Monday, March 17, 2014

Textbook Economics

The impact of royalties on a book's price, and its sales, is greater than you think. Lower royalties often end up better for the author. That was the publisher's pitch when I asked him about the details of the proposed publishing contract. Then, he explained how he prices textbooks.

It was the early 1990s, I had been teaching a course on Concurrent Scientific Computing, a hot topic then, and several publishers had approached me about writing a textbook. This was an opportunity to structure a pile of course notes. Eventually, I would sign on with a different publisher, a choice that had nothing to do with royalties or book prices. [Concurrent Scientific Computing, Van de Velde E., Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., New York, NY, 1994.]

He explained that a royalty of 10% increases the price by more than 10%. To be mathematical about it: With a royalty rate r, a target revenue per book C, and a retail price P, we have that C = P-rP (retail price minus royalties). Therefore, P = C/(1-r). With a target revenue per book of $100, royalties of 10%, 15%, and 20% lead to retail prices of $111.11, $117.65, and $125.00, respectively.

In a moment of candor, he also revealed something far more interesting: how he sets the target revenue C. Say the first printing of 5000 copies requires an up-front investment of $100,000. (All numbers are for illustrative purposes only.) This includes the cost of editing, copy-editing, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, and administrative overhead. Estimating library sales at 1000 copies, this publisher would set C at $100,000/1,000 = $100. In other words, he recovered his up-front investment from libraries. Retail sales were pure profit.

The details are, no doubt, more complicated. Yet, even without relying on a recollection of an old conversation, it is safe to assume that publishers use the captive library market to reduce their business risk. In spite of increasingly recurrent crises, library budgets remain fairly predictable, both in size and in how the money is spent. Any major publisher has reliable advance estimates of library sales for any given book, particularly if published as part of a well-known series. It is just good business to exploit that predictability.

The market should be vastly different now, but textbooks have remained stuck in the paper era longer than other publications. Moreover, the first stage of the move towards digital, predictably, consists of replicating the paper world. This is what all constituents want: Librarians want to keep lending books. Researchers and students like getting free access to quality books. Textbook publishers do not want to lose the risk-reducing revenue stream from libraries. As a result, everyone implements the status quo in digital form. Publishers produce digital books and rent their collections to libraries through site licenses. Libraries intermediate electronic-lending transactions. Users get the paper experience in digital form. Universities pay for site licenses and the maintenance of the digital-lending platforms.

After the disaster of site licenses for scholarly journals, repeating the same mistake with books seems silly. Once again, take-it-or-leave-it bundles force institutions into a false choice between buying too much for everyone or nothing at all. Once again, site licenses eliminate the unlimited flexibility of digital information. Forget about putting together a personal collection tailored to your own requirements. Forget about pricing per series, per book, per chapter, unlimited in time, one-day access, one-hour access, readable on any device, or tied to a particular device. All of these options are eliminated to maintain the business models and the intermediaries of the paper era.

Just by buying/renting books as soon as they are published, libraries indirectly pay for a significant fraction of the initial investment of producing textbooks. If libraries made that initial investment explicitly and directly, they could produce those same books and set them free. Instead of renting digital books (and their multimedia successors), libraries could fund authors to write books and contract with publishers to publish those manuscripts as open-access works. Authors would be compensated. Publishers would compete for library funds as service providers. Publishers would be free to pursue the conventional pay-for-access publishing model, just not with library dollars. Prospective authors would have a choice: compete for library funding to produce an open-access work or compete for a publishing contract to produce a pay-for-access work.

The Carnegie model of libraries fused together two distinct objectives: subsidize information and disseminate information by distributing books to many different locations. In web-connected communities, spending precious resources on dissemination is a waste. Inserting libraries in digital-lending transactions only makes those transactions more inconvenient. Moreover, it requires expensive-to-develop-and-maintain technology. By reallocating these resources towards subsidizing information, libraries could set information free without spending part of their budget on reducing publishers' business risk. The fundamental budget questions that remain are: Which information should be subsidized? What is the most effective way to subsidize information?

Libraries need not suddenly stop site licensing books tomorrow. In fact, they should take a gradual approach, test the concept, make mistakes, and learn from them. A library does not become a grant sponsor and/or publisher overnight. Several models are already available: from grant competition to crowd-funded ungluing. [Unglue.it for Libraries] By phasing out site licenses, any library can create budgetary space for sponsoring open-access works.

Libraries have a digital future with almost unlimited opportunities. Yet, they will miss out if they just rebuild themselves as a digital copy of the paper era.