Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

The scale of the web, the authority of print

Today, effective strategic publishing depends on two key channels:

  • the scale of the web, and
  • the authority of print.

What does that look like in practice, and what’s involved in actually doing it? In this article, I’ll cover some concrete issues in strategic publishing:

Books as websites

Today, a book can be an interactive website as well as a printed edition, ebook, or app. Increasingly, the website edition is the priority for strategic publishers. For example:

  • CORE publishes open-access economics textbooks like The Economy as web books.
  • WISER published important research and case studies as a web edition.
  • The Office for National Statistics developed an online, supplementary reader for economics students and teachers.
  • Healthcare non-profit Bettercare makes its innovative approach to learning available to all by publishing its books online.
  • A team of writers and scientists created the online, game-like book Survive the Century as an entertaining approach to climate-change advocacy.
  • News site Daily Maverick published their company history as an online book, alongside a beautiful printed edition.
  • Azim Premji University created iThink Biology as an open-access science-skills textbook.

While these books are mostly free-to-read, there are others behind paywalls and on intranets that serve strategic purposes, too. Free and open is not a requirement of strategic publishing. Cost or exclusivity can be useful strategic tools, too.

Whether your book is free or not, effective strategic publishing must include a proper website edition. When your books are websites, they can:

  • appear high on Google searches
  • be read easily on mobile phones
  • track visits and reading behaviour (ethically)
  • be shared on social media
  • include interactivity: links, video, quizzes, search
  • be updated instantly
  • include translations
  • be accessible to all.

We’ve written about these features in more detail in our post ‘Should your publications be web books?’.

Measuring engagement

One of the most valuable features of books-as-websites is the ability to measure how people engage with your work. This is critical if you need to report back to funders. With ethical visitor tracking, you can:

  • show funders and partners that people are engaging with your books
  • see what content is popular and what isn’t, and
  • make better decisions about where to invest in future.

For most of our sites we use Google Analytics to track visits and understand our audience. There are other options, too.

How and why to stay in print

Print editions remain important. No web alternative can match the instant sense of credibility and gravitas you get from holding a beautiful, printed book.

Printed books:

  • instantly establish credibility and thought-leadership
  • serve important archival purposes by their nature, and
  • signal value by their price. Most of us associate price with value, even when that’s illogical.

For more on this, see our post ‘Why you love reading on paper (and what it means for ebooks)’.

However, it can cost more to sell books than they make. The costs add up quickly: print runs, storage, customer service, packing and shipping, dealing with returns, wasted stock, and more.

So it’s critical to outsource all print-related operations to a print-on-demand service.

We use Ingram for international distribution and the company Print on Demand for distribution in South Africa. We’ve also used Amazon’s own print-on-demand service, which is integrated into Kindle Direct Publishing.

It’s important not to confuse short print runs with true print on demand (POD). In true POD, the publisher completely outsources customer service, printing, and delivery:

  1. As the publisher, you send print-ready files to a POD printer and set the recommended retail price.
  2. The POD printer lists all the titles it holds on retail databases. All good bookstores have access to these databases, so that they can find books for their customers.
  3. A customer buys your book from one of those bookstores (e.g. Amazon, Bookshop.org, Takealot.com).
  4. The bookstore pays the POD printer for the book, and provides the customer’s delivery address.
  5. The POD printer prints one copy and delivers it directly to the customer.
  6. The POD printer keeps its printing-and-delivery fee, and pays the remainder to you, the publisher.

The pros and cons for the publisher are clear:

Pros Cons
No customer-service burden.
No need for warehousing.
No cash tied up in stock.
Print larger runs only when needed, e.g. for events or donations.
No large-print-run economies of scale.
Cannot use traditional print-run-based costing calculators.
Some limitations on fancy treatments (e.g. no embossing or cover flaps).

A web-first workflow

It’s not feasible to publish print and web editions using traditional publishing tools. For instance, if your typesetter uses InDesign to lay out a book and produce print-ready PDFs, there is no automated way to generate a website edition. To get a web edition, too, you would have to duplicate most of their work by having a web developer produce the book separately. Such a duplication of costs and content would be untenable.

Instead, you have to use a new approach that we call modern or ‘web-first’ production. You may have heard the term ‘digital-first production’, which is essentially the same. We like to emphasise that the website edition is critically important, and that our tools and systems come from the world of best-practice web development.

In modern, web-first production, you generate the website and print-ready versions of the book at the same time, from the same content source. Web-first production means:

  • All book designs are captured as templates, written in computer code. Think of these templates as moulds into which you’ll pour text and images. You have to invest in designing and creating good moulds, and then production is quick and simple.
  • Humans tag all new content (e.g. headings, boxes, images, notes). This takes some skill, but nothing a professional editor can’t learn in an hour or two.
  • Book layout is then automated: software combines the templates and content to generate both websites and print-ready books. (And ebooks and apps if necessary.)
  • There is a single source for everything: all text, images, and templates live in one version-controlled platform, online, accessible to all team members.
  • Most publishing teams need at least one software developer to maintain systems, extend templates, and help team members solve technical problems. They can be in-house or outsourced, as long as they are friendly and available at short notice.

While setting everything up takes time and money, once a workflow like this is up and running, per-book costs drop and you can publish much faster than before.

For more detail, see our post on ‘Visualising the modern book-production process’.

Cost considerations

To achieve this kind of automation, and its economies of scale, there are financial implications to consider:

  • There is a significant initial investment in templates and infrastructure.
  • Costs should be amortised over many publications.

As a result, you cannot directly compare traditional production costings with web-first production costings. Traditional costings are done on a title-by-title basis, include print runs, and do not include in-house expenses like salaries. Web-first production costs must be measured over several books that share code and infrastructure, and they change the number and nature of the people working on the project. Web-first production can have a profound positive or negative effect on in-house salaried time. So they are fundamentally different.

This difference is a major reason why so many established publishers struggle to implement modern production systems, even though it seems to be in their long-term interests to do so.

You must take a ‘total cost of ownership’ approach, factoring in external and in-house expenses and savings, the benefits of producing books more quickly, and the strategic advantages of publishing a book as a website.

In our experience, successful outsourced projects tend to cost between US$15 000 and US$70 000 per book or series – though there is no long-term ceiling, since web-based publications can be constantly extended and upgraded over time.

A caveat about pilot projects

If you’re a publisher looking to move in this direction, it’s often tempting to start out with small pilot projects, working on unimportant, ‘risk-free’ publications. However, these do not produce useful lessons or momentum. If you want to limit risk, pick a high-value publication that your team really cares about, and prototype it first. Produce a basic, working version as cheaply as possible, and then enhance it.

For instance, if a beautiful design is a critical part of the publication’s strategy, don’t develop any software templates at first; rather create a clickable prototype in a tool like Figma or InVision.

Alternatively, if your project depends on a particular piece of functionality – like choose-your-own-adventure interaction – find or create that software first using a sample of real content. Add good design and flourishes later.

The key thing is to put your team in a position to learn while doing.

We’ve written more about common mistakes in our post ‘Six lessons from dysfunctional projects’.


  • It’s important to combine the scale of the web with the authority of print.
  • If you’ve been publishing only PDFs and print books, website publishing represents a fundamental shift in the way your organisation spreads knowledge.
  • You need to weigh the strategic value of web-first publishing against increased setup costs, and what that means for your cash flow.
  • You’ll need to build or hire a production team that handles both web and print production in a single-source workflow.

Would you like to present these ideas to others? Feel free to use and adapt our slides.

Arthur Attwell 26 October 2021
Books on a laptop image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay