Does it make sense to publish digital only?

Janet Grant Janet Kobobel Grant

Various traditional publishers and self-publishing venues offer digital-only options to authors, but does it make sense to go that route?

Obviously the answer will differ for each writer’s particular circumstances, but as I read the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly, two articles on recent statistics jumped out at me that could help in making that decision:

1) Half of all novels purchased–both online and at retail stores–are physical books. Publishers Weekly looked at Nielsen Bookscan numbers for the twenty  top-selling books of the year to reach this conclusion.

Two things to keep in mind about this statistic and the others based on the Bookscan report: Bookscan numbers are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to measuring how many books are sold through Christian bookstores because many of those bookstores don’t report their sales numbers. That situation has improved in recent years, but it’s not resolved. Second, Publishers Weekly  looked at books that are best-selling. The authors aren’t struggling with discoverability, with writers including such luminaries as Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks on the list.

Still, the findings give us an idea of what format books are being bought in. We already know that novels–and nonfiction that is driven through narrative, such as memoirs–are the most downloaded types of books. Some prognosticators would have expected digital to be stronger in the fiction category.  As I look at the sales for our clients, I find that backlist fiction can be dominated by digital sales, but frontlist generally is coming in at more of a 40% digital, 60% physical range.

In other categories, the Bookscan numbers give different insights.

2) Younger readers are slow e-book adaptors. Two titles by Dr. Seuss were available only via apps and not digitally so had zero digital sales. The Third Wheel, the seventh Wimpy Kid book, sold 20% digitally. That trend is borne out in my clients’ experiences for books all the way up through teens. Kids are reading via print books.

3) Even best-selling nonfiction books aren’t good draws for digital reads. Despite the Duck Commander  books’ popularity, and Proof of Heaven’s narrative style, digital sales were in the 20-25% range in the Bookscan report, with the vast majority of sales being physical books. I find it interested to note that the Bookscan nonfiction numbers match the numbers for the Wimpy Kid title. I would say, among our clients, digital sales on nonfiction books are about 15%.

None of this information shatters what we’ve been reading about digital vs. print sales. But I think it does help to inform authors about the best format to garner sales for what they’re writing. And if a digital-only offer is available to you, having these figures in mind can be helpful.

Another study that Publishers Weekly reported on fills in more of  the picture.

4) The price at which physical books are sold has held steady for the past four years, whereas the price of digital books has fallen from an average of $10.19 to $5.65.  (Stats are from the latest Bowker study.) The difference in pricing shifts is startling to me. I don’t know how digital free downloads were figured into the study, or if only those books that were actually sold were calculated. I would assume only those sold were considered.

Two conclusions occur to me:

  • If a publisher and/or author can drive sales to physical books just as effectively as to digital books, more money will be made selling physical books.
  • A digital title must sell twice as many copies as physical copies to result in the same amount of money. And, as the Bookscan numbers show, most digital titles are not performing at that level.

The Bookscan numbers and the Bowker study, taken together, indicate that the rumors of the death of the physical book are greatly exaggerated.

What insights occur to you from these two reports?

How does this information affect the way you think about book sales?

Do your buying habits match up with what the studies show?


How close are physical books to extinction? Click to tweet.

How to make the most money–selling books in digital format or physical? Click to tweet.

85 Responses

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  1. What an interesting and informative post, Janet! Although I have read a couple of stories via Kindle, I buy only physical books. I prefer the way they feel in my hands and how the print feels to my eyes, so I’m among the fifty or sixty percent of readers who don’t buy digital.

    When I began reading your post, my immediate answer was “No, I wouldn’t want to publish digital-only.” My reasons did not stem from sound business judgment. One reason I immediately said, “No,” was my love physical books, so I would not want my book to be available only in a digital format. That is an an entirely emotion-based reason. The other reason was more sensible. I felt digital-only limited potential readership–and I was right– but I was basing that thought on no research whatsoever, just logic and intuition. The statistics you’ve presented demonstrate that my desire to publish my books in traditional form as well as in a digital format is a good instinct. Thank you for moving it from an instinct to an informed business decision.

