Money For Nothing, And Your Pics For Free

In What's the Buzz by Hannah Johnson

• E-books are finally embracing color images, but how much should you pay for them?

Op-Ed by Gwyn Headley, Managing Director, FotoLibra

When e-readers first made their appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair a decade ago, they caused a sensation. We held the future of publishing in our hands. A lo-res page of black Times New Roman on a grey ground gave way at the push of a button to a slowly appearing new page of black on grey. We were too entranced to ask what had happened to the pictures.

Gwyn Headley, Managing Director of fotolibra

Gwyn Headley, Managing Director of FotoLibra (Photo © FotoLibra)

Developers met the problem of images head on by ignoring it. Text was the priority. E-books became set on a text only path, and ten years on, the biggest selling e-book reader can still only manage 16 shades of grey.

All that is changing. This year Apple’s iPad has arrived, and it copes well with color. But because dedicated e-readers have concentrated on developing the text interface, the iPad delivers a less impressive text reading experience. E-ink is easier to read than a computer display.

Today, awe has been replaced by expectation. There’s only one way we’re going, and that’s forward. It’s rare to find any printed book that carries no images. From author photographs to explanatory diagrams, from jacket illustrations to color pictures, most books published in the past fifty years have used some degree of visual content. And because many e-book formats reflow the content, tables and diagrams have to be reproduced as images. They are crucial to content in so many books.

So e-books are lagging behind. New and non-users, accustomed to a riot of color on their computer screens, are surprised to discover that today’s e-book experience generally means foregoing images. Consumer expectation is that they will get the same package as the print version, only digitally, and that means pictures. In color.

Of course this can be done now, but it’s not yet mainstream. The opportunities for exploiting and expanding the possibilities of the e-book are limitless, but it’s always been easier, quicker, cheaper and more profitable to channel product with known sales performance than to strike out into the unknown. That’s why Dan Brown and James Patterson sell big on e-books.

Nevertheless if you can buy a printed guide book with color pictures, the market will be expecting e-guidebooks to have equivalent visual elements. There’s the challenge for the publisher. And they haven’t much of an idea what they should be paying for e-book pictures. Born digital publishers are struggling to come to terms with the fact that images have to be paid for.

FotoLibra, along with other picture libraries, has traditionally based image prices on a combination of elements. One element of the equation was the print run, but there’s no such thing as a print run for books.

At the moment, very few books from major publishers are going straight to book. We’re commonly asked for a combination price of print and digital. We put our book image prices at 25% on top of the price for the printed version. In comparison, paperback usage fees are generally set at 50% of the original price. FotoLibra has scarcely ever been asked for an e-book only price.

How do we set prices when we don’t have a print run and the usage size is variable? Few of the parameters used for calculating a price for print usage now apply.

There is an answer. The cost of licensing pictures can be a substantial commercial hurdle for a publisher doing a book with a lot of images. Under a new initiative, that commercial barrier can be completely lowered to the ground by fotoLibra.

A conventional publishing deal sees the author being paid an advance dependent on the publisher’s expert estimate of how many copies the book is likely to sell. If the sales exceed the estimate then royalties are paid. Photographers are equally the authors of their work.

FotoLibra is introducing a scheme to advance images to publishers for free, and then bill them in arrears, six months after publication on a micro-royalty basis, after the publisher has collected on books sold. This dramatically reduces set-up costs, and if the title proves to be a runaway bestseller, the photographers who create an integral part of the book’s appeal can share in a tiny fraction of its fortune. For e-book publishers, the 400m hurdles becomes a flat track. The cost of images doesn’t have to be factored in. Pictures don’t have to be paid for after all. Payments are made exclusively on the book’s performance.

Successful publishers are accustomed to paying royalties.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 6 October 2010. Download the complete, 32-page show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York.