Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Renaissance for Print, Or Is Flat Just the New "Up"?

Pardon me while I gloat over this headline: Ebook Sales Slow, Strategies Shift.

When I reported two years ago about a new study under the headline Are E-Book Sales Reaching a Plateau?, I caught a lot of flak as some kind of flat-earther or doomed-for-extinction Printosaurus. And I was just reporting on the study, not opinionating.

More gloating: Dig this quotation, "nearly 70% of consumers feel it is unlikely that they will abandon print books by 2016, as they have an emotional and visceral/sensory attachment to print books."

The Second Coming of Print?
But let's not gloat too much, print fans. We were told for so long about the imminent, inevitable withering of print media that we tend to mistake any signs of life -- or digital hiccups -- as The Second Coming of Print Media.

After all, printed publications aren't exactly going gangbusters, nor is the commercial printing industry. More physical bookstores are closing than opening, retail distribution of magazines is collapsing, and don't even get me started on delivery of subscription magazines by the U.S. Postal Service. Print has been going down so long that "flat" looks like "up."

The real takeaways from any discussions about print media versus digital media is that the world is a complicated place and humans are an unpredictable, self-contradicting species. Prognosticate at your own risk.

E-book sales exploded a few years ago because devices like the Kindle provided an easy, convenient, and often inexpensive way to get and read books.

The e-book revolution also led to a self-publishing revolution. No longer did freedom of the press require ownership of or access to an actual printing press. Some novels became best sellers without a drop of ink hitting paper.

Despite the reported 3% decrease in U.S. e-book sales last year, they may still be growing because the official industry numbers may overlook some self-published works. But, contrary to many predictions, e-books are not about to take over the book business or turn printed books into rare, expensive luxuries.

Why do people want books, anyway?
The predictors overlooked a simple fact: Books are for more than reading. People buy them for a lot of things that e-books don't do well, at least not yet: looking at pictures, noting important passages, studying charts and tables, impressing people, sharing, collecting, decorating their homes.

Increasingly in the book business, there aren't print buyers and e-book buyers -- but rather people who buy print when they want print and e-books when they want e-books. Inconsistent? Yep, that's our species.

Printed magazines have taken a somewhat parallel path. E-magazines got even more hype than e-books but have been far slower to live up to their promise. Held back more by dysfunctional marketplaces than by lack of consumer acceptance, tablet magazines aren't even at the top of the threat list for printed magazines.

The three B's
Only a few years ago, many of us in the business feared that soon our products would be relegated only to the three B's: Bach, Beetho . . ., no, wait, I mean Beach, Bedroom, and Bathroom.

We misread the rise of the Internet as a rejection of print. We thought newspapers were dying because people disliked print, when what they really disliked was paying for news that was 12 hours old.

We feared that computers in schools would create a generation who saw print media as an outdated relic. Instead, we've got kids who associate computers with work and print with escape. Just wait until they join us working stiffs and have to labor all day over spreadsheets, email, and Death by PowerPoint.

Rather than disappearing, the magazine industry is morphing into the "magazine media" industry. Still known for their magazines, many publishers now get their real money from other magazine-branded media like the web, events, and e-commerce.

It's a far cry from the old days, when print ruled the roost and by itself supported hefty publishing organizations and profit margins as well. But after a decade or so of cutbacks, print magazines seem to be reaching a new equilibrium. They will never return to the glory days. But as Newsweek, Politico, Allrecipes, and others have discovered, having a printed magazine is a huge advantage in a multimedia world.

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9 comments:

Emil Walcek said...

This book buyer will continue to purchase print media until e-books are more realistically priced. Why would you pay more for an e-book when perfect condition used print books actually cost less?
The day a book publisher comes around to the mobile app pricing model that more realistically reflects a digital production overhead is the day that publisher's market share will soar.

BoSacks said...