    In all honesty, I am surprised that the percentage of physical books sold is so high, and I am astounded that “younger readers are slow e-book adaptors.” At the same time, I am delighted by the news. The physical book isn’t dead. Long live the physical book! 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Other good news is that the adoption rate of digital reading has slowed as well. It’s still the area that has the momentum, but the switch to digital has slowed.

      • “Other *good* news is that the adoption rate of digital reading has slowed as well.”

        It’s good news that the adoption rate of digital reading has slowed? Interpretation: E-books are bad, print books are good. Do you, as an agent, really want to make that kind of qualitative judgment?

      • Janet Grant says:

        I was thinking of this from Christine’s POV. For those who want to continue to read physical books, a slowing of e-reader conversion is good news.
        I personally love my Kindle and iPad for reading.
        From a professional perspective, I know that digital books will win out as the way the majority of readers access books. My job is to accept that and plan for it.

    • Iola says:

      I’m not sure that ‘young readers are slow ebook adapters’.

      First, it’s the parents who buy the books, and many parents aren’t going to buy their child an ereader or tablet. We want to buy them real games and real books, not virtual ones.

      Second, when kids to get old enough to have a smartphone or other device, they aren’t necessarily buying books. My daughter is always reading on her iPod, but she’s getting the books from WattPad.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Iola, good point that parents are directing how kids read books.
        In our family, the two teens read physical books despite having other ways they could access books. Physical books are their preference.

    • Amy Hagberg says:

      This is really great information, Janet. I just bought my first e-reader, a Kindle, because when I travel it is more convenient. I still love the feel – and aroma – of a printed book. A library is a profound sensory experience for me. Yet we are all forced to embrace the electronic work to some degree. I wonder, though, if there are situations in which publishing solely electronically is a good option. I have written several proposals that never sold to publishers. After doing all that work, I wonder if it would make sense to self-publish an e-book.? What are your thoughts on that?

      • Janet Grant says:

        Amy, publishing digitally makes sense if the writer’s goal is to have the book available. If the writer wants to attract as many readers as possible, creating an e-book will have little affect.

  2. I personally have purchased a grand total of two e-books. Each time, the purchase was based on convenience (not personal preference). I needed one of the books at a conference and really didn’t want to add weight to my bag. The other time, I needed the book for an online event and didn’t have time to visit the brick and mortar store. Physical books are still my purchase of choice.
    It seems to me that e-books for children are more a novelty or status symbol among peers than a true preference as well. Apps, on the other hand, are very, very popular.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I initially bought a Kindle (shortly after they came out) because I had five manuscripts I needed to take on a trip. It was love at first read for me. I travel a lot so I can’t imagine hauling around a book when I can carry my personal and professional reading on one, lightweight device.

      • That is my reason for owning a Kindle. I am on my second, the first being a purchase made back in 2009 and the second a gift from my kids, and I love the portability! For someone who always carried a book everywhere, the e-book has been wonderful. Now that I have pared down my possessions, including (gasp) my books, I love that I neither have to dust nor find shelf space for my keepers any longer.

        Also, most of my reading is done in bed with my husband sleeping beside me. My first Kindle required a reading light much like a print book, and I never seemed to be able to focus it correctly on the words without brightening the room too much for his comfort. The Kindle Fire solves the problem nicely and without the need to keep changing batteries or tiny lightbulbs.

    • Kevin C says:

      Dependant on the child’s age. I wouldn’t buy an e-reader for a toddler but once they get into about second grade I’d definitely think about it.

      But it is not an either/or proposition and in my experience most parents will do both. E-books are a big part of the future. If you think about it they’ve only been around for a very short time and e-readers and tablets even shorter yet look at the disruption they’re causing.

  3. Pete Nikolai says:

    Good points! A couple other points in favor of print:
    1) the major bestseller lists will only consider books if available in print
    2) browsing in bookstores is still one of the most common ways readers discover books

    • Janet Grant says:

      Both excellent points, Pete. Online stores aren’t conducive to browsing.

