Paper or PDF books – which do you prefer?

Chalkface is still first and foremost a book publisher, even though I rarely blog about it. But what is a book? Pieces of paper bound at the edge, with ink on them? Or an organised collection of information? I prefer the latter definition because it encompasses both paper and electronic (PDF) formats.

Tim O’Reilly, the publisher I most wish I was, writes today about his experience with PDFs. Basically, his customers prefer them to paper books. From one particular imprint, he reports:

Based on a little less than 3 months of data, we see that of the customers who’ve bought Rough Cuts, 60% chose the PDF-only option; 36% chose the bundle of PDF plus print book, and only 4% chose to pre-order the print book only.

That makes an interesting contrast with teachers; our experience is that it’s about 50/50 – but note that we don’t offer the combined package O’Reilly does. I would guess that it will be more like 60/40 by next year.

So what is driving the move to PDF? Tim liberally quotes Dave Thomas, so I shall too…

They are searchable. I don’t have to rely on the index put together by the publisher — and that’s good, because when I do fall back to the index, it’s not useful to me, no matter who publishes the book. Searching a PDF is a huge speed-up over finding something by TOC or index.

They are portable. I check all of my PDFs into source control, and without even trying I have them on all the machines where I develop, whether those machines are online at the moment or not. I don’t carry anything to or from work anymore — if it isn’t in svn, I don’t need it.

They are more timely, and often, I can get them in the same hour I find out about them. If the publisher is revising the PDF, either through a beta program or through a new release, I can often get a new copy of the book very quickly and sometimes for free. With downloads, I can get a cheaper copy of the book immediately, rather than paying Amazon a bunch for overnight delivery of a more expensive print book.

A few more facts:

  • Despite being held up as the most technically-advanced publishers on the planet, O’Reilly so far only offer one specialist niche product as PDF. The rest are paper-only. Every Chalkface book is available as PDF. I am telling you this exclusively to prop up my own ego, because Tim overawes me rather.
  • Tim speculates that the cost of printing books will go up as the proportion sold on paper declines. Won’t happen here. When you order a paper copy of a Chalkface book, what we actually do is print a copy of the PDF for you on a giant laser printer, then bind it and send it. It’s called ‘print on demand’ and we’ve been doing it for the last 16 years. It makes even single copies economically viable.
  • That book you bought from us two years ago as a PDF download is still available for you to download again, and again, from the Chalkface website. The paper copy is in a stock cupboard somewhere….in your previous school, perhaps. What I’m saying is that PDFs have more persistence than paper books.
  • That idea of offering both PDF and paper copies in a bundle is an interesting one which we will definitely investigate. We would have to charge more, but far less than the cost of two separate copies. If you’re in the Chalkface customer research programme, expect a questionnaire soon!


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