Books Born Digital: The emerging phenomenon of books published first in digital format

This article, from Lance Eaton, originally appeared on the Library Journal site on 5/15/09. 

It used to be that a book was published first as a hardcover, then as a lower-cost paperback. With increasingly tech-savvy consumers demanding instantaneous access to content in various formats, that publishing protocol has in the last decade changed to one in which the book in codex form often remains the focus, but digital “extras” like audio excerpts and e-chapters act as enticements toward the purchase of the hard copy. More recently, a new phenomenon has emerged, one in which a title comes first in digital form and then—if at all—in physical form.

It’s not so much a buffet-style approach to content as it is a dishing out of select content at select times and, often, at discounted prices. Though it’s still too early to assess the upshot of “digital firsts”/digital exclusives for authors, publishers, distributors, librarians, retailers, and—most important—consumers, three popular approaches dominate for serving up digital content in this manner.

Digital appetizers 

To promote the simultaneous September 2008 release of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded in print, audio, and ebook formats, Macmillan Audio offered listeners a 40-minute downloadable audio preview along with a free audio download of his 2005 book, The World Is Flat. These prepublication digital giveaways, says Macmillan Audio publicist Liz Noland, “allowed us to save costs on printing and also focus our marketing and distribution of the free download on a more targeted audience.”

Similarly, in May 2008, Random House and Del Rey copromoted the concurrent print/audio/ebook release of the final entry in the nine-part “Star Wars: The Legacy of the Force” series, making available the first series entry as free audiobook and ebook downloads.

And building up to the November 2008 release of Stephen King’s Just After Sunset, Scribner partnered with Marvel Comics, CBS Mobile, and Simon & Schuster Audio to adapt “N.,” a previously unpublished story from the anthology, into a series of animated “webisodes” that viewers could purchase through iTunes and Amazon or download onto their cell phones.

In addition to helping to promote multiformat hardcopy releases, digital firsts can also help to bridge the gap between a book’s hardcover print and audiobook CD publications. In 2007, for example, Griffin: St. Martin’s published simultaneous hardcover print and ebook editions of Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. When the book made the New York Times best sellers list, that certainly spelled a boon for any of its future iterations, but momentum was bound to be lost in the eight-month lag between the September 2008 publication of the paperback and the May 2009 release of the audiobook CD by Macmillan Audio. So, before putting out the audiobook on CD, Macmillan Audio released Sarah’s Key as a digital audiobook, in December 2008. According to Noland, that helped the publisher to capitalize on the book’s original hardcopy sales and ride the wave of its critical success.

Digital sides

Another approach publishers are taking with digital releases is bundling multiple formats together at reduced cost. Thomas Nelson recently launched its NelsonFree program, wherein consumers can purchase a title as a physical book, a digital audiobook, and an ebook—all for the combined price of a hardcover. The first two NelsonFree titles—Scott McKain’s Collapse of Distinction and Michael Franzese’s I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse—were released in late March; another ten will follow through the end of 2009 (check for updates). As Joel Miller, publisher of Thomas Nelson’s business and culture division, explained in announcing the launch, “The book is, in a sense, trapped by its format. And so is the consumer—locked into choosing one format over another or shelling out scarce funds for the same book in different wrappers.”

Since 2008, Tantor Media has been offering free PDF ebooks with its MP3-CD audiobooks as part of its Audio & eBook Classics line, and Disney has been packaging standard DVDs and Blu-ray discs together with digital copies. (According to Variety, Fox, MGM, and Lionsgate will shortly also be selling these DVD/Blu-ray/digital combo packs.)

Perhaps their thinking is influenced by the nearly doubled sales of vinyl LPs in 2007 after independent music labels like Sub Pop and Matador packaged LPs with MP3 download codes, proving that bundled digital content could help spur sales of older formats.

Read the rest of the article on the Library Journal site.