    • Kevin C says:

      And if a reader doesn’t have a bookstore near them?

      I’m able to browse for books everyday with my Kindle. I can download samples and purchase at my convenience.

      Name me a book store that has the selection of Amazon. And this is not to say that I’m against physical books or bookstores because I’m not but they definitely have limitations and denying that won’t change it.

  4. Jeanne T says:

    This is an enlightening post, Janet. I’ve read that physical books still sell better than digital books, but to see the numbers…..definitely an important thing to consider before publishing. Though technology has progressed and people laud this, I find it interesting that the draw for hard copy books is still there. And, seeing the price drop data on ebooks, that was eye-opening.

    If I ever get published, I definitely don’t want to do digital only because of all the factors mentioned in your post. I’m curious, for publishers who put out digital only books, do they still make a decent profit? And how do the lower prices affect authors’ profit margins. If publishers looks at authors’ previous profits, how does this affect their decision to sign/not sign an author for a new book?

    For me, I still purchase most of my books in a brick and mortar store. I sometimes buy ebooks for my Kindle, but it takes me longer to get through them because I don’t always have my Kindle with me where I read. When I work out on our treadmill, though, I read on my Kindle because I can adjust the print for my aging eyes, and I don’t have to hold it while I walk. 🙂

    • MeghanCarver says:

      Aging eyes, Jeanne? Pul-ease. You can’t be more than….well, common wisdom says never to guess a woman’s age. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeane, I don’t know that any traditional publisher has figured out how to make digital only sell significant copies. Publishers definitely will look at how many digital only copies sold for an author, and it can be a major disincentive to sign the author’s next book.

    • Kevin C says:

      Here’s the thing. You have options. Waiting for a publisher to publish you is not a requirement.

      You can do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. The times, they are a changing.

  5. MeghanCarver says:

    In our library’s summer reading program this year, my 13yo won one of the grand prizes – a $100 Wal-Mart gift card. She’s thrilled, of course, but a little uncertain what to do with it. Wal-Mart doesn’t have a lot of appropriate teen books, she isn’t into purses and scarves, and her father says we have way too many Legos already. I suggested a Kindle, but she is adamant that she prefers real books.

    I can’t really argue with that. I’ve purchased three books for my Kindle app, and it was a bittersweet experience. Sweet because I did save money, but bitter because I knew I wouldn’t be holding the actual book in my hands or shelving it when I was done. My next purchase was for actual books.

    In the end, we’ll probably “buy” her gift card and use it for groceries, then take her to the Barnes & Noble about forty minutes away and enjoy her smiles as she chooses $100 of books.

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      Love your solution to her problem… I love that she’ll get to celebrate the gift she won by reading books… by buying more books! 🙂

    • Judy Gann says:

      Congratulations to your 13yo. I assume Wal-Mart was a sponsor for your library’s summer reading program, hence the Wal-Mart gift card. And, oh, are we librarians grateful for our summer reading sponsors. Great idea to take her to Barnes & Noble.

      In additional to our library system’s summer reading prizes, on of our branches allowed winners to chose a free print book. The books were purchased with a donation from the Friends of the Library. The tweens were just as excited about choosing a print book from the special cart as they were about the system (not book-related)prizes.

      • Our library does this, too. For the younger readers they allow them to choose from a pre-ordered selection of titles. For the teens, they allow them to choose their own book (any book they wish) and they order it for them.

  6. I’m not a digital book reader. I’m a library person, but every once in a while, I do purchase physical books. Mostly as gifts etc. It just doesn’t feel the same buying a digital book for someone ;).

  7. Fascinating information, Janet! Thanks for sharing.

    I’m in the minority who buys many of my books digitally, mostly for the convenience factor. (When going on vacation, I can pack 20 books for the size of one. When my son needs me to stay in his room at bedtime to keep the boogeymen away, I use my handy Kindle light in the dark room and pass the time by reading a devotional or a novel.)

