Is digital-first best for authors?

Is digital-first best for authors?

This story was written as a walkup to our Friday (8 May) #FutureChat. Join us Fridays for a round of good conversation on topics in digital publishing at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

As our understanding of digital publishing evolves, how much holds true for authors?

Publishing digitally first can help authors to learn about the publishing process, make writers more critical of their own work and help reinvent an author, but the format should only be used in the right context as there is “a difficulty in marketing something that has no physical presence”, author Stark Holborn told The Bookseller.

That's my colleague Sarah Shaffi (pictured) in Friday's edition of The Bookseller, looking at how writers are coming to understand the digital-first concept.

And if what her interviewees tell her holds true, then serialisation and a certain freedom from the constraints of physical retailing are among the strongest pluses cited.

For example, Ivy Lane (Transworld) author Cathy Bramley says that publishing in digital serial format "enabled me to raise my profile and keep my books visible for a longer period of time."

Author Harriet Evans agrees, "I was so completely thrilled with the whole serialisation of A Place for Us and the way it was pitched, marketed and designed, and how the sales went."

Speaking about Evans' experience at Headline, publishing director Mari Evans tells Shaffi that an extended (six-month) presence online for the four-parter — which would be published as a full book in print — created a kind of ramp for the book, a way to "keep up the noise" and build online reviews, support, community, buzz:

Anyone uncertain as to whether Harriet Evans was an author to their taste could see the overwhelming approval from readers.

Crafting advantages?

Holborn, author of Nunslinger from Hodder & Stoughton, tells Shaffi that she was writing the 12 novellas released digitally, three at a time, by Hodder, even as the installments were rolled out. 

I essentially went through the whole editorial process, in miniature, 12 times: the books often went from first draft, to editorial notes, to being copy edited in less than two weeks. It was exhilarating, terrifying, overwhelming and damn fun. Overall, being published digitally in the first instance hasn’t only taught me to write and edit faster, it’s made me more ruthless with my own work: when you’re on a deadline, you can’t afford to defer decisions.

Bramley also talks about visibility and reader engagement as strong sellers for the digital-rollout approach:

I also enjoy a lot of interaction with readers via Twitter and Facebook who finish one part and can’t wait for the next. I think having a low price point is a huge benefit to a new author; readers can look at my Amazon page, see the positive reviews and try for themselves at a low-risk [cost] of 99p.

'But don't you need a print book?'


A more succinct response you'll never hear from the normally loquacious Michael Bhaskar, publishing director at the new digital-first Canelo and author of The Content Machine (Anthem Press). In one installment of an intermittent series of columns posted at Medium by Bhaskar and his Canelo associates NIck Barreto and Iain Millar, Bhaskar writes:

Our view of the market isn’t reductive – we don’t see different editions as competing or cannibalising each other. Generally editions do support each other, which is why we would always be happy to work with print publishers on joint campaigns and launches. It’s also worth saying that we know print will have a role. Over the next year or so we’ll be exploring options about creating new kinds of partnerships and deals to help facilitate that.

The full text of this piece is here, in But don't you need a print book? Discoverability, P vs. E, etc. etc.

Bhaskar, who is working on a book on curation now for Little, Brown — and is speaking in the keynote track at the Independent Digital Publishing Forum's (IDPF) Digital Book Conference on 27th May — goes on to support the idea that ebooks can, and do, support print sales in many instances:

There are now thousands of examples where ebooks have been bestsellers with no print book available. Do a quick Google for ebook success stories. I’ll wait, there will be a lot of results to look at. Moreover, we at Canelo have all seen cases of the ebook driving print sales. Rather than the ebook freeriding on the print edition, the ebook is what establishes the print. Often, this happens a while after publication, when perhaps the print edition is less of a priority. Along comes the ebook with some juducious sales techniques and it all takes off. It can be the ebook that gets the book into people’s hands, gets them talking about it and thus leads the whole publication process.

And Bhaskar goes on to cite reasons that digital-first (and digital-only) editions of books "can thrive on their own and even create markets for print versions." Among them, briefly:

  • Price ("especially when there is no print book")
  • Genre ("certain genres click in ebook")
  • Context ("different purchasing contexts")
  • Immediacy ("no waiting, no delays")
  • Marketing ("quick purchases by linking direct")
  • Promotions ("powerful drivers")

But needless to say, all observers aren't convinced and all authors may not be as pro-digital-first as Bhaskar and others. 

In #FutureChat on Friday, we'd like your input, and the benefit of any experience you may have had or seen others have in seeing digital take the lead.

And sentiment may well count here. Almost inevitably, the bookshop card is pulled in the comments Shaffi gathers for her piece. This is Holburn:

Of course, there is nothing that beats the thrill of seeing your work printed and bound as a real, honest-to-God book, but I would certainly love to explore digital serialisations further in the future.

So let's include that familiar comment in our #FutureChat discussion: how firmly does the "nothing beats the thrill" factor keep authors in the thrall of print? Is that wise? Is it changing? 

See you in #FutureChat.

Join us Fridays for a round of good conversation on topics in digital publishing at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Main image - Pixabay: geralt