Why Digital-First Makes Sense for Books

Anyone who has worked in marketing knows how to use digital communications to test and improve the quality of the work before going into print. The best brands test first in digital format because they can improve internal knowledge at little expense before carving their marketing into stone and investing those subsequent expensive ad dollars. True for product packaging, advertising campaigns, and just about anything going out the door.

Does this same approach make sense for books? Books are long, contain a lot of words with plenty of opportunities for typos and other errors that the author and publisher would love to fix before it is locked into print.
 
Imagine how awful most software would be if user-response mechanisms were not built directly into the product so they can be quickly addressed and fixed wherever possible. All the participants in the content benefit from an ongoing continuous quality improvement process. Alpha. Beta. Release. Round and round and round.
 
I have a feeling this is what the future of books will look like. The vast majority will be released in digital first and then some will go to trade paperback editions and then a lesser amount into deluxe hardcover editions. The digital edition will have the most errors and needed fixes; the paperback should be near perfect if not perfect, and then the deluxe hardcover that someone pays $29.95 or more for will be flawless in all the best ways of the printed book. Design. Typography. Editing.
 
The digital edition costs the least so the reader will be slightly more forgiving of errors. The print editions will then fix those issues reported by readers. Right now,  if a reader encounters typos, there is no good feedback system in place. In fact, getting through to anyone in editorial at a major publisher without already having an email, which most readers will not, is like trying to penetrate a fortress surrounded by music-theory graduate student zombies playing spectral music from Germany. (Trust me here.)
 
The other advantage this new approach would have relates back to the marketing example at the beginning of this post. Publishers could test their digital editions before going to print to better identity new readers, to better understand the demographics of the markets with growth potential. Then the print distribution and associated marketing could be that much smarter when their time rolls around.
 
— Caleb Mason
 

7 thoughts on “Why Digital-First Makes Sense for Books

  1. As a music theory graduate student studying spectral music, with a fondness for Georg Friedrich Haas in particular, I find your associating me with zombies to be offensive. We are more like future Starbucks employees.

  2. On the digital first front, genre matters a great deal on whether this is the right way to go. Some non-fiction categories have single digit e-book market share.

    “In fact, getting through to anyone in editorial at a major publisher without already having an email, which most readers will not, is like trying to penetrate a fortress surrounded by music-theory graduate student zombies playing spectral music from Germany. (Trust me here.)”

    Not true of all publishers. Many smaller ones save emails (and letters!) in a file waiting for reprints of the print book to make corrections.

  3. Thanks Peter and glad to hear the edits are being handled, although a snail-mail system seems pretty backwards in this day and age, don’t you think? Imagine mailing a letter to Microsoft every time you had a software glitch!

    Agreed the time is not yet here for what I am envisioning but I am thinking five years from now on the outside range. Did I not read somewhere that Amazon is actually rolling out a quality improvement user-feedback system just for their published ebooks? Possibly I dreamt it. Thanks for taking the time to offer your comment here.

  4. Wouldn’t this change hasten the death of bookstores? As a bookstore owner this would put us out of business. No like.

  5. Hi Claire, the chronology I see playing out would not need you to lose your business if you adapt to the changing way people read.

    What I think will happen is Barnes and Noble, who was the main reason so many indie stores either closed or were hurt in recent decades, will either be completely out of retail or have 100 or so remaining stores. I am talking 3-5 years from now.

    Their retail will be hurt by the decline in print magazine readership, fiction and nonfiction books, and the fact their stores are too large for books.

    This in turn will allow better indie bookstores to continue selling illustrated children’s books and art and photo books, plus those elite hardcover and trade paperback titles mentioned in this blog. Some will have print-on-demand machines for creating print from digital.

    Some will look and feel more like our best indie coffee shops, creating the new town social center. They also will sell local interest books and cards.

    Regardless of what I think will happen, this format shift to digital is already well underway so best to plan for it. Plus, I believe this shift will help improve the editorial quality for readers, which would be a good thing. Thanks for your post.

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