Why you shouldn’t make a paperback (print) version available before you launch your book

Why you shouldn’t make a paperback (print) version available before you launch your book

print books vs. ebooks

This is an older post, but my position is unchanged: I’ve even seen this strategy adopted from people with large platforms: Get the ebook out quick, make sure it sells and leave time to fix stray typos, or unclear passages (edit/add depending on reader feedback and reviews. THEN make a very nice, perfect print book when you’re sure you’ll never need to make changes to it). This is also in line with my stance on not over-investing in a first book until you’ve tested the market a little.

… I’VE HEARD THE ARGUMENT being passed around, quite frequently by some indie authors, that you need to put up a print version of your book before you start your marketing, for these reasons:

1. Having the print book available makes you look more professional and trustworthy – it must be good if you spent the time and money to make a print version.

2. Having the print book gives the Kindle book a psychological boost through the crossed out print price.

Just for an example, I’ll show David Gaughran’s book on Amazon, since I’ve heard him talk about this a lot.

print book publishing

It’s very true that having just one price on a sales page is risky because it doesn’t give buyers a frame of reference.

$4.99 may sound like a lot for an ebook; but paired next to $14.95 it seems like a good deal.

This works. It even works if the numbers aren’t related at all, or are nonsensical. How we frame our prices drives buyer decisions.

For example, when companies have three different price points, they aren’t usually giving you more freedom.

The lower one isn’t usually a good deal.

The higher one is usually way overpriced, for not much extra value.

The extra two price points are given to balance, justify and steer you towards the one they want you to pick.

So David is totally not wrong in this regard. (And his books are awesome, you should go check them out).


Here’s why I don’t agree with him anyway

David is an established writer, with an established platform and fanbase, who knows a lot about book design and production, and making a print book probably isn’t that big a deal for him. He knows there’s a good chance his book will sell enough to recoup the investment, so in his position, it’s totally the right move.

But it probably isn’t the right move for you, if…

1. This is your first book.

2. You don’t have a website, or don’t get much traffic. You don’t have many followers online and aren’t sure how you’re going to market the book.

3. You don’t have a professional cover design and aren’t sure if you want to try to DIY everything yourself or hire someone.

4. Likewise about book formatting. But you think you can probably do it yourself.


If you pay a professional, a full print cover and book formatting will probably cost around $500. Possibly less, if you’re using Fiverr.com or cheap providers. It will take about a month (a week or two, but then revisions and changes… usually a month).

If you do it yourself, you’re going to have to learn formatting in MS Word which is painfully frustrating, so you’ll spend a couple weeks but then you’ll kind of get it and it will look OK. If InDesign, it will take longer. Then you’ll have to use Createspace’s or Lulu’s cover design tool to make a full print cover, and it’s not going to look very good. It might even look really bad.

Given all of that….

This is why I don’t think it’s a good idea

Let’s say you are going to spend the $500 and have someone design your book for you (this is assuming you already have an ebook/front cover, but I’ll come back to that). For every 10 ebooks you sell, you might sell one print book. I sell about 400 ebooks a month (not a lot, I know, but wait a couple months and I’ll break 1000). If I make roughly $1 per ebook, that’s $400 bucks.

I’ll sell less print books, but they make more money, probably about $4 per book. And actually, 1 in 10 is a high estimate, I’m usually at about 1 in 40 – or 10 print books a month for those 400 ebooks I sold. Here’s my book on book marketing, for example. You can see the “You save $6.96 (70%)” notice.

book marketing


So having that print book available might be driving more sales of the ebook, but the print book is only making $40 a month, so it will take almost exactly a year to earn back the initial $500.

But that’s if you are selling 400 ebooks a month.

For my more mainstream books, with a larger readership, I’ll probably make print books because it doesn’t take me much time and effort and it might work to boost sales. However, for the majority of indie authors publishing for the first time, this is probably a mistake, for the following reasons.

1. Your cover might be ugly. Sure you may really like it. And everybody on Facebook may tell you it’s awesome. But it probably isn’t. If you do the ebook and print books at the same time, you won’t find that out until much, much later. First you’ll put them on Amazon, then email people trying to gain traction and reviews, but find nobody wants either version of the book.

If you advertise with text only and people click, and then try advertising with the cover, or cover art only, and people don’t click, you have an ugly cover.

