Print vs ebook: Which format is right for you?

I had an interesting exchange with a potential client recently. I’d raised the question of ‘what next’, in the context of why he wanted to write his book and what he hoped to achieve with it. It’s an important question that I like to ask from the outset, because I need to understand an author’s aspirations and expectations.

‘Oh, I’ll put it out as an ebook,’ he said. ‘It’s cheaper that way.’

While this was a useful indicator of how this person saw his project (and I have to admit my alarm bells were ringing about this particular person’s priorities and commitment to the process), it also got me thinking about the merits of ebooks v print books. As my (now not) potential client surmised, there is a price differential, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Let’s get the price question put to bed first though. The cost of getting a manuscript into a digital format is, indeed, minimal. Even if you get a designer to produce an eye-catching front cover, you are still looking in the ball park of the low hundreds of pounds. If, however, you wanted to self publish a physical book, the cost can be several times that amount once you get the whole book properly typeset and have paid for print.

On a pure cost basis, ebooks win hands down. However, I wouldn’t write off print books. If you do, you may alienate a large quantity of your readership. Indeed, in recent years, paper books have seen a resurgence in popularity, with the numbers sold increasingly steadily while digital sales have declined. ebook sales were 4% down in 2017, compared with paper book growth of 6%, according to industry research group Nielsen.

On a personal note, I read a lot of books and my preference is always, always for a physical book. I have a house full of them. I love the feeling of a ‘real’ book in my hands and the slight rustle as I turn a crisp new page. And the smell! Who doesn’t like the smell of a new book?

There is another reason I largely don’t read digital books. In a rare moment of helicopter parenting, I want to ensure my children read. A lot. If they see me staring at my phone or iPad I could easily be doing the weekly shop, or catching up with my friends. When I read a paper book there is no mistaking what I am doing. I hope that by leading by example I am somehow putting out the subliminal message: put down Snapchat and read a book!

On a similar note, physical books are easy to share. I have a lovely time whenever school reading challenges come up. This is where children are asked to find and read books with, say, a colour in the title, or one by an American author. Whenever this happens we go through the books which are on shelves all over the house and discuss our various preferences. Again, it is another great way to foster an interest in the reading experience. I’m happy to share books with family and friends too (as long as they give them back). Ebooks, on the other hand, are firmly secured in the owner’s digital device for their eyes only.

Paper books, or more accurately, hardback ones make fantastic and meaningful gifts too. Choosing just the right one is something you can’t fail to put a lot of thought into and the recipient will value that. Write an inscription in the front and it affords the gift a longevity which may exceed the lifetimes of both the giver and receiver. With all the regular changes and updates to various digital formats and reading devices, I can’t imagine an ebook ever lasting that long.

While it is quite obvious from this blog that I favour physical books, I can see some advantages to ebooks. When travelling for business or pleasure I don’t want to carry a bunch of weighty books in my suitcase. Downloading a selection of ebooks in advance is much more convenient. Plus, you don’t need to grapple with making the perfect choice of books before you go: just take as much digital content as you like and pick the one you fancy when you get to the poolside.

Ebooks are also more immediate. If you hear about a book and decide you really want to read it, right now, you can. It can be delivered to you in a matter of seconds. They are cheaper to buy than physical books too, so it is possible to experiment more and take some risks with titles that you are not 100% convinced about.

Going back to my helicopter parenting and the desire to get the next generation reading, ebooks also have the advantage of being able to offer interactive features. Children can click through and explore stories on a more personal basis, which appeals to the tech savvy generation. The counter argument to this is, of course, that the actual experience of reading becomes a secondary consideration.

Ultimately, book formats all come down to personal preference. Most people who enjoy reading have a strong view one way or another. The best way to maximise sales of your book is to deliver it in multiple formats