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What the "Book People" Won’t Tell You: Print is Dead

When I wrote that post on Friday about the Pod Book People who either can’t or won’t speak the truth about the current state of the industry, I was planning just to leave it at the level of patting myself on the back and thinking about how best to point out what the Book People weren’t saying the next time I quoted and commented on a piece from, say, Publishers Weekly or The Bookseller.

But an email on Saturday morning from a Book People pundit  got me thinking. That pundit thought he was a truth teller.  I disagreed, and as I laid out the reasons in my head I realized that I had a wishlist of what I wanted that pundit to say if they truly were ready to speak truth to power.

I have been writing about industry trends in bits and pieces in each news story, but it has been a long while since I last pulled everything together, took a step back, and told you what I see.

I can sum it up in a single sentence: The major publishers are dead because they bet against digital, which is the future.

The thing about the major publishers is that they thought they could make the market go where they wanted.

They didn’t want ebooks to cannibalize print sales, so they conspired with Apple in early 2010 to bring about the Agency model. Then they doubled down on their bet with Agency 2.0, and hedged that bet by sabotaging subscription ebook services like Scribd and Oyster by saddling them with nonviable business models.

It is now 2017, and book publishing is in the later stages of a transition to digital.

One of the two successful subscription ebook services, Kindle Unlimited, is now bigger than Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. The other, Safari Books Online, belongs to O’Reilly because Pearson bet against digital and sold its stake in 2014 when it should have bought the service.

Nonfiction sales have been cannibalized by the internet and services like Pluralsight and Youtube, textbook publishers are running scared at the thought that open source curricula is rendering them obsolete, and the fiction market has swung heavily to digital.

The major publishers bet against digital, and they continue to do so, and it is going to kill them in the long run. In fact, we can see them die bit by bit. First they dropped mid-list authors, then they started dropping best-selling authors.

At this point it is an absolute certainty that any publisher that isn’t focusing digital first and print second is jut as dead as the Big Five. (Yes, there are some categories and niches that are exceptions to the rule, but I stand by my prediction.)

The future of book publishing is digital. Are you ready to face it, or will you join Penguin Random House on the scrap heap of history?

image by John Vetterli

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Ed Bear September 18, 2017 um 12:27 am

Barnes and igNoble bet against digital by deliberately making their eBook service clumsy, inconvenient, and hard to use. I wonder why I don’t buy anything from them?

tired September 18, 2017 um 10:03 am

That is incompetence not malice.

Ed Bear September 20, 2017 um 1:04 am

I never said they were malicious. Unbelievably stupid, but never malicious. They’re not smart enough to be malicious.

Paul September 18, 2017 um 9:38 am

I thought part of that was because of patents controlled by Amazon?

tired September 18, 2017 um 10:10 am

I also notice some trad pub eliminating mmpbs in favor of trade paperbacks only, and excusing that as an excuse to inflate the price of ebooks. Even their back catalog ebooks typically cost $10.

Randy Lea September 18, 2017 um 11:10 am

The ebook market is mostly Amazon. Amazon continues to introduce and sell tablets and readers, continues to make improvements to their ebook reading software, etc. If the ebook market is in long term decline, Amazon will know first and stop investments in the business.

Not happened to date.

Chris Meadows September 18, 2017 um 10:34 pm

When you look at the whole story behind what the publishers did, it’s really quite remarkable the level of hubris that was involved. Andrew Albanese’s The Battle of $9.99 is still the go-to reference book for anyone interested in understanding exactly how it all went down.

Jenny Milchman September 19, 2017 um 10:01 pm

What a sure and certain attitude to take about an inherently complex system, requiring you to speak for literally millions of readers. There is evidence that many/some people prefer paper/print–including younger people, suffering from screen fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong–you may of course be right. But people have been predicting the demise of this or that for a long time, and many of them turned out to be wrong. ("Video killed the radio star." "The novel would be the death of intellect." "Print is dead.")

Recall–the last thing was supposed to have happened already. Digital books were predicted to have been a replacement technology by, I believe, 2011.

I’m not saying not to make your guesses, place your bets. I would just be honest about the fact that none of us has a Magic 8 ball, and we are all biased in one way or another.

I mean, the name of this blog is Digital Reader, after all.

Nate Hoffelder September 19, 2017 um 10:48 pm

Want to hear something funny?

I used to think ebooks wouldn’t replace print. If you had asked me as late as 2014 I would have told you that ebooks would simply be another format, and I honestly thought all the predictions to the contrary were just nonsense. But over the past couple years evidence started piling up that ebooks were killing print, and eventually I had to change my mind.

roberto September 20, 2017 um 6:39 am

What I realized is that with an ebook reader I´m quicker passing on a book I don´t like after 2-3 chapters. Return to start screen, try the next file.

