The Times's Motoko Rich has weighed in on the cost of e-book publishing, with a nice breakdown chart of where all the money ends up going.
If a lot of the things I observed earlier continue to hold true, from my comparisons between publishing and anime distribution, the cost savings for going to e-books are not going to be dramatic because the people at every stage of the way still have to get paid. Many of the folks responsible for getting a book on the shelves are effectively invisible to a reader — the author's one element, as is the publisher, but then there's the editors, the designers, the graphics people, the marketers and publicity managers ...
Drop any one of those people from the equation and you put a bullet through the foot of a book's chances in the marketplace. You want to put out the latest nonfiction sensation without at least a couple of good fact-checkers on the prowl? Or how about releasing a major new talent's latest opus to the center table of B&N, albeit with a cover design that looks like it was nicked from the dregs of 4chan's art criticism board? Try it sometime; the results ought to be fun.
Another thing mentioned in the article is how e-only texts undercut the bottom lines of booksellers, not all of whom have names that begin with A and end with mazon. [Full disclosure: I have affiliate links throughout this site to Amazon.] Another incentive to keep e-book prices competitive: the last thing you want to do is price out some of the people who still make it possible for you to stay in business at all, given how thin publishing profit margins are to begin with. Nobody makes piles of money in publishing, and I'm constantly surprised at the number of people, many of them pros themselves, who think anyone apart from the lawyers (and maybe Stephen King) walks away rich in such a business.
They also mention something else I touched on myself: charging those prices gives publishers the money, and the incentive, to find and finance new talent and take risks that might pay off. Anime, again: FUNimation has the Dragonball franchise as their money-printer, which is how they can afford to put riskier titles like Gankutsuou or Shigurui onto shelves without losing their shirts and shorts. Even a boutique outfit like Criterion has to make sure they have at least some solid revenue-generating titles in their lineup; not everything can be cutting-edge obscurities Dillinger Is Dead and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
The article concludes with some notes from another bestseller, Anne Rice, shaking her head: "[It's] a mistake ... trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam." Am I the only one annoyed by the compulsive insertion of the word revolution in such contexts? I can't help but feel like there's an inappropriate gloss of moralizing applied to the discussion that way: the great e-book revolution is coming and poor oppressed authors have nothing to lose but their dead tree chains. Uh-huh.
Such statements make me wonder if Clifford Stoll's widely-countersnarked Newsweek gripe circa 1996 about these here new-fangled Interwebs had more than a kernel of truth to them: just because something is shiny and faster doesn't make it an improvement, merely different. It's a sentiment echoed by John Brunner in one of his books: "There are two kinds of fool. The first says 'This is old, and therefore good.' The second says 'This is new, and therefore better.'"