    That said, I still prefer paper books for certain non-fiction reads. (Haven’t quite learned to like the highlight feature on my Kindle). And as a mom of young kids, I definitely see that physical books are more popular. My kids like to hop on the Kindle and play apps, etc., but they don’t gravitate toward the digital books since the type and pictures are smaller, and they don’t have as many tactile features, etc.

    As a writer, it’s hard to argue against the numbers, particularly the pricing issues that fall between physical books and digital books. One thing that is cumbersome with digital books is passing them on to a friend, so I usually preview books for myself digitally and then buy physical copies to share with friends and family. Yet another argument in favor of offering both versions if possible.

    Wow, lots to chew on here. Thanks for waking my brain up on a Monday. (It was being sluggish.) 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Many readers are like you, Sarah, a hybrid reader. Dog-earing a page or highlighting a section on your Kindle just isn’t the same as doing so in a physical book. So nonfiction is actually kind of hard to read with an e-reader.

      • Marc Cabot says:

        On the other hand, my nonfiction ebooks don’t accumulate a hundred cryptic Post-it notes, and they have a search engine. Ever try to find something fast in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure? Until e-books, many had tried, few had succeeded. Now it’s type and click.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Marc, hm. I see I’ve underused the search capabilities of my e-reader.

    • Kevin C says:

      Regarding the pricing issue isn’t that more a contract issue between the author and the publisher?

      What % are your getting for e-book royalties?

      What does the publisher consider as net?

      Haven’t e-book sales increased?

      And don’t forget e-books don’t require printers and the other associated costs to get to market. They don’t need to be shipped or warehoused. They cost very little to store on servers.

      Publishers are making a tidy profit on them. Why aren’t you?

  8. Janet,

    Wow, another great one to kick-start our week! I. Love. Print. Books! To me, this is encouraging news.

    Our teenage DD loves her Nook. (She still wants me to bring it to conference so Wendy Lawton will personally “touch” it because Wendy and Robin Jones Gunn are her fave authors. And of course, I can’t possibly pack the entire Christy Miller hardbacks we have… I’m digressing, arent I?) 🙂

    So, while I’m a physical book fan, DD enjoys her ebooks, but will read both.

  9. I buy a lot of e-books. I’m a WAHM with three kids and the nearest bookstore is a good thirty minutes away. So the Kindle is my friend.

    The real issue still seems to be that writers make so much less on e-books. It would be wonderful to hear that that is changing, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. 🙁

    • Janet Grant says:

      A few cracks are appearing in the royalty payment schedules, but when we consider the low price for which e-books sell, even a higher royalty can’t make up for the difference in payments for e-books vs. physical books.

    • MeghanCarver says:

      Sally, the whole discussion makes me think of the discussion last week about free books. At least with the digital version there is some value attached. But it seems that the most value is still in the print book.

      • Yes. Janet brought up a very big issue that had never occurred to me. And there are a few authors that really encourage–push?–their readers to buy from their local bookstore. I wonder if the cost could be another factor there? Can’t say that I’d blame them.

    • Deb Kinnard says:

      Actually, indie published titles make more for the author per copy sold than a digital or print version through any trade publisher can. In the mainstream market there are many, many success stories, and digital/indie is just beginning to come into its own.

  10. Amanda Dykes says:

    The teacher and mom in me hopes that point #2 stays that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, but I also love print, always will, and really feel that physical books are important learning tools for young readers. Kids are so tactile and kinesthetic in their learning, and there’s something so satisfying and celebratory about the sound of a turning page after reading the current page on their own for the first time. Books can be such a haven, and I wonder if now, more than ever, kids need a haven from all the technology-sparked-synapses bombarding them all day. One place where they can *learn* to be fully present, without distraction being a click away, even if that learning takes place in being fully submerged in a story. Goodness knows I myself need practice being fully present, with my multi-tasking tendencies! 🙂

    To balance out my own view here, I also celebrate the extremely portable and accessible nature that e-books bring to reading.

