Choosing Which Book Formats to Publish: eBooks Vs. Print - article

When the process of writing is finally completed, what should a diligent author do next? One of the biggest considerations is to define the format for your book. Will you create it as an ebook or a print book or both? There are a number of considerations, including costs, distribution, time to market, and audience reach.

Upfront Costs
Whether you choose print or ebook format, there are some standard development costs. With either format you’ll need to design the cover and the interior of the book and you’ll want an editor to review it for quality, structure, grammar, and more. This is true whether you publish traditionally or independently. The only difference is who bears those costs – the publisher (traditional path) or you (independent, supported self, or DIY publishing).

Printing Costs
There are other costs that are impacted by the format you choose for your book. For instance, printing a book is expensive because it costs money to print (paper, ink, and equipment) and bind the book. Also, if it is a hardcover book, it’s necessary to print the dust jacket in full color. By contrast, creating an ebook is significantly less expensive (and in some cases free depending on the service provider and level of quality) because it’s only a digital file. There are no covers to print in color, no paper required, no ink, nothing to bind.

Distribution
Distribution is another cost consideration. With ebooks, there is no shipping and no employee labor required to handle the books. It’s all digital. Readers simply download a file from the eRetailer. So it’s cheaper. But with print books there is a need to distribute the product, which costs money. Managing books in a warehouse, shipping books, having someone put them on shelves in stores, handling returns… it all costs money. Even if you choose print on demand technology, reducing the effort involved in managing books (i.e. no warehouse of books to handle) you still have a cost. The print on demand (POD) approach, in which the book is only printed when it is ordered, means you don’t have to order hundreds of copies and store them until they are sold. The POD method often has a higher per-book cost to account for this convenience. The other option is offset printing, in which many copies of a book are printed at one time. This brings the per book printing cost down, but the overall cost is often higher because someone must pre-pay for the printing of those books (often in minimum quantities such as 500 or more books) and then hope to sell them all to recoup the costs.

Another cost consideration is the number of people involved. If you print a book, there are more people involved in the distribution and sale of the product and every one of them gets a cut (your publisher if traditionally published, the distributors, and the retailers (bookstores and beyond). Even if you as the author want to get a copy, you have to pay for it. Every book you receive, whether you are selling it or giving it away, is going to cost you. Typically you, as the author, will receive them at cost, with discounts for bulk orders. But there is still a cost. If you produce an ebook, distribution effort and the related costs are reduced, keeping more of the revenue in your pocket. 

Time to Market

How fast you can get a book to market is another consideration when choosing formats. It is not uncommon for traditionally published books to be published 12-18 months after they are ready for market. Even self- published authors will find it can take several months to get a print book ready and released. However, ebooks can be uploaded to DIY retail sites for sale and distribution in a couple of hours (once they are formatted and ready to go). So ebooks can be ready to sell much faster than print books.

Audience Reach
Another factor in choosing between ebooks and print books is your audience reach. While the ebook market is growing, it still only represents a fraction of the market. Print books still dominate for now. So even though ebooks are faster and less expensive to produce, they don’t reach every potential reader. Whether you publish traditionally or independently will be a consideration here. If your book is traditionally published your publisher will print and distribute the print book and they will be able to get the book into all the traditional outlets (bookstores, discount stores, specialty stores, etc.). If you have self-published, distribution is often up to you, unless it's included in the publishing package you purchased. With print books this means you must be the one to get the book on the retailer shelves. Unfortunately, many physical retailers (brick & mortar stores) are hesitant to sell self-published books. So you have to get creative about where and how you sell the book. 

So does this mean you have to choose only one format – print or ebook? Absolutely not. If you publish in both formats, those die-hard paper readers can order their copies. At the same time, ebooks will keep you competitive and able to reap the reward of those instant deliveries and sales. When you want to get a couple of copies shelved in your public library or on the shelf of your favorite small bookstore, you'll have that option with your print editions. At the same time, you will be able to refer online reviewers, interviewers, and the press to the readily available electronic version.

Only you can decide on what’s best. Review your goals for the book – commercial and otherwise. Then review the options and considerations above. Many authors choose to publish in both print and ebook format. But a growing trend, especially among self-published authors, is to focus on ebooks only.

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  • Thank you. This is very informative. This is a journey. I am encouraged to keep moving forward. Thanks again. Vanelder R. Nichols
  • Dear Suzette: Thanks for the Heads-up! Interesting, informative & scary! WOW! Never imagined it so risk-rilled. Ever done a study on cost-benefits -- to the writer? (Not to shippers, handlers, etc. :-) Cash money-out? Time spent, hours at basic minimum wage? Seems sort-of Lottery-like? Of course I'm not discouraged. "GUYS" is going to be a BIGGG winner! Now that I'm smarter, thanks to you! Best regards, Roger :-)
  • Former Member
    Former Member
    Hi Mac - I'm thrilled you found such value in the article. Thank you. There is a ton of other great content here on the ALC about marketing and promoting your book. You can search on and learn about creating marketing plans, promoting your book, book events, using social media, book reviews, and more. One of the best ways to leverage that content is to create a book project from your author's space here on ALC. Once you do that you'll see the Book Launch Tool, which has 3 tabs - for Writing, Publishing, and Marketing. Each one lists common tasks in completing that phase of your writing journey. You can hover over the question mark icon next to the task to see recommended content for learning about that task. And once you click on that you can also see 'related content' on the right side of all our content review pages. You can click right on the marketing tab in the Book Launch Tool and get started. You can also use the tool to indicate your status on the tasks, you can delete tasks, add your own custom tasks,m or drag and drop the tasks to rearrange it into your own custom process flow. Also, Xlibris offers marketing packages that might appeal to you if you'd rather not do all the marketing yourself.
  • Interesting! Thank you