The Author’s Guide to Digital-First Publishing

Traditional versus self-publishing. Ask a random group of authors which camp they back, and you may find yourself smack in the middle of a heated debate. With all the talk about which is the better publishing option, you can guess why there would be some confusion about what digital-first publishing is. Is it a hybrid method of publishing? A cash grab by publishers looking to piggyback off the success of hard-working self-pub authors? Is it a way for emerging authors to get their collective foot in the door? Here is a look at digital-first publishing, with insight from literary agents, authors and book enthusiasts.

Digital-first publishing … what is it, exactly?

Let’s get the textbook definition out of the way: digital-first publishing is exactly what it sounds like. At first, your book is signed to a publisher, and is sold in digital format only. If your sales are good enough that they surpass a pre-defined threshold, your publisher will release your book in print form, in addition to digital.

The confusion over how it is different than self-publishing rests in the astounding rise of the latter in the last decade. With platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, and the Apple iStore, unsigned authors can publish their books directly in digital form without the need of a publisher. And the question that’s often asked is: why do I need a publisher if I can publish on my own?

Janet Reid, of FinePrint Literary Management explains the difference between the two. “Self-publishing and digital publishing are NOT the same thing,” she says, “although many people who self-publish do so via digital means. You are NOT “on your own” if you publish with a digital first press that has an acquisitions editor, a copy editor, a marketing person, and plans to take over the best seller lists sometime soon.”

Ms. Reid makes certain to add one distinction to her statement. She recommends that you publish “with a reputable publisher (be VERY careful about this because it’s damn easy to set yourself up as a digital publisher these days).”

What are the benefits of digital-first publishing?

Whether publishing your book in print or digitally, a publisher offers you something bigger than you’re likely able to get on your own: their experience and their audience. A quick Google search for “is self-publishing better” will eventually turn up some blogger or other who points out that Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published. What they forget to mention is that while the trilogy’s mounting (yet still relatively modest) popularity did bring it to the attention of traditional publishers Vintage Books, it was the muscle of Vintage Books that catapulted it to its current fame.

For first time authors especially, digital-first publishing with a reputable publisher is a great way to make that transition from self- to traditional publishing. Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management points out that by leveraging the platform of your digital-first publisher, you can potentially get some nice sales figures that will help attract the attention of larger publishers over time (if, of course, that is your goal).

Journalist Sarah Shaffi of The Book Seller adds that publishing digitally first can help authors learn about the publishing process, and make writers more critical of their own work.

Author Stark Holborn is familiar with the process of working with a digital-first publisher. “I essentially went through the whole editorial process, in miniature, 12 times,” she says. “[T]he 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 decision.”

And, as author Cathy Bramley notes, digital publishing works well in helping authors establish their online and social media platforms. “I enjoy a lot of interaction with readers via Twitter and Facebook who finish one part and can’t wait for the next,” she explains. “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.”

From the publisher’s perspective, digital-first publishing opens up new possibilities, too. Victoria Lowes of The Bent Agency argues, “It’s also important to know that this format lets publishers take more chances on debut authors and can even be used to breathe life into an author’s backlist.”

Is digital-first right for your book?

Not all books are suited to digital-first contracts. Typically, genre novels are the most attractive, with serialized novels becoming more and more prevalent. According to Ms. Lowes, “So far, romance has been the trend in digital-first, though more publishers are also looking for mysteries and thrillers.”

What’s your take on digital-first publishing? Are you a digital-first author? What are some of the benefits and/or drawbacks you’ve experienced?

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