FORMAT: Hardcover, Paperback, ebook, audiobook?

Deciding the right format for your book.

The third major decision you must make is what format to publish: ebooks, paperback, hardcover, audio, or a combination. Let’s talk about the options and how each works when you’re an indie publisher. 

What is a Book?

A book is a bunch of words collected into one place. Traditionally, that’s been a paper book with hardcover or paperback covers. Called one of the world’s most amazing technologies, the book is a simple, portable, effective way to present ideas, stories, or facts.

But the digital revolution means books can also be words and/or images on some type of screen. The ebook revolution has changed the possibilities of sharing your work. It’s complicated, as we shall see, but during the 2020 pandemic many turned to ebooks as a practical way to read.

Hardcover. Printed books that have a hard cardboard cover are logically called hardcover books. Traditionally, paper books were printed by offset printing. For this, the images and text—the content of the book—is transferred (offset) to metal plates, and then to a rubber blanket on rollers that is inked. The paper runs under the rollers to be printed. Offset printing is the gold standard for printing quality; every other printing method is judged against it.

Offset printing involves many pre-print steps, and it’s only economical for large print runs. Depending on the printer, you must print 500-20,000 copies to get a good price. This affects your business plan because you must include shipping, warehousing, and fulfillment (sending books to whomever ordered) in your budget. 

I recently watch “Miss Potter,” the movie based on the life of children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter. It’s a fascinating look at the life of one of the all-time best selling authors of children’s books. When my children were small, I read The Tale of Peter Rabbit to them so many times that I’ve memorized it.

One line in the movie caught my interest, though. When the publishing company was first discussing her book, Beatrix had definite opinions on how it should be published: black and white illustrations so that the price could be kept low. However, the publisher had another idea on how to keep the price low. If the book’s interior pages could all be printed on a single sheet of paper, it would be economical and the price could be kept at an attractive low price.

That decision–-to design the book for an economical printing model–-was genius and partly responsible for Potter’s huge popularity. That model is so popular that today, children’s picture books that are offset printed are still designed for printing the whole book on one sheet of paper. That means 32-pages.

Standard offset printing places a children’s 32-page picture book on the front and back of a single sheet. 32 page books are the standard in the industry, not because it’s the best length for a story, but because the printing was economical. If you publish a 24 page book, you waste paper; if you publish a 37 page paper, the cost is doubled because you must use two pieces of paper per book.

However, because that 32-page length became a standard, there’s now, more or less, a standard type story told in children’s picture books.

If you have a title page, half-title page, copyright page and dedication page, that takes up 3-5 pages of “front matter,” leaving 27-29 pages for the story itself. Stories usually start on page 5 (though it could be page 3 or 4). Then illustrations are laid out in double-page spreads. That gives you about 14 double-page spreads (give or take), plus a last single page-32. 

When I write a children’s picture book, I divide my story into 14 sections. Each section must 1) advance the story, 2) make the reader want to turn the page, and 3) give visual possibilities to the illustrator. For more on writing a children’s book, see How to Write a Children’s Picture Book.

Many conventions have grown up around the 32-page picture book: the page -32 twist, the character opening, the use of double-page spreads, and so on. All that is good. Writers and illustrators took the restricted format and made it into a thing of beauty. 

Indie publishers can do offset printing either in the U.S., or they often import from China, Indonesia or other countries. 

YOU ARE THE PUBLISHER

Before we look at the options, there’s one crucial thing to remember. You are the publisher. They are just your printers. You are in control of the book publishing program, which means you decide when and where it’s printed. Unless you sign an exclusive agreement—don’t do that!—you can print with several places at a time and change whenever you like for any reason. You are the publisher; the options below merely describe your options for getting the book into a specific format.

Digital Printing. However, there’s a new technology which opened new possibilities: print-on-demand printing. For digital printing, just look at your home computer. Ink-jet printers print line by line, spraying tiny droplets of ink that when viewed from a distance blend into an image. High quality ink-jet or other digital printers can now print books. They are fast and can do one copy at a time. The quality doesn’t match that of offset printing, but it’s very good and each generation of printers improves quality.

For print-on-demand (POD) printers such as IngramSpark, Lulu, or KDP, your book exists as a digital file until someone places an order. Then—and only then—the book is printed and shipped. This drastically affects your business plan! You set up the digital file with a printer and the printer prints, fulfills, and sends you profits.

For the writing, it means that any length book is possible. POD printers will typically print an even number of pages from 24+ pages and up. (See each printer for specs.) You aren’t tied to the 32-page format. Write and design for any length your story demands.

A caution, though, is that if you ever offset print, 32 pages is still more economical; if you ever anticipate an offset print run, stick with the industry standard 32-page picture book. I’ve done special printings for Junior Library Guild, subscription box services, and educators’ groups. For those print runs, the 32-page format a difference in profits.

The downside is the cost. Because a book is a one-off printing, the printing fees are much higher. The budget works, though, because you don’t have to deal with shipping, warehousing, and fulfilling. We’ll talk more about pricing books later, because it can be tricky to be profitable with POD. Common paperback POD printers include KDP (Amazon), IngramSpark, and Lulu. Hardcover print-on-demand is available from IngramSpark or Lulu. KDP (Amazon) doesn’t offer hardcover POD books. 