    Thanks for the encouraging post and insight, Janet!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Amanda, apparently kids agree with you regarding the pleasures of reading a physical book. It’s heartwarming, actually. I’d be sad for children to miss out on the joy of that very tactile experience.

    • MeghanCarver says:

      Excellent point, Amanda, and one of the reasons I’m not pushing my daughter to get the Kindle. Does absolutely everything in our lives have to come through a screen? I’m trying to teach my children that it doesn’t. I enjoy many benefits from technology, but I just can’t picture climbing a tree and sitting in a favorite branch…with an e-reader.

  11. Judy Gann says:

    Here’s a link to a Pew Internet Library Survey showing teen/young adult readers prefer print books:

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks for the link, Judy. It’s encouraging to see that younger readers not only use libraries to take out books but also that they want librarians available present to help patrons.

  12. I can’t say this post surprises me much. Back when I worked in book binding manufacturing, we heard how the paperless office would end our business. Yes, we saw slow downs at times, but we continued to remain busy overall, and the company is still in business more than 10 years after I left.

    One insight I take from this is the hype of digital book popularity does not always translate into profit. I know one publisher who went from printed books in fiction and nonfiction to YA fiction e-books only. I wonder how she fares.

    I also wonder how bloggers and blogging work into this mix. I much prefer to have a book I plan to review in digital format–with rare exception–and then buy a printed version if I love the book and must add it to my collection. Could one say that a possible reason digital sales might be less than expected is that digital books are more often given to bloggers for review? On a similar note, when an author wants a blogger to review his book and she requests a printed version, the author pays for that–at least I’ve paid for my copies I’ve sent to reviewers. But if you have a digital version of the book, technically, you could just keep sending that same PDF/mobi/epub off to bloggers with no need for any sale at all. And if you use the same PDF/mobi/epub as a giveaway copy to blog winners, then again there is no sale involved.

    For me, I like having my books available in both formats. That way readers have a choice.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I don’t have access to numbers to know how many digital review copies are sent out for a title; so I’m only guessing that, in light of the amount of digital sales most books have, review copies aren’t a major factor one way or the other.

  13. Regarding young readers preferring print books to digital: Some of this preference has to do with the development of eyesight. Of course the children don’t know it, but eyesight is not fully developed until somewhere around the age of twelve. Young eyes attempting to focus on a digital page can tire easily.
    That being said, I love my kindle for several reasons. Of course traveling with multiple books at my disposal tops the list, but also reading at night without a lamp to disturb others (husband) is also great. The only downside for me regarding ebooks is I haven’t figured out how to share them like I would a print book. Hmmm. Maybe that isn’t a downside. So far when I’ve loved a book and talked about it, my friends go buy it; in the past I would have loaned it to them.
    On a side note, as a group of friends and I were discussing their love for ebooks, they were all agreed: they do not download free or “cheap” books. Already they’ve learned that those offerings are too often full of typos and poor writing and they won’t risk it anymore. These are non-writing friends and opinions expressed without any comments from me.

  14. Rachel Smith says:

    I have a manuscript under consideration for a digital first line, and obviously I’m okay with it. It was an open submission call and out of 4500+ I made it into the “we really really like this and want to read more” pile.

    So long as you know what you’re getting into, I think it can be a good way to break in. I’m also writing in a genre that, for right now, is 70% digital-only. We’re working on getting publishers to recognize us as viable for print, and strong digital sales are part of that. We’re making progress.

    Paranormal romance is peaking, from what I’ve heard and seen, and science fiction romance is a natural extension of PNR. The challenge is crafting a story PNR readers will recognize as familiar, but different.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Rachel, you sound realistic about the pluses and minuses of going digital only for your genre. Certainly, if any genres can succeed at digital only they would be paranormal or sci-fi romance.

