publishing · reading

Digital-first vs paperback publishing

As some of you might know, I am a big fan of digital publishing – my Kindle is my prized possession, it goes everywhere with me and the day my old one broke was a very dark day indeed (luckily, I got a new one WITH A BACKLIGHT)! As a commissioning editor, I have to do a huge amount of reading for my job, and my Kindle makes this so much easier because all I have to do is forward the word documents I receive from literary agents onto my device and start reading. I also love the flexibility Kindles give you – I love being able to buy a book instantly, especially if I’m on holiday (on my last holiday I got obsessed with reading all the Lucy Clarke books and it was so great to be able to download them one after another).

Before you all start thinking this is an advert for Kindle, all this is just to say how much I believe in digital publishing and why for me it’s so important. It’s of course a given that I still love paperbacks; my shelves at home are double stacked, and I constantly have a towering to-be-read pile on my desk at work too. But I’m not one of those people who necessarily has to hold the physical book in their hands; I’m a fast reader so for me, reading on my Kindle is quicker, easier and a lot lighter in my handbag as well.

I am also published digitally – my own book The Doll House came out with HQ Digital earlier this year, and the experience has been incredibly positive. I wanted to use this opportunity to shed some light on the differences between digital and paperback lists, as more and more digital publishers are popping up now and I think sadly there is still a lot of confusion (and sometimes snobbery) over the two different ways of publishing. In my opinion (as a publishing professional as well) they are just that – different ways of getting your book to market, rather than one being superior to the other.

So, the basics. With a digital first contract, you will be given editorial attention in the same way as you would with a paperback contract. Your book will take less time to publish than if you’re on a paperback deal, simply because ebooks are easier and less time-consuming to create, and the market is fast-moving so it is in your and the publisher’s best interests to get it ready for sale relatively quickly. Paperbacks (or hardbacks) can take months to publish, simply because the printing and binding is a longer process. On both a digital and a paperback contract, you will be given a designed book cover, but for digital, you won’t have a back cover because you don’t need one. In terms of money, the contracts will differ from publisher to publisher but the most likely outcome is that on a digital first contract, you won’t receive an advance (occasionally you might), but you will get a higher royalty percentage, plus you will begin receiving those royalties straight away, because you don’t have an advance to earn out first. With a paperback deal, you’ll likely receive an up-front advance, and how much that is can vary a lot between publishers, and depending on what sort of book you’ve written. Your paperback royalty percentage will be lower than your ebook royalty percentage, but your paperback will likely be priced higher than your ebook (again, prices vary between publishers). At Avon we start all our debut authors at 99p in ebook and £7.99 in paperback, but this changes with the author’s second (and further) books.

Sometimes, digital first books will be put into paperback later on, and this depends on a variety of factors (not always just high sales, which is a common misconception). A publisher might see that they have a gap on their list or an opportunity from a retailer which your digital book would fit very nicely into. For example, Sainsburys might be launching a romantic novels store space, and be looking for exactly the kind of themes found in your ebook, so the publisher might print a small print run for Sainsburys alone. Or, your ebook might sell very well and your publisher might see that there is a demand for it in paperback after analysing the market and the type of people who are buying or showing interest in your book. Not every ebook goes into paperback, and to be truthful this is not always a bad thing, as if your ebook does go into paperback but doesn’t sell well, you then have a track record which might put retailers off buying your second book – it all depends on your experience and is very much a case by case thing. Your publisher should be able to let you know if any print opportunities do come up and whether print is the right format for your novel.

The other really great thing about digital publishing is how flexible it means you can be. With paperbacks, they tend to be kept in stores with good placement for quite a limited time (maybe three weeks or so) before they begin to drop out to make way for the new books that are being published every day. With ebooks though, that initial buzz around publication has the potential to last a bit longer. Additionally, it is much easier to re-jacket an ebook than it is a paperback, so you could re-launch a backlist title and see it climb the charts for a second time, or you could alter a cover easily in response to a shift in the market. The ebook market is ever-changing, but as publishers we can look at what is and isn’t working and then make alterations – whereas once a book has printed, it’s obviously not ideal to immediately print another 10,000 copies with a new cover if the first 10,000 haven’t sold yet. You can of course print new editions, but this tends to only happen when a book has been very popular.

It’s also worth remembering that the ebook and paperback landscapes are very different. The rise of Amazon publishing and self-publishing has changed the digital sphere dramatically, and supermarkets and bookstores are more cautious than before, often opting to play it safe with established brand names or movie tie-ins rather than taking chances on debuts. That’s not to say they don’t take debuts, of course they do, but it is competitive and that’s why it’s so important to get your book jacket and top-line pitch as compelling as possible. I personally feel that the ebook market is more within an author or publisher’s control to a certain extent – using clever metadata, advertising and social media, there are ways to help make your book succeed in the digital space but it is harder to influence a retailer to stock your book. So from my perspective, there are good and bad sides to both forms of publishing – but the main thing to focus on is that connection with readers, which for me is the most rewarding part of the publishing experience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re reaching your readers through their Kindles or through paperbacks – the end result is exactly the same.

If you have any questions about the publishing process, feel free to pop them in the comments section below! You can also buy my book here if you’re interested!

18 thoughts on “Digital-first vs paperback publishing

  1. Nice to see a balanced view of the pros and cons. I didn’t realise there was even such a thing as digital publishers, (apart from traditional paperback publishers also including e-books in the contract) but it makes sense. Interesting. Thanks. 😀


  2. Fantastic article on publishing. I’m not a great kindle fan but I have one, since getting the kindle app on my I-pad my e book list has gone made. Why is this. Well on my I-pad I can see the covers in all their glory in colour, the text is easier to read as I have the largest screen available and the reading experience is good, as long as your not in bright lights or sunshine. This is where the kindle comes into play. Plus the kindle is more portable than my big I-pad. But I do prefer the traditional published book to hold, but you can’t get them for 99p. So now I know more about the publishing element I felt duty bound to download your book, a bargain at 99p. Many thanks for all your hard work in the industry that gives me and all us readers so much joy and pleasure when we read a good book.


  3. I absolutely love my Kindle, Phoebe and occasionally read i-books too. I still enjoy browsing bookshops and buying paperbacks but my Kindle goes everywhere with me and on the occasions I forget it (aargh!) I read using the Kindle app on my phone! Such a useful, knowledgeable post. Off to share xx


  4. Thank you for the very interesting article. Is there a difference between digital first and self-publishing or are they basically the same thing?


    1. Thank you for reading! They are different – digital first publishing is still done by a traditional publishing house, so you have an editor, cover designer, publicity and marketing team who are responsible for the book but there just may not be a physical edition. Self publishing is different altogether – solely run by the author without publisher input. I hope this makes sense? Phoebe x


  5. I stumbled upon digital-first while looking for publishers, seeking the traditional path. I’m finding it difficult to find a place to submit my romance/epic fantasy. I just felt my Novel had no place and each time I looked for a publisher I felt overwhelmed and disheartened. That was until I found out about Digital-first publishing. I want to do this right as this is all new territory for me. So, thank you for your excellent post. It helps me know I’m going down the right path.


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