Not an Exact Science

Since I’ve been an editor all these years, many people assume I have a degree in English or journalism. They are wrong, of course. I have a degree in mathematics.

That may seem an odd thing, but studying mathematics has helped me tremendously as an editor in at least two ways. First, it trained me to think logically and rigorously. Second, it means I’m not totally lost when it comes to thinking about the numbers side of publishing. And there are a lot of numbers to think about: profit, loss, expenses, budgets, sales rates and projections, price calculations, spread sheets, and more.

So I gravitated right away to a recent New York Times piece about the mathematics of publishing–especially in a digital age. Motoko Rich does an excellent job of laying out one comparison of print versus electronic publishing. The details will shift from publisher to publisher, but on average this is about right.

I especially appreciate his recognition that it isn’t really possible to do what he’s trying to do–compare one e-book to one print book. Why? Because there is a whole infrastructure set up around each. Fixed costs like warehousing remain. Print cost benefits will be diminished as print runs go down and e-book sales rise.

Publishing is a very difficult business to get a handle on. Because precise costs and profits are almost impossible to determine, a publishing operation is evaluated in the aggregate as well as on a book-by-book basis. In any case, publishing is not an exact science. You can count on this math major knowing that for sure.