The Mystery of Paper vs. Digital: Where Are We Headed?

Hey all,

Gerry Boyle here. Today’s post is a continuation from something I posted yesterday on my blog over at In that post I talked about finishing a new crime novel called THE DEAD SAMARITAN, which I wrote with my daughter, Dublin-based freelance writer Emily Westbrooks. The book (I’ve mentioned it here before) is set in Ireland, filled with lots of very bad bad guys, and probably will blow up stereotypes you might have of the Old Sod.

So we’ve gone through the ms. and felt it was ready for prime time so off to the agent it went. But exactly what prime time will that be?

Things have changed since I started in this business more than 20 years ago. I used to print out manuscripts, carefully pack them in boxes, and mail them off at the village Post Office. Priscilla, our postmistress extraordinaire, would see the carton on the counter and say, “Oh, so you have a new book. What’s this one about?”

We’d have a nice chat. Now I just attach the document  and press “send.” Easier but not quite as climactic.

But in addition to the way we send off a book-to-be, the bigger change is the form that book can take. Hard, soft, e-book, conventional publisher, e-first, self-publish, publish print books on demand, even publish serially online. Lots of choices and they have serious implications for writer and reader.

For the reader it can mean choosing between $25.95 hardcover or $2.99 e-book. For the writer it’s a choice, too: Royalties can range from 15 percent of retail (or less) on that hardcover, or up to 90 percent of that e-book, if it’s self-published. For a writer, that’s a chunk of change. And speaking for myself, I love writing, I love telling stories, I love making up people and places, and I love sharing all of it with readers. But it’s not a hobby. Just like publishers, I’m looking to expand my audience and maximize profit.

So that’s where I am this week and these past few months. The nature of this business means you’re locked in to whatever publishing method you use. A book contract with a conventional publisher can mean a commitment of multiple books and several years. I’m trying to figure out where the business will be in three or four years, and trying to make sure I’m not locked out of the next opportunity.

At a wedding last year I met a book editor from New York. She works at one of the big houses and when she learned I was a writer she said, “Lucky you. You writers have all the choices.”

Writers and readers, that is. Do you buy the newest mystery at your local indie bookstore (be happy if you have one)? Do you have a Kindle? Do you read on your iPad? Do you get hardcover mysteries from the library? Buy paperbacks from Amazon? How do you see yourself reading next year and the year after that? Let me know because in coming weeks I’ll be making a choice with SAMARITAN and ONCE BURNED, the new Jack McMorrow mystery. And I’m sure I’m not alone wrestling with all of this.

With your help, maybe we can take  some of the mystery out of the increasingly mysterious mystery business.

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17 Responses to The Mystery of Paper vs. Digital: Where Are We Headed?

  1. Gram says:

    When I worked I bought both hardcover and paperback, now that I’m retired most of my books come from the library.

  2. Hi, Gerry,
    Timely post. I have a similar decision to make about the historical mystery I’m working on now. To answer your question, although I still buy a few hardcovers written by favorite authors, I do most of my fiction reading on my iPad, where I can enlarge the font. Paperbacks, both trade and mass market, are difficult for me to read because of the smaller print. As for print book buying, I do most of that online, in dealer rooms at conferences, or at group book signings like Books in Boothbay.


  3. John Clark says:

    As a librarian, I still buy everything in hard cover or paperback. That’s mostly because I don’t have a lot of patrons yet with Kindles, ipads, Nooks, etc. yet and given the local economy, I’m not sure that’s going to change soon. I’ve heard many of my older patrons comment that “Nothing can replace the feel of a book in my hands.” I fall into that camp myself. I buy at least 100 books personally every year, read many and donate them to the library. I’ve read ebooks, but my old-fashiondness still tells me that a physical book CAN be shared more easily with multiple readers.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    My preference, in a perfect world, would be to have simultaneous publication of a physical book (hardcover or trade paper) and the e-book. That way, we can reach the library audience, the people who still love books audience, and the e-book readers at the same time. Readers these days, I’ve found, tend to be cranky of they can’t get an e-book…but I’m still a physical book person myself.

    It’s pretty easy to do your own print copy as well, through create space or lightning source.

    As for buying…one of the problems with being in a business where we’re always in bookstores or at events with booksellers is that I always come home with a stack of book. And having so many friends in the business doesn’t help!


  5. mary deland strain says:

    I’m a person of thrift and, consequently, a patron of my local library (Casco Public Libary). I have an iPad and have used it some for reading, tried it for ‘checking out’ some ebooks from the library a year or two ago, but it was more complicated than I was ready for. I buy a book now and then as a gift, but don’t buy novels for myself as they are unlikely to be read more than once. By me, anyway. All this is probably not good news for you, but I do recommend you early and often! I enjoy your work very much, and thank you for it.

  6. Ronna DeLoe says:

    I think it depends on where your market is. If it’s in Maine, you’re probably better off in print with a hardcover book. However, some people here are showing up with Nooks and Kindles, but not like in NY, where everyone has one. I just self-published a poetry collection and it has a smaller market because it’s poetry, but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying to sell it. It’s on Amazon, even though I don’t like that Amazon tried — well, we all know what it tried. I think it depends on where your market is. Knowing your market can make the difference, I think.