  15. I think it is very important to have books available in print, even if it costs lots more. I’ve had well-known authors giving away books they self-published on my site. However, some of the commenters couldn’t be included in the giveaway because they didn’t have an e-reader and didn’t want to read a book on the computer. They stated waiting (hopefully) for the paperback to be offered. Too bad, because these books were worth getting the reader!!!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Connie, those who haven’t converted to digital reading are still a significant enough percentage of readers that ignoring them is pretending half (or thereabouts, depending on genre) of an author’s potential readers don’t exist.

  16. Great information, Janet! Thank you! One of my first publisher nibbles was an e-book only offer. It was an odd mixture of emotions–thrilled at a potential offer and disappointed at the idea of no print copies. I’m glad my smart agent agreed it wasn’t the best choice for me. Now I’ve got both (print and e-book) and I couldn’t be more pleased!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Karen, everyone, including traditional publishers, is experimenting at this point. Fortunately for you, our agency had seen how dismal digital-only sales were by the time the offer came in for you. And even more happily, your wait was rewarded with an offer for both formats.

  17. I’m surprised you didn’t discuss digital-first publishing options. I think this fills (or creates?) an interesting niche. It seems like a reasonable middle-of-the-road option, where an author can get the machine of a publishing house behind them and the publisher can alleviate some of their risk (thus allowing them to give more authors a shot). If the book sales show promise in the digital market, then they can go “all in” with print.

    Is this not happening yet in Christian publishing?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Megan, that arrangement is part of all digital contracts in the Christian market, as far as I know. But to my knowledge no book has done so well digitally that it ever made it to print.An author needs to go into an agreement for a digital first project realizing it’s highly likely to end up being digital-only for that title.

  18. Larry says:

    It would be interesting to know what sales are by genre: for example, I suppose the large volumes of romance TPB books sold certainly plays a role in sales of physical versus digital.

    Though I was wondering about this:

    “A digital title must sell twice as many copies as physical copies to result in the same amount of money. And, as the Bookscan numbers show, most digital titles are not performing at that level.”

    If the author is getting the same royalty rate, yes. However, if the writer is getting a higher royalty rate (like the 70% selling through Kindle offers) an author would actually be able to sell less digital books than physical, and make more in sales.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Larry, romance sells exceedingly well digitally. Mass market romances have tanked, while trade paper romances are doing all right. So format matters.
      I should have clarified, when I wrote about making more money selling a physical vs a digital book that I was referring to a traditionally published book. Big difference between self-publishing digitally with Amazon and selling a physical copy produced by Amazon. It’s hard to match that 70% digital royalty with a physical book’s royalty.

  19. Janet, I hear what you say and am among those who prefer to sit in bed with a book than a Kindle, though I have one.
    I think there might be a genre issue. Mine is a faith memoir and my prime reader is a female homemaker, 35-65. Chances are she doesn’t go much on Kindle.
    My friend, a younger guy (30s) who writes computer-based thrillers, had a no. 1 bestseller on Kindle but has sold hardly any hard copies.
    This is anecdotal, of course. Do you know of any research.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Bobbie, genre makes a tremendous difference, as well as whether the book is self-published or traditionally published. Having a faith-based book makes a difference as well. Just today I read a report that Christians are just as apt to own an e-reader as someone of undetermined faith, but that Christians are very loyal to their local Christian bookstore, making the delivery of a book for that reader very different than a general market book. A memoir, of course, has a story thread and is read from front to back, which makes it more likely to do well as a digital book than a nonfiction book that isn’t story-based but idea-based, such as a book on prayer.

  20. Janet, thanks for sharing these stats! General info like this about current buying trends is a great foundation for critical business decisions. Just guessing about this stuff leads to business failure.

    It’s also nice to be able to see the statistic and then hear your take on it. I may draw different conclusions, but it’s still useful to hear yours.

    One of your conclusions ought to have a caveat, however. It isn’t always true.

    “A digital title must sell twice as many copies as physical copies to result in the same amount of money. And, as the Bookscan numbers show, most digital titles are not performing at that level.”

