‘e’ is not free — the real cost of e-books

Two publishing pros reveal the hidden costs of converting content from print to electronic

The Authors

Kate DimockBryan Hayward

As a Senior Content Strategist in Elsevier’s Global Clinical Reference group, Kate Dimock manages various product lines, including reference content in gastroenterology, oncology, hematology, internal medicine, nephrology and family medicine with a focus on providing customers with the content they need in the desired format best suited to those needs.

As Manager of eBook Workflow, Bryan Hayward has contributed to multiple changes and ongoing improvements to Elsevier’s eBook style sheet in an effort to render Elsevier’s content on the multitude of e-reading devices and systems.They are based in Philadelphia.[divider]

Many publishers have had conversations with authors and customers about the cost of content delivered electronically compared with the cost of print products. We often get questions about the quality of the content, where it comes from, who is paid for producing it, and how much it costs. At Elsevier, these conversations are more frequent as we expand our offering of e-books, enhanced interactive e-books and online products.<strong>P <em>and</em> E.</strong> All Elsevier's Global Clinical Reference titles are now published concurrently in print and as an e-book version.

All our Global Clinical Reference titles are now published concurrently in print and as an e-book version, being sold through resellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A common misconception we hear is that the e-book version should be free with print purchase, or should be sold at a much lower cost than the print product. The argument goes this way: the publisher already has the print; creating its e-book counterpart does not require printing, paper or freight, so what additional costs could possibly be involved?

Well, actually there are quite a few.

What are you paying for?

Manufacturing and distribution of print books accounts for only about 12 percent of the list price. There are other costs that affect both print and e-versions, including design, development, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, marketing, selling and author royalties. All these costs are incurred whether the customer buys the book in its print format or as an e-book.

Consider that the e-book for any specific title is not a new product when compared to the print version, but an alternate format of the same product. They are the same customers who choose to read the content in the alternate e-book format. When more e-versions of a title are sold, the quantity of books printed is thus reduced, but all the fixed costs associated with creating and manufacturing a print product stay the same. Consequently, those fixed costs will be spread over fewer units, increasing the per-unit cost to create a print product.When publishing an e-book version, there generally are some additional costs such as conversion to an ePub format (plus a Mobi file for Amazon’s Kindle devices), vendor costs, and quality assurance costs.

What are these conversions costs? Can’t we just push a button and produce an e-book version, or a website, with content automatically formatted to display correctly on any given device?Unfortunately there’s not an app for that.As nice as it might be to simply “push a button” and generate an e-book from print book files, it’s not that simple:

  • Various e-book sellers – Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Kno, etc – do not all accept the same file type, and therefore the book content must be converted to more than one format. Elsevier has developed a style sheet that can render many elements acceptable across all types, but not all elements. Medical content is extremely complex, with elaborate landscaped tables and multi-part images, not to mention algorithms and  equations. Rendering those elements properly requires manual work, and that work is done by an external vendor, incurring additional cost.
  • The e-book files are housed by another vendor that is adept at distributing e-book files and its associated metadata to the various e-book suppliers, also incurring additional cost.
  • Additional internal staffing is required to manage the delivery of data and assets to and from these vendors, and to perform quality assurance checks, and the creation of these positions incurs additional cost.

And these conversions are just for the e-reader devices out in the market that were basically designed for romance novels and spy thrillers. Converting complex, image-heavy, highly designed medical content for a better user experience on a much richer, interactive platform such as Inkling can cost thousands of dollars, with the price depending on the size, complexity and number of interactive enhancements and multimedia assets associated with the project.

Medical education and medical reference content often includes videos, animations, question banks and other ancillary resources. This access is provided to our customers whether they purchase the print or electronic version. Therefore, both versions incur multimedia costs for shooting and editing videos, developing Q&A banks, compiling image collections and creating other assets — all to ensure that our customers receive the full range of dynamic content they need in any format they wish to purchase.

It’s an exciting time to be a medical information provider. While authoritative, world-class content remains at the core of our business, we strive to provide our customers with the information they need in their desired format. To do this, we must constantly educate ourselves to keep pace with the technology. But we must also educate our authors and customers about the complicated process and the myriad content forms so that we can manage expectations as we progress in our journey from print to electronic products and services.

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12 Archived Comments

Bryan Hayward November 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Dave, thank you for your post. Yes, the fixed costs impact both the print book and ebook units, so the cost of creating a book is more than just paper, printing, and shipping costs. There is a cost to create the content that is both printed on a page and also rendered on your e-reader of choice, and we hope we have achieved our aim of also discussing the additional costs incurred with producing the e-book version.

Kate Dimock November 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Dear Dr. Jones, I have forwarded your details on to the vet editor at Elsevier. They will contact you to discuss your idea for a proposal.

Best wishes


Dave November 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Well, your analysis is a little off when you say, " Consequently, those fixed costs will be spread over fewer units, increasing the per-unit cost to create a print product." Yes, that's true. But developmental costs, such as author advances, editorial costs, etc. remain the same, but now--in addition to the print run, you have the "e" run. And some customers who would have purchased the print book will now instead purchase the e-book, which means those costs aren't really spread out over fewer *total* units. Also, there *is* a reduction in print costs to procude fewer units. That might not be a high percentage, but it is still a factor that should not be ignored. Additionally, there are some customers (I'm one) who may purchase *both* depending on the pricing structure.

You're correct that e-books aren't free--and there are costs to produce them. But if you consider that the majority of the fixed costs (editorial, type-setting, etc.) apply to *both* print and e-book versions of the product, fixed costs--with the exception of actual printing--should be spread across *all* versions of the product, not just print.

William E Jones November 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Hi Kate,

I am former editor of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, which was purchased from me by Elsevier. Now retired, I have been writing veterinary related books and publishing them on Amazon. I would like to get in contact with the right person at Elsevier who works with authors of books to be published by Elsevier. I am working on a book about equine genetics. I would like to see the book published as an Apple ebook, if Elsevier is into that. Thanks in advance for your help.

William E Jones DVM, PhD

Kate Dimock November 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Many thanks Shanti, we're pleased you enjoyed reading the article.

Shanthi November 20, 2012 at 11:21 am

Excellent article for reading :-)

Kate Dimock November 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Thanks Tony, I'm so glad that the article is helpful.

Tony Cardinale November 21, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Great Article! I work in customer service and I get customers complaining that an eBook should cost less than a print book. This will give me some additional information to fall back on to plead my case to the customer.

Thank you,


javier December 9, 2012 at 11:42 am

Indeed they were suppose to make reading cheaper and instead they are more expensive sometimes than normal books. www.elpais.es

Bryan Hayward December 13, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Javier - Thank you for your post. However, I am not certain that the ebooks were "supposed" to make reading cheaper as you suggest. The cost is for the content, no matter the format, with the intention to provide that content in the format preferred by the customer.

David Levine December 13, 2012 at 5:14 pm

This is a great article and really changed the way I thought about e-books.

coolboy June 24, 2013 at 5:41 am

although i would agree with the post about epub and mobi versions of the books but i will not agree about the pdf versions. pdf versions are the same print versions of the books.They have no editing done to them whatsoever.Pdf versions should be cheaper than printed books.