The advent of ebooks and online writing often brings to light an old argument about the value of editorial. The cost of printing and distributing a book, while hardly insignificant, is generally not as large as many people think. Nonetheless, ebook prices are set far lower than print books (compare the $AU14.99 average on the Kindle store to the $AU34.99 average RRP for a new release book). And this seems to be a persistent trend for digital content in general. People expect to get digital products for free or for a reduced price relative to the old analog version – irrespective of whether it is the same or better than the original. Nonetheless, the non-physical costs of producing a book are rarely seen as valuable. At their most powerful, editors are portrayed as dictatorial gatekeepers, controlling what the public gets to see and stopping true gems from seeing the light of day. At worst they are seen as insignificant – costs to be cut from the bottom line.
I’ve spoken about the value a publisher adds to books, but a blog post this week on Digital Book World has made me hone in more specifically on the value an editor adds to book publishing. The DBW post is specifically about the role of editorial in internet writing – a role that can be measured in a number of ways, as they detail in the post. The value of editing when it comes to trade publishing, however, is far harder to measure. You can’t, for example, release two versions of a book – one edited and the other not – just to see which one will sell better. (Would anyone choose the unedited version? Would any author allow their unedited manuscript to be printed?). The editor’s role in trade publishing, in almost all cases, is to remain invisible – to support the author and the author’s brand, to create the illusion that the books that authors write spring from their minds fully formed and are never touched again. Some books, of course, do spring fully formed from authors minds and require no editing. Some books are entirely re-written. The secret to editing is not being able to tell the difference.
Non-editor friends have often confided in me that this or that book was badly edited. However, the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to tell from the quality of the book alone how good a job the editor has done. They may not have had much time to work on it or they may have had an obstinate author with a love of inconsistent spelling. Reading the book in a vacuum – as it should be read – is not conducive to understanding that process.
My question is: in a world where, increasingly, views, clickthroughs and even eyeball tracking can be used to measure the efficacy of different marketing, sales and writing techniques, how does one measure the value of an invisible job like editing? Can it be done? Should it be done? And if not, how can it be preserved? Should it be preserved at all?
NOTE: Hopefully by now you will have spotted my massive intentional typo. If not, read it again.
The Agency Model: A lot more boring than this picture.
I’ve implied in the past that ebooks are likely to change the way we buy, sell, read and perhaps even write books in the future. One of the ways things are already changing is the way that publishers supply ebooks to booksellers. This is what’s called the ‘agency model’. The agency model has the potential to fundamentally change the way that publishers interact with people who read books, so it’s worth knowing the basics.
To understand it, though, you first have to get an idea of how dead tree books are sold now. In the current dead tree publishing model, the company sells a certain amount of books to a bookshop and ships them out in dead tree boxes. The bookseller tries to sell as many as possible. Whatever is left can be returned to the publisher. There is a recommended retail price (RRP), but the bookshop decides how much to sell the book for – and they’ve demonstrated a lot of flexibility in doing so. In Australia for example, the big discount stores (K-Mart, Target and Big W etc.) will sell books for a fraction of the recommended retail price. Borders, on the other hand, has been known to increase the price. In other words, books are sold pretty much like any other product.
The agency model is something that has come out of selling ebooks – specifically when Apple came on the scene with the iBookstore and the iPad. Basically what it means is that instead of the bookshop selling digital products directly to you, the bookshop becomes an ‘agent’ (hence ‘agency’ model) of the publisher. The publisher sets the price of the ebook and then give the bookshop a license to sell ebooks on their behalf.
I’ve covered the reason for this change in a previous blog, but the consequences so far have been steady prices for readers (Amazon have increased the prices of ebooks by a few dollars, but other ebook stores will eventually drop their prices). It also means that no single bookshop (I’m looking at you, Amazon) can artificially prop up a price point that no other store can match. This is essentially what K-Mart, Target and Big W do in Australia with dead tree books. You can get very cheap books in these stores, but not a big range. Smaller bookshops around Australia have closed as a result, and the sales for midlist authors (authors who don’t always sell in the big discount chains) aren’t as good as they used to be.
So, the questions is – is the agency model hot or not? As with all of these kinds of questions the answer is that it’s complicated. Do you prefer a good range or a good price? The prevailing wisdom is that the cheaper books become, the fewer risks publishers will be able to take on new and interesting authors. Having said that, ebook stores do not have the physical limitations of their dead tree cousins – the range of books they can supply is almost infinite. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.