Deaddy:
This print is dead thing has always been a red herring to the irrational exuberance bubble the industry developed in a time of zero competition. There was an abundance to print because there could be. What was there to stop it? Now there is legitimate competition for the reading public. The only printed products that will survive will be those that are worth the price of manufacturing it in the first place. What is happening is that print is/will reach a continuously diminishing plateau. The rate of change will eventually slow, but not stop. Digital distribution and connectivity will be ubiquitous, and the reading substrates will continue to do two things. They will become better and cheaper. Print on the other hand will, by the necessity of supply and demand, become more expensive. Do the math and you realize that the only print that will survive will be luxury printed products. I call that vanity press.

Deborah Corn said...

lol "Printosaurus" FYI.. I tried to get the Twitter account but it was already taken, and the variations became too time consuming. I don't do the whole print VS digital thing, but as always your post was worth reading!

Matt said...


Pre-internet, it was a "Print, then distribute" model. That's what's getting creamed, but companies who can figure out the "Distribute, then print" model will do fine.

Ed Coburn said...

As is so often the case, I agree with much of what Bo is saying in his comment above. I would add that the "competition' between paper and digital though is an issue for paper manufacturers and printers, but not for us in the publishing community. As a publisher, I don't care if my customers want it chiseled into stone tablets as long as the business model is there to support it. Publishers need to let go of this whole concept of print vs digital and "gloating" about digital setbacks.

D. Eadward Tree said...

To Ed Coburn: Excellent point. For many magazine publishers, it's not so much about whether to invest in print vs. digital as to whether to invest in paginated media vs. unpaginated media. The print and digital editions of a magazine share many resources, so lack of success for the e-edition often hurts the digital edition as well.

Joshua Martin said...

I noticed a couple things recently in regards to this. (And for the record, I am a fan of paper books, and don't own an eReader.)

The new USDA PaperCheckOff program will raise $25 million from the industry self-taxing itself with the goal of "slowing the decline," by promoting paper and paper-based packaging. So here, success is not growth, its slowing the decline. And it doesn't come cheap.

Also, a blog post about using print for promotion at SXSWi talked about the fact it was effective was because of "nostalgia." I get that, but it seems like a marketing strategy with limited to no growth potential for the manufacturers.

Third, the blog post talks about a WSJ article on Mohawk paper and how they are successfully marketing "keepsake" categories of paper products as people stop using cheaper forms of paper for news, books?, and other short-life span categories. (Not including tissue of course)

For years the conservation community has been advocating a paradigm shift to focus on value over volume as a way to provide the jobs and other economic benefits of paper while also returning to volumes that are within the earth's carrying capacity to produce. It seems that is being validated by case studies like Mohawk's.

Anonymous said...

"They will never return to the glory days."

Uh-huh. Glory days for who? Certainly not for the consumer who was expected to pay several dollars for a magazine that was 50% advertisements and 50% mediocre articles. They were glory days for the magazine corporations who knew they could put out lame crap and people would buy it because they didn't have the internet to offer them much greater information for a cheaper price.

It was extremely excessive, bombastic, and self-indulgent for these corporations to make towering skyscrapers dedicated to their magazines. A modest building with only a few floors was enough. But they didn't feel that way and acted haughty about their wealth. The New Yorker's founder made the following sneering statement: "It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque." Nowadays it's obvious the people who own that smug magazine would do anything to get old ladies in small towns to buy their boring magazine. Even if it includes editing it to make it more appealing to them.

Most of these magazines never served the public anyway. The only way most of these magazines survived is based on ads. They were dead long ago but ads only kept them artificially alive. In the so-called "glory days" these magazines were once distributed to thousands of retailers across the country. But even then the owners couldn't rely on consumer sales to stay alive. That says volumes about a businessman's product if he has a large distribution network but consumer sales aren't enough to make it profitable.

Ed said...

I don't believe anyone can really believe print is dead in any format. Digital has it's place and with the introduction of the smartphone and tablet this will always have an impact, but having said that digital will never be able to replace the feeling of holding that large book when reading or the personalised wedding invitation.

Nothing ever dies it just evolves....