If you launch the ebook first, you can figure out your cover is ugly and get a new one. Paying $500 for a better ebook cover is much more valuable than using an ugly ebook cover and paying $500 to get the same cover turned into a print book.

2. Your print formatting may be shoddy. If you do it yourself or get cheap formatting, especially if the interior fonts don’t match the book cover fonts, your book is going to look unprofessional. If they click “Look Inside” and see ugly formatting, even if the ebook cover and print cover look good, they may not buy, in which case, it’s better not to have any print book and just go with the ebook. Ebook formatting is simpler to get right, because it should be very minimal and basic, with nothing fancy, and it’s OK if the fonts don’t match the cover.

3. You might have a book nobody wants. It might be that it’s just not very good; but it can also be beautifully written but completely without interest for anybody but yourself – for example personal anecdotes or biographical stuff or family histories. You may have written a book with no market. Or you may have written a bad book (that’s fine, we all do it – but you need to write 10 more before you get good enough to make money). In any of these cases, putting out a print version for $500 is a waste. If nobody is buying the ebook, at all, then nobody is going to buy the print book either.

4. If you have absolutely no marketing funnel, no website, no social media presence, there is the very real possibility that even if you do everything right and get a beautifully made ebook and print book with an amazing story in a popular genre that people would really enjoy, your book will still remain undiscovered. There are millions of products on Amazon. If nobody is buying your book, and you aren’t telling people about your book, nobody is going to find it. You need to get to the top of the free and paid lists for visibility before it can take off. So spending that $500 on a BookBub promotion, or a book marketing campaign or blog tour is more valuable than paying for the print book. (Probably a bad idea to get a website if you don’t know what to do with it, it won’t sell books on it’s own unless you use it properly and add a lot of content – and that takes time. Yes it’s very, very valuable for book marketing, but it won’t help if you don’t have a product people want, or you aren’t able to convince them that they want it).

A Better Strategy

To wrap up, adding a print book can increase the conversions when people are on your Amazon page. But by how much?

The most important thing will be the book cover. After that, the sales copy and reviews. Readers check those out before considering price.

Price, by itself, does not sell books. People don’t say “That’s a reasonably priced book, I’m going to buy it because I saved 70%!”

Plus or minus a few dollars doesn’t matter. Pricing considerations come after you’ve established desire.

You have to make them want the book first. If they want it bad enough, they will buy it at any price.

For most indie authors, pricing concerns like this are irrelevant, because their Amazon page (book cover+sales copy+reviews) isn’t strong enough to make readers want to buy the book.

That’s what you need to focus on first.

STEP ONE: Publish an ebook and drive targeted traffic, either with blog ads, or Facebook ads, or guest posts.

Get the right kind of readers on your Amazon page and see if they buy. If not, FIX IT.

STEP TWO: Try again. Fix the cover. Get more reviews. If nobody will buy your book (maybe because you don’t have any reviews) try giving it away for free. But, people won’t even take it for free if it has an ugly cover and no reviews. You’ve got to get 5 or 10 up immediately, before you start marketing.

If you’re giving it away for free and people are downloading it AND some of them are leaving positive reviews, then you can ramp things up.

STEP THREE: Now that everything is pretty good, you hope, start advertising or marketing a little more. Spend $50 and see if you can make it back in sales. If not, there is still room for improvement. Do some heavier marketing and promotion. Get more reviews. Ideally you want to stay pretty high in the rankings, by selling at least a couple copies per day.

If that’s working, wait till you sell 500 copies (and make $500) and then spend it on a print book.

However… even then, I think the $500 would be better spent on more marketing.

Adding a print book on its own won’t really improve your rankings or visibility. For my specialized non-fiction books, I don’t really do any marketing, because I’m already #1 in my category – but there’s just not a big enough readership. A huge marketing push wouldn’t result in viral growth, things would pretty much calm back down to where they are now.

But for popular fiction (I’m writing a YA romance novel right now) I wouldn’t be happy selling 5 or 10 a day, and then adding a print book and maybe climbing up to 10 or 20. That’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to sell a million. And that kind of growth isn’t going to happen by adding a print cover. It’ll be through a great cover design, a great book and an insanely targeted visibility campaign that reaches tens of thousands of people, and well as several weeks of well-planned media, marketing and strategic partnering. If I’m successful in getting enough sales, an agent or publisher will snap me up and they can worry about producing the print book.

