When can a book be digital-only, and when does it need to be print too?

Book publishers are increasingly experimenting with digital-first and digital-only initiatives, where they publish a book only as an ebook and then publish a print edition later, or never. It’s a good way to take a chance on unknown authors, but it also means that a book is not available in all the formats that a customer might want it. At the Book Industry Study Group’s Making Information Pay conference on Wednesday, publishers discussed print versus digital — “p. versus e.” — strategy.

Rachel Chou, the chief marketing officer at Open Road Media, noted that the company only publishes between twelve and fifteen front-list (new) titles per year; everything else is back-list. Most of the titles are available only as ebooks, but Open Road makes some available through print-on-demand (POD), and will do short print runs if a book is really taking off. “There are certain books that really need to be in a [physical] bookstore,” she told moderator Phil Olila, chief content officer at Ingram Content Group. “They deserve that table up front, they have that reader that really wants to hand out a gift.” Open Road starts print runs at 500 copies, and the largest print run they have done is 15,000 copies. “If we’ve done a print run and we find that it’s really taking awhile to get through the inventory,” she said, “we can switch it back” to POD.

Chou also noted that advertising has changed: “I think we’ve done three print ads in three years. The budgets have definitely gone toward digital and online and social advertising.”

Dan Weiss, publisher at large at Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press, has overseen digital-only series like the Sweet Valley Twins e-singles. He noted that the cheap paperback mass market is shrinking, and said, “We think it’s gradually being replaced by digital-first.”

“We’ve done serials, we’ve done e-first, e-only, we’ve scooped up online writers like [Amanda] Hocking. We’ve done prequels, sequels, interstitials,” Weiss said. The company hasn’t done a print-only deal — like bestselling self-published author Hugh Howey’s print-only deal with Simon and Schuster for Wool — yet. “We feel it’s important as a full-service publisher to have all rights,” Weiss said. “That may change.”

While Weiss said that St. Martin’s doesn’t like to give away content for free, he has occasionally had difficulty convincing others at the company of the need to price digital content cheaply (a challenge that he said is not limited to Macmillan). “As the serial format continues to grow, getting publishers and getting my colleagues to understand that pricing is crucial has been really challenging,” he said. “We have to argue that this is the minor leagues, and we’re trying to build sluggers for the major leagues, that we can take into print.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Vladimir Melnikov