EBooks. On November 19, 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle reader and changed literature forever. There were ebook readers before, but Amazon’s reach expanded the market to the incredibly diverse and thriving market it is today. 

eBooks are simply html files zipped into a certain format. The container for the files can vary from the .mobi files required by Kindles to the ePub files used by every other format.

There are two kinds of ebooks, either flowable text or fixed format. Novels are usually flowable text, which means that it doesn’t matter where the text is shown as long as it’s in order. You can increase/decrease font size so that the text reconfigures, or reflows, from page to page. Great for those with vision problems, flowable text is one of the main features of an ebook.

But children’s picture books need a fixed format ebook. A typical book has double-page spreads with text on top of illustrations. If you tried to reflow it, one page might show an image and the next page would show text. 

Keeping the text and illustrations together requires a different format. Because an eBook is simply html text, some eBooks use css (cascading style sheets) to position the illustrations and text boxes. But there’s a big problem with this method. There are now dozens of popular ebook devices; some estimate over 100 devices, including the legacy models. Each device shows fixed format eBooks in a particular way, and while there are ePub standards, devices don’t uniformly show an eBook the same way. Especially not a fixed format eBook.

To avoid the problem of device compatibility, many children’s ebooks use a series of images. Each image is a reproduction of a page in a picture book. These can be single pages or double-page spreads. One problem with this solution is that the text can appear too small. If a device allows the reader to pinch-zoom, they can easily enlarge the image when needed. But Kindle devices don’t allow for the pinch-zoom. Instead, the ebook designer embeds text in a special box that will popup when tapped. It’s an awkward solution, with usability and aesthetic problems. But it’s what Kindles do, so we must deal with it.

One of the ongoing problems with ebooks is also the delivery costs. Of all the ebook distributors, only Amazon/Kindle charge download fees of $0.15/MB (This varies from market to market; for all the ins and outs, see here: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200634500). A novel, with no illustrations, will seldom be more than 1MB in size so the download fees are neglibible.  But a full-color children’s eBook can easily be 20MB file size. We’ll discuss this more later, but for now, understand that if a file is over 8MB, it’s hard to be profitable. For more on how to create small file size color picture books, read this.  https://www.darcypattison.com/publishing/format-picture-books-kindle/

Current ebook distributors include KDP, iBooks, Kobo, GooglePlay, and many more which can be accessed through aggregators such as Draft2Digital, Smashwords, and PublishDrive. We’ll discuss these in more detail later.

Audio.  A final format is audiobooks, digital narrations of the text. For children’s picturebooks, this isn’t a strong market because they are so short, which makes it difficult to profitably price a book. Also, picture books depend on the illustrations for fully experiencing and often understanding the story. Audio leaves out the illustrations.

For children’s novels, it’s easier, but the market is still weak. Looking at audiobooks overall, the market is bullish on audiobooks for adult fiction and nonfiction. For children’s books, though, the market is influenced strongly by schools who haven’t embraced this format fully. The 2020 pandemic may change the strength of the children’s audio market, though; time will tell.

One use of audiobooks is to create Read-to-Me ebook versions. Often, as the story is read, each word is highlighted in the ebook. Expensive and time-consuing to produce, these are popular on some platforms. But their overall adoption is slow.

Most indie publishers use either Findaway or ACX to distribute audiobooks.

WHAT COMBINATION OF FORMATS?

You don’t have to publish just one format, though you may choose that option. Traditionally, publishers released a hardcover exclusively for a year. If the book sells well in that format, it might issue a paperback format. Why? Partly, the offset hardcover book was more profitable than paperbacks. But there was also a certain prestige in a hardcover book. If a title went to paperback, it was a sign that it was successful. Less successful books never made it to paperback.

Scheduling the release of an eBook is still variable today. Some prefer to release the ebook first, but some hold it back for a year.  

Today you’re free to schedule the release of your book in any format in any way you like. Personally, I prefer to release all formats simultaneously. I make about the same profit margin on all formats, so there’s no financial advantage to one or the other. If find that those who want hardcover (libraries, schools) are a different audience from those who prefer paperback (parents, classroom teachers).  The different formats don’t cannibalize each other; instead, my income is amplified by the variety of formats.

But you are free to decide which formats to release and in what order! The main question is what does your audience want?

Remember when we talked about the eight types of indie publishers? Here are typical decisions for each type.

Type Publisher FORMAT

HANDSOME HARDCOVER HC only

EBOOK TEEN eBOOK only

COURAGEOUS MIDDLE GRADE PB, with HC or eBooks as needed

EBOOK KIDS eBook

GUTSY JACK-OF-ALL-FORMATS ALL: HC, PB, eBooks

NICHE NANCY DEPENDS ON YOUR NICHE

BOOKSTORE JOE HC, PB

TPT SALLY PDF, POWERPOINT or other formats required by teachers