre can convert many formats to epub. Being compulsive, my Nook is backed up to my PC and my PC to external drives. (I program and cannot be out of commission for very long.)

  • Comment by Lauren — March 11, 2011 @ 3:13 am


    I, too, think ebooks plus Print on Demand will be the future. It would be great if you could buy an ebook, and if you really love it, print it to your own specifications at your own expense. “Widows and orphans” are surely important if you are printing 10,000 copies, but less so if you are printing only one. Maybe publishers will release most books electronically, and then if sales indicate there is sufficient demand, they could release electronic “collector’s editions” with illustrations and fancy formating for fans who want to print a pretty copy.

  • Comment by Merewen — March 11, 2011 @ 8:18 am


    I would still rather see hard-copy collector’s editions, too, even if they do go to mostly electronic. There’s just something about the way a book feels and smells that is intoxicating to me. Of course, there’s also my “what if the world ends” paranoia, and my distaste for leaving nothing behind for the historical/archaeological record.

  • Comment by Jenn — March 11, 2011 @ 9:25 am


    Merewen I am completely in your camp with the hard-copy books. I doubt the dead sea scrolls would be here today if they had been e-books.

    It makes you wonder if any part of our civilization will remain in 2000 years since everything is built to be replaced. Even 500 years from now.

  • Comment by Merewen — March 11, 2011 @ 11:34 am


    It might just be that I’ve read too many “end of the world as we know it” speculative scifi books lately, of course. I thought of another reason for hard-copy: what else would we wait in line with for hours to have authors sign? Not that I’ve ever lived anywhere near the places my favorite authors go to for signing. Somehow I’m always in the wrong place, and then I move (I’m military), and I see that they’re slated to go where I just was! It’s frustrating.

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — March 11, 2011 @ 2:22 pm


    Merewen, I don’t even think of them in terms of “end-of-world” sci-fi. Classics like 1984, the Assimov robot series, Heinlein’s alternate Earth series where owning the print versions control thought for the masses.

    Plus there is the whole rewriting of history piece. Even Shakespeare was edited between the first complete set of works and second published just after his death. (Pretty sure I heard that right while I was in Stratford.) Print, to me, is very important. Even though I work a lot with electronic data.

  • Comment by patrick — March 11, 2011 @ 3:07 pm


    I’m also a traditionalist and don’t expect to get an electronic reader for years, if ever.

    The bean counters are again being penny-wise and pound foolish. A good story takes the words it takes to tell it and trying to pack stories into fewer pages is more likely to reduce sales overall, on average, than increase profits.

    But bean counters only see the beans in front of their noses, not the flavor and rich texture of a proper bean soup made by the right kind of beans, properly soaked and seasoned. Sigh.

    I am disappointed to learn that e-books is having a negative (and hopefully temporary) effect on novel writing.

    I’ve also pre-ordered my copy of Kings of the North and expect to do the same for the rest of the series. And I’ll talk it up to my friends. Maybe if we fans build sales volume, the bean-counters will have less leverage.

    – patrick

  • Comment by Genko — March 12, 2011 @ 4:57 pm


    As a former typesetter of books, I have to say widows and orphans, page alignment, and other design features are important to me. I now edit a small bimonthly newsletter, and I pay attention to these things, even in something that ephemeral. If I were printing my own, I would spend some time on formatting it to my own specifications.

    Another issue, though, is typestyle. I remember reading a collection of MZB stories by a publisher other than her usual, I suppose, and it was a different typestyle. I found it jarring — “that’s not her handwriting!” I remember thinking. Just didn’t associate that typestyle with her works.

  • Comment by Tina Black — March 13, 2011 @ 6:13 pm


    The problem with electronic art would be delivery … I read at about 900 wpm, which drops me into a full sense movie in my head. If the text is suddenly replaced with a picture, it’s like having the film snap — not a damned bit of fun.

    So I resist interior art — it breaks up the words and destroys the experience I am having.

  • Comment by Jenn — March 14, 2011 @ 7:20 am


    After reading some other suggested work I have come to the opinion that we could save at least ten pages a book by cutting out the T&A and profuse profanity. It is so unnecessary and real adds nothing to the story. Ten pages per book would save a lot of trees.