    It depends on what digital title you’re looking at. A self-published digital title that garners the author $5 of profit is actually making more than its print version, which may only bring $2 of profit after all the print and delivery costs.

    Perhaps your conclusion applies primarily to traditionally published books?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Teddi, yes, my conclusion is based on the traditional publishing model, where the author isn’t incurring expenses to have print books produced. And the number I used is an estimate. It depends on the author’s royalty percentages and the price each format is being sold for.

  21. Heather says:

    This brings to mind something that was just enacted in WV state–I believe that in public schools, KINDERGARTNERS are getting ipad minis for school. Talk about upping the chances of books getting “broken!”

    But I’ve recently gotten a Kindle and discovered lots of new authors on it. My tween daughters and teen son love their Kindles and it’s an easy way to get access to books QUICKLY that our small-town library doesn’t have (and probably won’t ever get). And, flat-out, it’s cheaper and doesn’t take up as much space. I’m still a huge fan of printed books, and I plan to POD my e-book at some point, just to have a copy in hand and for readers who love that. I’ll just say that for a die-hard “real book” fan, the convenience of e-books has finally started to sway me. But you’re so right. Readers are still just about evenly split in the way they read things. Suffice it to say, it would be unwise NOT to e-pub in this reading climate and to ONLY do hard copies. I just went on Amazon, hoping to find a Madeline L’engle book on writing for my Kindle, and it’s only in print (expensive) format.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Heather, I’m shocked when I go to buy a book on Amazon and find out it’s not available on Kindle. I’m perfectly happy to pay the same price as for a physical book. Just give me the ebook and nobody gets hurt!

  22. Karla Akins says:

    I buy most of my books digitally. But if it’s something I really want to highlight and study I buy hard copies. Therefore, most of my fiction is digital and most of my nonfiction is hard copy.

  23. I buy most of my fiction digitally – because of cost and convenience. I also buy paperback and hardcover, but find myself unwilling to shell out the $13 – $15 unless I really really want to read it. Often, I’ll buy paper books on a whim when they’re reduced to $5, but in many cases I won’t get round to reading them for months.

    Both formats have appeal, although it’s worth mentioning that digital sales are hardly “slowing down” – you can’t have 1,000% growth every quarter, can you? Look at the actual amount of digital sales, and you’ll see it’s still very much on an upward trajectory.

    As for profit margins – as a self-published author myself, I make around $3 profit (sold at $11.99) for a paperback and $2 profit for an ebook (sold at $2.99).

    The main difference?

    I sell many many many more ebooks than paper books. Most independent authors do. So our view is essentially skewered!

    In the end, give readers what they want and try not to rip them off. That’s a simple mantra most big pubs seem to be forgetting…


    • Janet Grant says:

      Nick, when you’re driving 100 mph, reducing your speed to 80 is, indeed, slowing down.
      Let’s talk “ripping off.” Publishers have warehouses to maintain, shipping expenses not only to place books in stores but also to accept returns, hundreds if not thousands of staff, advances to pay, marketing budgets, etc. That’s why they’re called “traditional publishing.” I’m not saying they don’t earn a profit, but their overhead is beyond imagining for a self-published author. There are strengths and weaknesses to their structure, just as there is to any self-publishing entity.

      • Kevin C says:

        Yes, publishers do incur those expenese but authors make everything possible and for far too long they’ve been taking advantage of.

        There’s a shift occurring in publishing. Authors are getting more power. Thing is many don’t realize it yet but those employed around them do.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Kevin, if your last sentence means that publishers realize authors have more power, I’d have to question if that’s true. Publishers seem to continue to believe they’re the best gig in town. For some authors that’s accurate; for others, not so much. Publishers don’t seem to realize the “not so much” part of the equation.

      • with that analogy, we’d be talking about acceleration, not top speed – you can’t accelerate forever, your speed would be infinite… that doesn’t mean you can’t be the fastest vehicle on the road, though.

