What does the Digital Age mean for Print?

“I still think the best way to really learn something is to read a book about it” Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

The current landscape

You and I are living at the dawn of the digital age. In the last ten years digital technology has made information accessible on a scale never seen before. The implications of this have not yet all been realised, and in the coming years we will need to continually address and explore the varying opportunities and problems this presents. With such an unrestricted platform for both receiving and creating information in the form of articles, blogs or books, comes the inevitable surplus of opinions taken as facts, and facts disregarded as opinion. The age of free information can be used to provide us with live streams of revolutions and civil unrest on the other side of the world before the official press has been given a chance to cover and manipulate the story. It can also be used to spread misinformation. Robert Darnton, writing in The Case for Books describes this sensation as ‘The sense of being overwhelmed by information and of helplessness before the need to find relevant material amidst a mountain of ephemera.’ This new era brings opportunities and problems for us all, and the publishing industry is not exempt.

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Image by: The Threenity

 

EBooks, smart phones and tablets have all but eliminated any practical use for print. Yet it seems the end of print, particularly in the form of books is not yet on the horizon. Michael Cader, founder of ‘Book Industry’ news letter and the website ‘Publishers Lunch’ defends the intergity of books, saying ‘Physical books are closer to perfect and affordable technology. The printed book is much, much older than other types of media, and it revolutionised modern society. There was very little about it that needed to be reinvented.’ Technology aside, there is a strong bond of nostalgia that keeps many of us resisting the pull of the functional eBook. A company in France has attempted to counter this, by developing a sticker that can be attached to the front of eBooks that ‘will give off a fusty bookish smell.’ Yet that hardly seems to be a realistic compromise for the sensory satisfaction of reading a print book. Bill Gates, one of the fathers of the digital age has readily admitted in a controversial speech that ‘It’s quite a hurdle for technology to achieve to match that level of usability.’

‘Electronic enterprises come and go. Research libraries last for centuries. Better to fortify them than to declare them obsolete, because obsolescence is built into the electronic median.’

 

Trials and tribulations of publishing

The late Carole Blake, MD of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, was quoted by Alastair Horne in a speech entitled ‘Publishing: the last and next five years’, and after a long and illustrious career she considered the greatest challenge to the Publishing Industry as being ‘getting the public to accept sensible pricing.’  With the rise of giants like Amazon who pump out high volumes of  heavily discounted both print and ebooks,according to John Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture  we now ‘face a real threat that a growing proportion of book sales will be realised as eBooks that bypass the physical bookstores altogether.’ So we stand at the edge of a paradoxical market, nostalgia vs. practical, prestige vs. cheap. The next few years will define how Publishing will fare. As a market that has been widely unchallenged for most of its existence we now face a schism – can and will the publishing industry make the most of the digital age, will it survive and in what form?

The digital age has meant a great deal more exposure and highly competitive prices for us as consumers. Thompson explores the implications of this within Aggregation Theory, noting that ‘The internet has made distribution free, neutralizing the advantage that pre-internet distributors leveraged to integrate with suppliers.’  The internet has taken away much of the leverage of large publishing houses; Amazon have served as an equaliser in terms of what the large publishers can reasonably expect to sell their books for, both to the retailer and to the customer. As a consumer this can surely only be seen as a good thing. Suddenly a sector that has been largely unchallenged has a reason to lower prices and produce wider ranges with faster accessibility; the competition now offers next day delivery and online bargain bins of books that cost little more than pennies.

A more positive impact that the digital age is having on the business of print is that although the larger conglomerates of publishing houses may be suffering, Ingram reports that ‘sales of independently published eBooks has been growing’  This means that, with such a huge amount of choice when it comes to downloading onto your Kindle, we are no longer necessarily allowing ourselves to be herded into purchasing highly marketed releases of big commercial titles from Random House, but also newer titles, and authors who may have been otherwise overlooked. eBooks have given these authors a more accessible platform, and encourage diversity for lower prices. When the concerns of production value and distribution are removed, as they are with an eBook, there can be allowed an element of risk with what small and large publishers alike choose to produce, which only means more variety and experimentation for us, the audience.

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Fig. 1 E-Book and Print sales forecast: 2014-2018: Deloitte 2015

Prosperity and pitfalls of the digital age

The digital age is not a cause for celebration for everyone, however. Writing for Fortune, Ingram says  ‘the share of established publishers has been declining.’ A great deal of pressure has been applied to these often long standing institutions as eBook sales rise steadily specifically in the US and UK(see fig.1). Ingram concludes ‘Print is likely to become a niche market over time, just as it is becoming in the newspaper and magazine industries.’ It is important to realise that it is not just the rise of eBooks that has affected print; this problem reaches every corner of the publishing market. Magazines and newspapers face the same problem, perhaps even more so. Darnton tells us that ‘Google is creating a database composed of millions of books, so many millions that soon it will have constructed a digital mega-library greater than anything ever imagined.’ To some this sounds like beginning of the end: for books used by students, encyclopaedias used by children, perhaps the end of research libraries altogether. As the funding dries up for services no longer crucial to the public, it is a very real possibility that books could become a niche purchase, something not deemed so critically important to have access to as a society that heavily relies on the references of Google.

How we buy and what we believe is available to us has changed radically. Thompson of stratechery.com says that ‘Previously, book publishers integrated editing, marketing and distribution. Amazon modularized distribution first via e-commerce and then via eBooks.’ By taking away the middle man, producing and delivering their own goods Amazon have and will continue to dominate areas of marketing, pricing and accessibility in ways that the publishing idustry has yet to compete with, but as Darnton reminds us: ‘Electronic enterprises come and go. Research libraries last for centuries. Better to fortify them than to declare them obsolete, because obsolescence is built into the electronic median.’

‘There are few other things more soothing to people of a certain type than leisurely browsing their favourite neighbourhood bookstore’  and while it’s true that eBooks are often cheaper and more practical there is much to be said for the buying experience. It’s been some time since department stores and independent book shops alike recognised the need to make book shopping a leisurely, tactile experience. We don’t just want to buy a book, we want people to see what books we read, we want a signifier of  our identity. We want our books to be, as phrased in Merchants of Culture, ‘regarded as prestigious, aspirational goods.’ So far the digital market is unable to compete with this, and so all hope is not lost for the traditional book shop market quite yet. We can see this reflected in sales figures such as those quoted by Thompson, J. in Merchants of Culture:  ‘Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, first published in 2003, has sold more than 18 million copies in hardcover in the US alone by 2006.’

We must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them sceptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively – and even how to appreciate old books.

Our multi-platform future

The solution going forward has to be one that utilises the best aspects of both digital and print. Thompson, J. considers that ‘Instead of having firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them sceptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively – and even how to appreciate old books.’ We now have luxury multi-platforms of choice, and it’s our job as the consumer to scrutinise and use the best of each.  Alba states that ‘Independent bookstores have kept surviving or thriving in spite of all the economic rationality of Amazon’s lower prices.’ This means we won’t be swayed purely by online bargain bins and lightweight technology; we are open to progress, but not so much we are willing to ignore better, older methods, and we don’t mind paying a little extra for the experience too. As Thompson, J.  articulates, when faced with a new piece of technology we experience ‘3 stages: an initial phase of utopian enthusiasm, a period of disillusionment, and a new tendency toward pragmatism.’ For newspapers, books and magazines, the markets of print and digital won’t need to wonder who will survive if they adopt the same logical thinking as their consumers, and evolve pragmatically into a market that utilises the best of both.

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Image by: Michael Kozlowski