If I’m not successful, the book wasn’t good enough and a print book isn’t going to make the critical difference. All I can do is try again and write a better book. In my mind, the print book is the reward that you give a successful project after it has proven itself with sales. It’s not the missing factor that’s going to make all the difference. It’s definitely not even close to the most important things you need to be worrying about.

PS) Your author website is kind of the same: if you have one book, an author website isn’t going to do anything for you. Your author website is great for growing a fan base so you can write more books, but only if people are actually buying your books! A website on its own doesn’t sell books, unless you’re writing a ton of great content – content brings new readers, who may buy your books.

If you have a book that isn’t selling, building a website won’t help (at least until after you’ve written 100+blog posts that people are actually finding and reading, and your website isn’t ugly or hard to navigate). Not having a website, or not having a print book, doesn’t inhibit your ebook from being smashingly successful. And if it isn’t smashingly successful, it doesn’t really deserve either.



  • S. J. Pajonas Posted

    The plus side of having a paperback up on Amazon before your ebook becomes available (the ebook still in the preorder stage) is that you can have your ARC readers add their reviews to the paperback before the ebook is available. The ebook is what’s going to sell and having reviews of the book before it’s published is so helpful. But you can only accomplish this if the paperback is available first. The ebook, even in the preorder stage if it’s linked to the paperback, will show the reviews, which is a nice touch if you hope to come out with a bang.

    I sell a minimum amount of paperbacks, really. I waver on whether to go without them or not. Not because they’re badly formatted or because my covers are weak, but because it’s a timesuck for sure.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      So, you’re saying to publish the paperback first, get the reviews up, then put the ebook up for preorder so the reviews are there before you publish? That could work, but still seems like too much effort (and risk if the book doesn’t sell). I just send out review copies by email, as PDF or mobi files, and ask reviewers to post to my Amazon page before I do any serious marketing.

      • S. J. Pajonas Posted

        Yep, it does work. And I suppose is a good bet for someone who already planned on selling a paperback anyway. I format my own and do my own covers so it doesn’t cost me $500. Someone without my skills shouldn’t bother, and I often wonder why I do either! Except I need them for signings and gifts and what not.

        • Derek Murphy Posted

          Sure, they are a fun perk. I’m not saying don’t do them, but for first time authors without the skills, they should make sure their story sells before investing too much.

  • Myka Reede Posted

    Hey Derek, I think there’s another part to your analysis that was missed. Namely, the scenario that you’re already paying for an ebook cover and print is just a small upcharge, from $75-200 extra depending on your cover designer. This produces a much quicker ROI.

    Also, there are still many blog book reviewers who take print only as a way to vet “the serious indie authors.”

    Some thoughts. Thanks.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      That’s true, but then print formatting is another $75-200… plus shipping your review books out for potential reviews (another $200?). My point is, it’s a lot of extra money, and time and effort, when you really need to test whether the book is going to sell. If you launch an ebook only, you can verify that some people will want to buy it, or at least that the cover is good enough. If you spend the $600 extra (plus 2 or 3 more months wasted) to mail out copies, you’re hoping the book will do well – really well, if it’s going to earn back the investment – and for a lot of writers, if this is the first book and they have no platform, that’s a poor assumption. Also; I don’t believe those kinds of reviewers matter. You need to get a lot of real reviews up on Amazon, from real readers, not one or two from “trusted sources”. The best way to do that is to give away a ton of free ebooks.

  • Antara Man Posted

    Actually David Gaughran’s website is ugly – he uses the free wordpress version and didn’t even bought a domain name. I know, peeple know him because of his books about writers (which seems a bit out-dated for me, I have them both). Readers and writers still come to his site but it’s kind of offensive for fans to visit an ugly website, just my 2 cents. Joanna Penn’s site(s) both are very well maintained and look very professional.
    About the print cover – digital books are teh future and most of us don’t earn from print books. It’s totally better to try out first the ebook then to test the paperback. Maybe, in 100 years they are gonna be no more bookstores and physical books and maybe no publishers (?). I think, I got a sci-fi idea!
    Thanks for the post, Derek, tweet me when you are/if you are in Bulgaria.

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