Expozine 2015 Digital Publishing discussion
LR: Maxime, as someone already publishing digitally, do you feel that you’re prepared if ever digital pubishing really takes off?
MR: The advantages of digital is that you produce one digital file and after you sell perhaps ten of them you’ve covered its costs. So, you recoup your investment quickly. Whether you sell 15,000 or 8, the production costs are the same. I have no inventory management to do, once it’s all on a server, people can buy it, simple as that. At the same time, the paradox is that while these new tools are practical and easy for small publishers to use, they for the most part still enjoy producing printed books first and foremost. The digital version should be seen as a useful archive, a backup, even when a print run is sold out.
PA: Yeah, but when it’s text files or stuff like that, maybe it is easier, but a printed book can still last 100 years. We have no guarantee that in 100 years anyone will be able to read a digital file. I have tons of CD-Rs with text and image files on them that I can no longer open just after 15 or 20 years …
MR: Yeah, yeah, but I think the file formats are improving, there are enough people working to keep stable formats going, and things like Adobe really want these formats to remain in use.
PA: But I get the feeling the growth in eBooks recently mostly happened in schools. The figures you mentioned for the US are impressive but they have plateaued, they may have peaked already. But in Europe for example, the numbers are in fact very modest, in France, it’s not even 5%. Here it’s even less than that, I think at about 3% in Quebec of the overall book market. But the schools are a growing market, for example the big French publisher Hachette is beginning to dominate the entire African schoolbook market. It works great for that market as the costs to produce and distribute schoolbooks is huge there. But all of this is separate from the literary market, the self-pubishing market.
MR: But in France and here, the concept of the convenient pocketbook format is much less present than in the US. A big hurdle are the publishers who want to protect their profits that are charging just $4 less for an eBook than the paper version. Fuck off, I’m not buying a digital file at the same price it would cost me to buy paper. Ta Mère would never sell a book above $10 in digital format, even if we charge $25 for paper, because it’s just a file! The author is paid the same money as with a paper book in any case.
PA: This is one of the main problems that I see, who would pay that much for a freaking PDF file… Also, nobody has set up a decent new structure for authors, actually … That the person selling 8 books or 15,000 books might get the same percentage of sales.
HM: Of course publishers have a lot of other costs of production besides printing: marketing, design, sometimes a few editors, proofreaders, researchers who make work on the text along with the author. But these costs vary according to the book and the publisher. That said, for a bestseller, let’s say that we printed 60 000 copies, production costs are maybe 4 or 5% total. So they already make a pretty good profit after costs on paper books and have carried this over to digital.
Another real problem I see with digital publications is that we do not really “buy a book” … I buy an ePub file, I’m not allowed to share it, there are plenty of things I can’t do with it compared to a paper book, and I think that is a major reason the industry hit a limit with sales. With a book on paper, we know exactly we can do with it – lend it, re-sell it, write notes in it. “Owning” a digital file is more just like having a license to view the file for a period of time.
PAF: Actually, I think this is what makes the whole digital book such a different creature from physical books.
MR: In our case, we prevented our digital distributors to add DRM (Digital Rights Management software) on our books. I told them they were treating our readers as potential thieves and pirates. If the book is a big success, the DRM will get hacked and people will share the book anyways. You got a file, you do what you want with it because you paid for it. I’ll live with the risks that you’ll send copies to all your friends and I lose a lot of money. Otherwise it’s almost as if the book you bought, the physical book, disintegrates when it travels more than 20 km from your home. This is completely ridiculous. You know, we used to photocopy printed books too, that’s life. My opinion on this is not very popular, I think we are among the fre publishers in Quebec to not use DRM.
Audience question: Even with DRM, it’s not hard to get around it, I’ve already “installed” a book on several computers, for example, typing in the same code provided at purchase. The only time I really see a problem with the DRM is when, say, you borrow a digital book from the library but there is a limit to the number of users who can borrow it, so you have to wait for 20 people to finish reading a digital book before you can get your turn, which is a bit ridiculous because they’re just files.
MR: But that’s what the libraries negotiated with the publishers when they began setting up digital catalogus. When the library buys a file, it can be lent out a maximum of times before it needs to be purchased again. They tried to copy what they had set up for paper, where a library has to replace a worn-out paper book if it gets borrowed like 200 times. Libraries by far buy the most digital books of anybody. The setup is ridiculous, but it does protect authors and publishers and allows for some income.
Audience 1: I can understand when a physical copy of a book is borrowed by someone else, it’s no longer available to me. But to do the same with digital… What’s the point of having digital copies then, apart from not having to leave home to return library books?
MR: (laughs) Yes, it’s very paradoxical, that’s for sure.