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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 

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

  1. Rachel Cumming

    I’m still weighing up the pro’s and cons of getting my kindle book YOUNG SINGLE HOMELESS into a print on demand set up and trying to understand the actual costs to me as author would be. I’m currently looking into Createspace – it being part of the Amazon group, with whom I trust more than most. Warning to those out there, I was approached directly on line by an American publishers, who wanted to view chapters etc and once I submitted them, I went onto Google and discovered they were a really dubious company, described as a ‘rip off’ and a ‘scam’, so dead scared about the whole thing now and wondering whether it will all be worthwhile? I just do not feel I have any experience in this area and being on disability benefits, can’t afford to make any costly mistakes. If anyone has any advice, I would be really grateful. Rachel Cumming

  2. I spoke with an e-publisher the other day and he made it very clear while he has very strong global distribution, they would not pay an advance and we need to handle all the marketing ourselves. Hell why do we need him. Anyone can e-publish a book. Right?

  3. This is really not a difficult question..budget always will dictate which format(s) goes out first. I think this aspect of it hasn’t change one bit in book industry. As much as they all like to talk about ebook pricing, “it” alone doesn’t determine the success or failure of any title. How many $.99 ebook titles became a hit on Amazon or else where?

    One disturbing trend I see with publishers is that, they seem to think well priced ebooks will simply fly off to the top by itself without much promotion. I think ebooks need just as much promotions support as print books. Of course, they find it hard to justify any spending on already low-priced ebooks. See where I’m getting with this?