But don’t you need a print book? Discoverability, P v E, etc etc

At Canelo we have a lot of meetings with writers and agents. One question comes up again and again.

Don’t you need a print book to support and boost ebook sales?

Given that we are a digital publisher it’s a fair question. It’s worth saying that, like most people involved with books, we still love print and have an unhealthy attitude to buying physical books (or at least I do, it’s gotten bad, real bad). 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.

BUT. The question still needs addressing. Do you need a print book to make an ebook work? The answer is plainly:


A bit more background. The general understanding of the problem is that in the physical world you are presented with this:

The wonderful LRB Bookshop in Bloomsbury

You also get things like this:

The Guardian Saturday books section

Browsing through bookshops and reading newspaper reviews are, it is commonly assumed, the main ways we discover books. This is how book publishing happens: sell in to shops; get coverage in the mass media. Both, note, don’t really happen for ebooks and both are in decline of one kind or another (the phenomenon known as ‘shrinking windows’). To date no one is really selling ebooks in shops, piled attractively on tables. Review outlets are still reluctant to review ebooks, although that is changing. In contrast the sales window for an ebook is already shrunken and looks something like this:

Front page of the Kindle Store

People then assume that if people are buying on the device above, it is because they have already encountered the book through one of the other two channels. So, it follows that you need a print book.

Except 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.

I’m writing this blog at the Nielsen Book Insights conference in London. We’ve just seen some fascinating data – 30% of the book market is now digital, 47% of adult fiction books are bought as ebooks and over 56% of all books are purchased online. Immediately this data suggests that ebooks are now such a substantial portion of the market that they are not simply the supporting act anymore. They are often the main event.

Ebooks can need a print book to support them. But they can thrive on their own and even create markets for print versions. They can do this in many ways. Here are a few:

  • Price. Ebooks can support lower prices than print books, especially when there is no print book. You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to understand this gives them an opportunity to reach wide audiences who don’t, perhaps, want to spend money on an untested product.
  • Genre. As we have written about before, certain genres click in ebook. Romance and erotica, for example, probably would never have taken off in print before the success of the ebook editions.
  • Context. If you’re buying a book as a gift, you’ll probably do it in print. But if you’re buying a book for your beach holiday, you’ll probably save space and buy the ebook. Different purchasing contexts suit the different formats.
  • Immediacy. You’re watching TV and they discuss a book. You want it, fast. It’s a Sunday evening. With the ebook you can buy it there and then, no waiting, no delays – just a seamless purchase in seconds.
  • Marketing. Coupled with that immediacy, if you focus digital marketing to ebook it can encourage those quick purchases by linking direct. That’s why at Canelo we will build websites for all our authors, put search and social media ad spend behind every book and carefully optimise all metadata.
  • Promotions. Ebook promotions are, even more than in print, powerful drivers. Considering them carefully and working closely with retailers ensures they have full impact.

Selling books of any kind is never easy. Ebooks often benefit from the presence of a print edition, just as print editions can greatly benefit from the presence of an ebook. But it’s wrong to say that ebooks always need print. The data is clear and says otherwise. Thousands of writers, both self and traditionally published, can testify to that.

Time to rock on.