Paper or digital? How to decide the format for your monograph or book

Paper or e-book?A question continues in some stores, “Paper or plastic?” While recyclable bags may make this a thing of the past, other questions continue. Authors continue to ponder whether their book should be a paper copy or an eBook. While this is an important discussion, it should not cause deep thinking.

The obvious answer is both. If a publisher is wise, it will offer a book or monograph in both formats. This is a smart consumer-centric option. Let the buyer decide which they prefer. Let’s discuss, though, each format to see where the market is and the virtues of each one.

Paper first. The paper book or textbook market continues to be very strong and is nowhere near joining the slide rule or typewriters as relics of prior students. Paper, according to many surveys, continues to be the format of choice for students when it comes to textbooks. While many textbooks have an eBook option or companion, there still is a solid market for the physical product. Textbook rentals and the used books markets themselves alone will ensure the strength of the market well into the next decade (whether authors see any royalties, or at least the appropriate ones, could be the focus of a future blog post).

For those naysayers about paper, at least have your book available through print-on-demand or POD. If this is a new concept to you, print-on-demand is a printing technology in which copies of books are not printed until an order is received, making a standing inventory unnecessary. POD certainly has limitations with big textbooks for introductory classes and books with intensive use of color images or high page counts. However, for many books and certainly most monographs, POD would serve the market well if a publisher is resistant to paper.

Now eBooks. There is no doubt about the bright future for digital learning. While we are still in a transitional era from a marketplace point-of-view, the full conceptualization of what an eBook can and should be has surely arrived.

An eBook should be fully envisioned from inception by the publisher: readable on multiple devices, fully accessible to users with learning disabilities, and make full use of the many options such as video and animations. The format has moved beyond the shovelware aspect when content was moved to digital without having been altered to suit the new medium.

If your publisher will be issuing an eBook (and I certainly expect they should) for your project, get involved and see how you can work with them to optimize the content and use the format to its fullest extent.

eBook sales slumped the last couple of years and this grabbed a lot of headlines. I suggest no change in course over plans with eBooks. If we tried to envision the classroom ten years in the future, how could eTextbooks or eLearning offerings not be part of the picture? Digital may have stumbled recently but it surely is the future.

Two areas concerning eBooks that are still murky and resolving themselves are pricing and royalties. Inside High Ed recently looked at publishers’ bids to gain market share by slashing the price of digital textbooks.  The disparity between pricing of print and eBooks needs to be resolved. The market is far from settled on a uniform model, and this is affecting authors.

Of equal concern are packages, platforms, programs, or unlimited plans. Cengage recently made news with their latest effort to recapture market share with one plan. In my mind, this is more a business move to gain prominence than a true attempt to envision an equitable model. These packages and so forth always give authors a queasy feeling when any publisher forges ahead as they question how their royalties and share are affected behind closed doors.

Despite these points, eBooks are here to stay and will become the version of record due to their flexibility.

But the real solution, for now, is both. So, please make mine paper AND eBook please.


John BondJohn Bond is a publishing consultant at Riverwinds Consulting and the host of the YouTube channel “Publishing Defined.” He has been in scholarly publishing for 30 years. In his career, he has directed the publishing of over 500 book titles and 20,000 journal articles. His newest eBook is Scholarly Publishing: A Primer. Contact him at jbond@riverwindsconsulting.com.