Back to Paperback: the limits of digital books

Digital media is all the rage.  what could be more convenient?  Download books in a matter of seconds and read on your phone, tablet computer, or ebook reader.  Digital books are cheap too; no shipping, no physical printing.  Win-win, right?


I used to think so...until I took the plunge and became a self published author myself and learned a lot about the publishing business in the process.


Lesson number one?  Digital formats have limits. 

They work poorly for any book or media where a reader might want to flip back and forth between pages -- such as many non-fiction books (especially those with footnotes, end notes, and bibliographies), reference materials, textbooks, or books with extra content like appendices, glossaries, and so forth.


Lesson number two:  digital books pay authors absurdly low royalties. 

This is because digital books are priced at a tiny fraction of their print counterparts for exactly the same work.  If a print version costs $10 and the digital costs $3 (a pretty standard price difference), and if the royalty rate for print verses digital is the same (which it won't be), that means an author must sell at least three or four copies for each copy sold in print.


The reason given to authors for this price difference is generally two fold:  1) production costs on the digital is lower, mandating a lower price to consumers and 2) lower price equals more sales.


Reality?  There are no promises that a digital version of a title priced at a tiny fraction of the print version will sell more copies, much less the number of copies needed to make up for the price difference.


Lesson three:  where the customer purchases a book matters a great deal to authors.

There is a measure of common sense to this, but it's not something most of us think about.  The fewer steps between customers and those actually making whatever is being purchased, the more the person making it will get paid.   Likewise, the more distance between the author or artisan making something, the less the author/artisan makes because more people/corporations are taking slices out of the pie -- usually from the author's share.


This is perhaps why so many of us prefer to buy produce from farmer's markets and roadside produce stands than we do at mega supermarkets.


In the past, we as customers had no real choice on where we bought media like books, movies, and music.  We had to go to brick/mortar bookstores, record stores, and movie stores.


The internet has changed all of that, creating what is called "print on demand" publishing for media.


The catch for us is finding the retailers where we can buy direct from authors, musicians, and moviemakers so we can each put more money into the pockets of those whose labors we enjoy when we watch, read, or listen to something.


Two of the biggest sources for independent publishing and media production are books) and (print books).  Both of these platforms are involved in bringing media directly from artists to customers and both distribute media to the tertiary retail outlets most of us are accustomed to.  But both of these pay the artist the highest possible rates when we the customers use their stores to buy media.


Buying at these retailers helps us circumvent at least a little that nagging problem of authors and artists not really getting paid for their work.


As for that other problem -- the technical issues of digital -- my solution is simple:  buy the paperback!


My books are best enjoyed in paperback format.  I love giving readers reference materials to enrich their appreciation of not just my work, but life in general.  I learned teaching classes on medieval history in the Society for Creative Anachronism that it's easier to teach when you put your background, reference, and bibliographic material into a separate section.


People have criticised me for this, but it works.  I don't have to stop my action with pages of exposition that slow down and often confuse the narrative nor do I have to dummy down my story.  I can build my world and tell my adventure in a clear and focused manner -- just like teaching a great class on medieval aviculture!


How ever you like to enjoy your media, I hope you will take the opportunity this year to visit your local library and discover a brand new world you never knew before!



Laurel A. Rockefeller, author

The Peers of Beinan series



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