Print versus digital editions

This section looks at some differences between print and ebook editions that will affect how a book is produced, sold and marketed. We look at the trade-offs and factors to consider when deciding whether to produce print, digital or both editions.

Considerations for print and digital editions

We’ll look at some of the issues to consider when deciding which formats to produce — print, digital, or both — the extra resources you might need for each extra format, and where you might get the revenue to cover these costs. We’ll consider them under two broad headings:

  • Content and design issues
  • Selling and marketing differences

Content and design issues

Printing PressThings you need in print editions but not in ebooks

There will be extra layout and production costs if you do both print and ebook editions. The layout and design of a printed book and an ebook are quite different and only a little of the formatting is common to both.

  • For ebooks, layout features such as special fonts, tables, and sidebars aren’t usually advisable.
  • An index might be essential for a printed non-fiction book but will be unnecessary for an ebook: readers can use the search function and page references will be meaningless.
  • For the same reason, tables of contents, footnotes and endnotes will have to be discarded or re-done to work in the ebook.

Producing hard copies

If professional-looking hard copies are needed, whether in book form or as notes, you’ll have to create a separate, print-friendly edition.

  • In the case of short-run printed books, the venerable PDF format still works fine, combined with a print-on-demand (POD) service.
  • For notes and reference uses, where finished quality is less important, you can print out an EPUB file if it is DRM-free and doesn’t require precise formatting. You can do this using a free program for PCs and Macs called Adobe Digital Editions ( This approach is not recommended if hard copies are important and users aren’t technically savvy. In this case, it’s better to produce a special print-friendly edition.

Heavily illustrated books still work best in print

A few illustrations in an ebook are fine. But as we’ve seen, if your book depends on illustrations or complex layout such as tables, diagrams, and sidebars, you’ll probably want to think carefully about attempting a digital version until the market matures a little. Print still works best — for now.

Short or long?

One interesting aspect of the emerging ebook market is how long an ebook has to be, and whether print conventions still apply. In traditional print publishing, there are well-founded conventions about how many pages books in different genres must have in order to sell profitably. For instance:

  • Short stories sell poorly and a short novel might make creative sense but would not attract a high enough selling price to be viable.
  • A non-fiction work that is very long because the subject demands it might be uneconomic to print at a realistic price-point.

We’re still learning about digital norms, so don’t let past print failures prevent you from trying a digital edition, including much shorter and much longer works than you’d consider in print.

Selling and marketing differences

Printed books are usually sold through booksellers and a lot of the resources of a publisher are devoted to getting the book into bookshops so it can be found and bought there by readers.

Almost none of this is needed for ebooks which are sold and usually marketed through different (online) channels so there is little cross-over. In general, printed book distribution is a lot more expensive and complicated.

Cross-selling opportunities for print and digital editions

Exposure from the traditional print channels can give both your book and ebook a big boost in sales. The print book channel is still a powerful marketing channel for your book. Many people discover a book through bookshops, even if they later purchase the ebook, and most traditional media attention is still focused on printed books.

Will a digital-first approach make it more difficult to publish a later print edition?

Authors are often concerned that publishing first as an ebook will close the door to a future print deal. But publishers are now more sophisticated and recognize that a good book shouldn’t fail in print because it got an early digital outing. In fact, it’s becoming more common for publishers to use prior digital success as an indicator of future print success.

Good sales or reviews as an ebook are likely to help the print edition, especially if the ebook also managed to attract a fan base – or ‘platform’ to use the industry’s jargon.

The sizes of digital and print markets

In most countries, the local ebook market is still tiny compared to print. The audience is often growing rapidly, but it comes from a small base. And the early adopters of e-readers tend to be the biggest book buyers so their numbers might under-represent their buying power.

If a book has potential for international readership, an ebook edition makes good sense — and might even tip the decision to take on a marginal print book.

Publishers can reach more than 100 million ebook buyers right now just as easily as (in many ways more easily than) they can reach ebook buyers, or even print buyers, in their home markets.

The demographics and tastes of print and ebook buyers

The profile of early technology adopters is often different from the market as a whole. One trend that appeared early was that more males than females read ebooks while printed books were the opposite (the gap is closing).

Another trend was that romance, crime and fantasy novels were the biggest-selling ebook genres. Fiction, in general, sold more strongly in ebook form than in print.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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