        $15.99 for an ebook isn’t a good bargain, nor is refusing to release products in digital format giving readers what they want. Big publishers do this quite often, which is not in the readers’ best interests.

        The reader doesn’t care that a publisher has overheads. The readers don’t even know who published the book their reading most of the time, all they care about is the book, whether thats print, digital, or chalk scribbled on a wall.

        The point is, if you’re going to self-publish, don’t expect many paper sales, at least not for a while, because most of your readers will want to read your work digitally. If and when you start getting big exposure, readers might be more willing to fork out $12 for a paperback.

  24. Daniel Salvo says:

    I think Thot younger readers don’ t buy Ebooks because they don’t have credit cards

  25. William Ockham says:

    I’m not going to quibble with your conclusion, but I would like to explain that writers shouldn’t factor ANY of the points you made into their decision-making process. Even though the data that you cite is accurate, it simply isn’t relevant to your target audience. To explain why, I’m going to have to explain a little bit about basic statistical analysis techniques.

    Most people are familiar with the normal distribution (it’s the bell curve you hear about). What most people don’t realize is that the way we think about the meaning of averages is strongly conditioned upon the assumption that the data we’re thinking about can be described by that bell curve. However, when we deal with data that doesn’t fit that model, we have to use very different analytical techniques.

    Nothing important about the book market falls under the normal distribution. There is no reason to think that the characteristics of bestsellers, such as those studied in the PW article, have anything at all to do with books that aren’t bestsellers.

    This means that to say the PW article’s findings “give us an idea of what format books are being bought in” is simply incorrect. It tells the typical author or aspiring author less than nothing useful. I say less than nothing because it will mislead you.

    The pricing information is even worse. Look carefully at what you said:

    The price at which physical books are sold has held steady for the past four years, whereas the price of digital books has fallen from an average of $10.19 to $5.65.

    Does anyone think that the ebook market today is similar to the ebook market four years ago? The pricing data is affected by the same issue that I described above also. I have a hard time imagining anything less useful to your readers than comparing average ebook prices from four years ago with today.

    The most useful information you included was the information about your clients’ book sales. That is meaningful to a reader of your article to the extent that their book is similar to your clients’ books.

    What your readers need to think about are the potential audience for their books. How do those people get their books and information about their books? Is there a market for self-published ebooks like theirs? Most traditional publishers have no clue how to market ebooks. Going digital-only with a print-oriented publisher is unlikely to work well. Investigate the success of any digital-only imprints before you sign. Take a careful look at the proposed contract. Talk to other writers who have published with that imprint. But don’t waste your time worrying about the print/ebook mix of Dan Brown or Dr. Seuss.

    • Janet Grant says:

      William, you are right: The majority of authors have little in common with the best-selling books of the year. Which I noted in my post. But that doesn’t mean this is the only study that’s been done about the digital/print sales comparison. Many have been done, and they all point in the same direction. I was simply using the latest study.
      You’re also right to point out that the best way for an author to inform him or herself about where to publish and how to publish is to ask the questions: Who is my reader? What format does my reader buy? And at what price is my reader most likely to buy? Finding those answers is much more challenging than asking them.

      • William Ockham says:


        I guess I didn’t make my point clearly enough. The problem isn’t with the studies you cite. It’s with your interpretation which is based on a completely incorrect understanding of what the data means.

        You say “Many [studies] have been done, and they all point in the same direction.” That is wrong. Yes, the studies all show the same thing, but that thing isn’t what you think it is. You can’t make a decision about one particular title based on information that describes bestsellers OR aggregate data about all books. There are literally millions of readers who only read ebooks. There are also millions who read only physical books. Even more read both types. Although it seems logical to say that to have the best chance of reaching your target readers you should publish in both formats, it simply isn’t true. Your book isn’t an “average” or “typical” book because there is NO such thing.

      • Janet Grant says:

        William, I understood your point and agree that every project is unique, as is the reading audience for that project. But if we can’t look at trends to try to figure out next steps (especially for a new author), we’re ignoring the context in which each book must sell.