    Thank you Elizabeth by the way for avoiding both of these. It is nice to read a book that I don’t have to worry about either of these taking up more than two or three collective sentences.

  • Comment by Anette — March 15, 2011 @ 3:54 am


    Having pictures in ebooks may be nice if you are reading on a big screen (stationary computer or laptop or iPad), but really bad on the small screen of a Palm or a phone. Pictures also take up a lot of memory space.

    I buy a lot of ebooks. I used to buy a lot of dead-tree books, but I have no more space in my apartment for more bookcases. Now I buy less than a dozen dead-tree books each year, but also two or three dozen ebooks every month.

    What I really, really, really HATE is that ridiculous Geocgraphic Restriction thing. The person who came up with that idea must be an idiot. Or possibly someone who wants ebooks to become a massive failure.

    There are dozens of books, every week, on Fictionwise’s new additions page, that I think look interesting, but I can’t buy because I live in Europe. I want to buy them. I have the money to pay for them. I want to be an honest customer and support the authors. But I am not allowed to do this.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 15, 2011 @ 8:49 am


    The geographic restriction is not a new idea someone thought up to make e-books fail…it’s a remnant of old treaties that ensured publishers in different regions could all have a chance of survival. A protectionist scheme that, originally, protected the publishers in small markets from competition by larger and better-funded publishers who already “owned” the larger markets. It’s going to take reworking these old agreements to free up English-language e-books, and that’s going to take time. Several large publishing firms are starting to insist on getting world rights from writers (but also looking at world markets for works when deciding whom to publish, which can shut out writers whose work is obviously of limited interest outside a particular market segment.) I’m not convinced that forcing writers to accept world-rights deals is good for writers for that reason (and some others–the ability to have multiple publishers for US and UK and other segments buffers writers against the failure of any one publisher.)

  • Comment by Tim L — March 16, 2011 @ 11:10 pm


    This is the bit I don’t get. Epubs are an html markup based electronic book format. Part of the standard for epubs is that they can reflow the text to fit no matter what the scren size. So yeah the word doc needs to be broken into chapters, but the rest is purely automatic.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 16, 2011 @ 11:31 pm


    Apparently not that automatic, judging from the comments of several writers who have now converted their own out-of-print books to e-format. The standards are not quite the same for all e-readers, even if based on html markup. Also see the process from the viewpoint of someone who’s worked on conversion of a backlist: http://louanders.blogspot.com/2011/03/just-for-record.html and the commentary on that post.

  • Comment by Dori Fulk — April 27, 2011 @ 1:55 pm


    I really enjoy the long books… otherwise, they just go too quickly. Also, provides more time for characters to be a bit more complex. I’m just starting Kings of the North, and trying to find the Gird books somewhere…

    Thanks for all the good work!

  • Comment by elizabeth — April 27, 2011 @ 7:35 pm


    That’s what I enjoy about writing them–I can make more characters more complex.

    You should be able to get the Gird books in the omnibus version fairly easily, both as e-book and as paper. The ISBNs for the US and UK editions of the paper are on the Paksworld website here. The e-edition is from Baen, available through their sitehttp://www.webscription.net/p-1227-the-legacy-of-gird.aspx and compatible with Kindle, Nook, and Apple devices (check sidebar on the page for instructions.)

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 15, 2011 @ 9:13 am


    Ed: This is not the right forum for discussing general issues of publishing except as they specifically impinge on the Paksworld books. The internet is full of sites where arguing about publishing models is ongoing and perfectly appropriate…both those that agree and those that disagree with your position. I debated whether or not to approve your comment, since I do consider it off-topic (especially since it begs for an argumentative reply) and then whether to edit it down some (ditto) but I’ve left it as is.

    You should be aware that there are still buggy-whip manufacturers (and buggy manufacturers) making quite a satisfactory profit…and that harness horses and ponies have made a comeback in recent decades, not just in Amish country but elsewhere as well. This is a niche market, admittedly, but the business hasn’t disappeared. Relevant to the publishing industry: the production of paper books will continue, and the means of production in use now will continue for that purpose.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment