02 August 2010

Bleary Eyed Monday Link Sausages

It's Monday. I'd say "get over it," but I'm not sure that anybody ever "gets over" Mondays; the rest of the week is just recovery, until Sunday night, when the realization that the next day is Monday really hits. In any event, unusually for August — one of the two month-long holes in the publishing calendar — there's actually relevant publishing news today. OK, admittedly, none of this is really news, in the sense of being "new," but I suppose that we'll have to make do with "new to too many people."

  • Publishers love their protected revenue streams. One of the dirty little secrets of scientific, technical, and professional nonfiction publishing (STP) is the way that publishers profit at both ends: Extraordinarily high per-copy prices for the work, combined with a partly-vanity-press/partly-almost-no-author-compensation model at the other — for work that has largely already been paid for by research grants. Publishers whinge about how expensive it is to produce journals like Science, Nature, Cell, and other thousands-of-dollars-a-year journals; or about how expensive it is to produce single-subject monographs, such as a book on, say, Carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance spectrography; and then proclaim that cutting off that revenue stream would hurt scholarly publishing and copyright, without noting that — for the journals, anyway — the fixed and sunk costs are almost entirely paid for out of advertising, sponsorship, and other subsidies.
  • It's not much better in trade publishing, where Random House is expecting increasing e-book revenues but won't share them with the authors. If one does all of the math, things are even worse than the AG's claim that the 25% e-book royalty RH is putting on the table (nonnegotiable) is only half the normal equal revenue split, because the AG's calculations are based on assuming that the numbers on cost-sales sheets (aka profit-loss projections) accurately represent the publisher's costs, when they ordinarily overstate costs by anywhere from 10% on up. This is, in part, due to the very nature of a cost-sales sheet: It is supposed to virtually ensure line-item profitability, so estimated costs are biased high. More subtly, though, many of the costs estimated on a cost-sales sheet simply don't exist, thanks to the distinction between mean value (what appears on the sheet — the arithmetic, or simple, mean estimated by taking the sum of all of the last year's marketing expenses and dividing it by the number of line items in that competitive category) and median value (the amount actually spent by the 50th percentile line item). And all of that assumes that the accounting is honest in the first place...
  • Conversely, the WSJ offers a history of publishing and intellectual life that, for all its pollyannish perspective and rose-tinted hindsight, does offer a core of truth: publishing is good for economic growth, and it's part of a positive feedback loop.
  • Of course, it could be worse. We could be stuck entirely with patron-based funding for the arts (and nonartistic publishing), and end up in Ravinia Saturday night, with a shortened program so the big donors could get dinner on time. That this is taking place in a public facility just makes it worse.