  7. Hi, Gerry! My local library is small, and the chances are slim that it will have what I want (although I usually check). Living a two-hour drive from the nearest bookstore, I buy nearly all my books from My Prime account covers shipping, which makes impulse purchases easy for someone as weak-willed as I am. Here’s how my hierarchy of book-buying works:

    1. With a trusted author (e.g., Lee Child, Michael Connelly, you), I’ll spring for a new hardcover.
    2. If it’s a book I think I’ll really like and want to keep, my preference is to buy a new or used trade paperback.
    3. If it’s a book I probably will like and may want to keep, I look for a used hardcover or paperback.
    4. If it’s a book I may or may not like and the e-version is cheap, I download it to my Kindle.

    I realize this is not really fair to ebooks, but if I really like a book I enjoy holding its pages while I read, perhaps flipping back to a map or ahead to an Author’s Note, and afterwards putting it on my shelf so I can remember the experience and someday perhaps read it again. Keeping a physical book is also a kind of homage to an author I admire. An ebook is nowhere near as emotionally satisfying — kind of like a TV dinner compared to a multi-course evening in a five-star restaurant.

    If I were an author trying to build a following, I might provide a short story free or for 99c online, then steer readers to a full-length novel (which could be self-published) in paperback and e-format. Definitely not e-book alone. (Sorry, James Hayman.)

    FYI, I’m a Baby Boomer. Younger readers may not have the same emotional connection to “permanent” books.

  8. Gerry Boyle says:

    Thanks, Sherry, Ronna, Mary, Gram, and the crime writers who have weighed in. All very helpful and food for thought as I move forward. It sounds like for most people it’s a mix: some hardcovers, some paperback, some e-book. I like Sherry’s sliding scale (And I’m glad I made the top tier!).

    I’ll let you know which direction I head next. The times they certainly are a changin’.

  9. Gina Veesaert says:

    Before my Kindle, I would spend $24.99 on one of my favorite authors’ new books as soon as I could get it. I happily pay 7.99 or 9.99 for the latest on my Kindle now. However, I am now sitting in shock at how much you say it may be costing my favorite self-publishing authors to transport me to another life for a few days. Up to 90%?! That’s highway robbery in my opinion. A publishing house does a lot of the work for them and takes 15%, but if they so all the work themselves, they pay more? As a freelance editor and aspiring writer, I am appalled at how this system is working.

  10. Gerry Boyle says:

    Sorry Gina. I confused you. The author share is up to 90 percent for e-books, vs 12 to 15 for print. So authors make a higher percentage on e-book than print. Sorry to alarm you. Keep aspiring!!

  11. I keep my favorite authors in print versions–real books with texture and smells are comforting. I am starting to duplicate some purchases so that favorites are also on my Nook for traveling. New authors usually go onto my Nook because they’re less expensive, but if I like them, I’ll re-buy the book in print. I like my entire series in the same format. Limited space for books and a hoarding mentality when it comes to books is forcing me to move tier 2 books to Nook to save space. Ideally, every print book would come with an ebook version, the way movies often do.

  12. Barbara Ross says:

    All of the above.

    My husband and I spent well over $2000 on books last year (I only know this because I just added it up.) between us we consumer in pretty much anyway you can consume.


  13. Lea Wait says:

    As an author, I want my books to be available in both formats, because I have readers who’ve let me know they want one or the other. (Once in a wonderful time, both.) I read in PW that about 20% of mysteries are read in e-book formats. That’s a lot of people still looking for “real” books. Most libraries (and schools) want durable books. For myself, I definitely want nonfiction in a physical book so I can easily refer to it. For fiction, I prefer a book, but will use ebooks for times when I can’t get a book, I need to read something quickly, or there is a very special deal on one. And I’ll admit I haven’t read all that I’ve purchased. My husband and I do read the NY Times on our Kindle, though!

  14. Mary Chamberlain says:

    Over the last couple of years I have found myself going almost entirely electronic. I didn’t think that would happen because I love books, and having my favorites around me for an impulse re-read at 3 AM is important to me. But, like many other folks, my eyes aren’t getting any younger and I find the ability to adjust print size is important. My Kindle is also a lot lighter than a bulky hard cover, and fits into my purse. There are still a couple of authors I will buy in hard copy, but not many – and those few I tend to get in multiple formats (e-book, audio, hard cover) so they will always be handy..

  15. John Bohnert says:

    I only purchase and read books in print format. My one-bedroom apartment livingroom looks like a library. I have floor-to-ceiling bookcases on two walls filled with mostly hardcover books. The hallway has two bookcases filled with more books. I have two more bookcases in my bedroom. I love real books.

  16. Joan Emerson says:

    I have LOTS of books on my Nook, but even more “real” books on my bookshelves. I like the whole process of holding books, of turning pages; I might love my Nook, but it’s not the same reading experience as holding that book in my hands. However, I must admit that I appreciate the convenience of being able to select font size on my eReader and If I’m traveling, my Nook lets me take all the books I need to keep me reading throughout the trip. But I’m pretty much a “real” book person at heart . . . For me, the only anomalies in this “pick a format” question are books written by my favorite author, all of which I have in hardback, paperback, on my eReader, and on audio.

  17. Gerry Boyle says:

    Thanks, folks. All very helpful. I’ll let you know where my new and old work ends up.

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