A Short Rant on Digital Distribution Costs
by Fran Toolan
You’ve probably heard some version of “digital distribution doesn’t cost anything.” And you’ve probably heard it more than once. I know I have, and every time I hear it, I want to shout that it’s not true.
Anyone who thinks that digital distribution costs are zero has never done digital distribution.
The costs are different than the costs of physical distribution, but they most certainly exist. Think about servers. And storage. And bandwidth. And staff. Then think about customer support, which is the largest cost by far, and never stops.
Developing a digital distribution infrastructure is much more complicated than most people realize. Among other things, it involves managing relationships with different booksellers, each of which has its own contractual terms, its own discount rates, its own price and availability requirements, its own format requirements, and its own rights restrictions.
All that, of course, involves creating and managing sizable quantities of metadata.
Then there’s the need to tweak aspects of all the above every week because of some new condition.
And let’s not forget the management of errors. Since errors are inevitable, digital distribution has to involve knowing the answers to questions such as:
- What should I do if my book goes up on a site where I don’t have rights to sell it?
- How can I correct mistakes I made in the metadata or the cover image?
- How can I correct metadata mistakes a bookseller made?
In addition, when your digital products are distributed, someone must make sure you get accurate sales data and keep track of what payments are due and when they are due so you can collect what you’re owed.
All this with no off-the-shelf system you can buy for handling the work and no tasks you can entrust to unskilled workers.
Some publishers decide that the best way to cope with the complexities of digital distribution is by outsourcing to companies like mine, in which case the cost is obviously not zero. And some decide to do everything themselves, which means incurring the kinds of costs outlined above. They may not mount up the way the expenses of outsourcing do, especially if the publishers don’t factor in their own time. But still, digital distribution costs way more than zero.
Fran Toolan is the “Chief Igniter” at Firebrand Technologies, a software, service, and consulting firm dedicated to helping publishers bring their products to market. To learn more: firebrandtech.com.