In simpler times, a few decades back, I read on, because I felt bad/guilty abandoning a purchased, physically/haptically present book. Mind you, around 18 I would possibly never ever have read Lord of the Rings because of the boring first 90 or so pages… 😉 But I did, because I didn´t want to put away a physically obtained (purchased, opened, touched) book and so started a life-long reading journey.

Anyways, I guess what I´m saying is that in my view ebooks and ebook readers are the response to an increasingly faster and more superficial civilization, where – seemingly – quick response to an impulse is more valuable than a whole experience process. Downloading files, judging quickly and hopping to the next one is much more adequate to current affairs of the world than literally (huh!) taking care of ordering/buying a book, admiring the cover or typesetting, sniffing the ink and paper, then turning the pages, delving into the first letters, then words, then chapters.

I don´t know about the Billions of readers around the globe, but I´d certainly miss that. And I think as long as real children´s books are still more practical than iPads with apps, coming generations will hopefully produce enough readers to keep the paper vs. electronic balance at least how it is now.

Maybe I´m still the old you, Nate? 🙂

Jenny Milchman September 20, 2017 um 12:28 pm

Appreciate the reply to my comment, and I definitely get that things occurred to change your mind 🙂 I was just cautioning against assuming that your change necessarily reflects what’s to come. It’s too complex a system for any definitive predictions–in my opinion.

My best guess, if I were asked to make one (ie, had a blog tens of thousands of people paid attention to) is that both forms of text consumption will continue, but that there will be a backlash against digital. There is a budding movement to de-phone, a burgeoning awareness of screens' addictive properties, and anecdotally, I see parents balking at their children’s screen time–and the kids not fighting too hard to maintain said time.

However, I am well aware that I’m amassing data and statistics and reports and incidents from within my own inherently biased view.

Episode 181 – iPhone X, Author Customer Support, and Chance the Rapper | Sell More Books Show September 20, 2017 um 7:04 am

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Steven Zacharius September 20, 2017 um 1:33 pm

No one has any idea what Amazon spends on just their book divisions. So you can’t tell what kinds of investments they’re making on devices. Sales of dedicated readers are way down. The kindle hasn’t really changed in years now. It’s still the same small size where you can’t see the title of the book or even the author’s name. I like the kobo aura one which is a full page of text and you see the title but still not the author. Still most eBook reading is done on phones and probably ironically on an iPhone. This doesn’t mean that print is dead at all. Ebooks have been very good for certain segments of publishing; most noticeably romance and self published romance writers. And even those writers want to be in print as well.

Randy Lea September 20, 2017 um 1:48 pm

It looks to me like publishers are focusing now on the few print bestsellers that that can sell in places like supermarkets, Walmart, and Amazon, since bookstores are mostly history. Where do new authors come from?

One of the best stories about self-published authors breaking through to the big time is Andy Weir, who wrote the book (and had a major movie deal) The Martian. He wrote the book as a hobby, published it online on his web site for free, posting a bit at a time as he wrote it, and he incorporated comments he got back from the early readers. He moved it to Amazon because it was getting too many downloads for his web site, sold well their, then he got the book deal followed by the movie deal, now he’s about to release his 2nd book.

Without the ability to self-publish an ebook, none of this would have happened, the publisher would have lost out on a big seller.

I don’t think publishers can survive without new authors, and we need a healthy ebook market in most cases for self-published books for that to happen.

Randy Lea September 20, 2017 um 1:36 pm

I’ve never heard a parent complain about time spent reading a book on a tablet.

My bet is on ebooks, I strongly prefer them, although I know a number of people that refuse to read them (most of them don’t read very much). If nothing else, ebooks are considerably more efficient in many ways, not just cost, but also space, shipping costs, and a number of other advantages.

Ebooks also have the advantage currently to publishers of using DRM, which kills the market for used books.

The risk that the big publishers run by attempting to kill the ebook market with inflated prices is that they might price themselves out of business, or force potential customers into the pirate market.

The long term will be decided by today’s youth, who live on screens. Will they read ebooks, insist on printed books, or will they even read books at all? Now, they don’t make voice phone calls or use email, so its going to be interesting.

As a side note, as a huge fan of ebooks, even I still prefer paper books for a few things, like a computer book.

Jenny Milchman September 20, 2017 um 2:36 pm

Randy, they’re out there–truly. Parents limit screen time–that’s always been true–but some are going even further than that. There’s a TED talk about Silicon Valley higher ups, along with Steve Jobs when he was working on the iPad, who say that while they build these devices, they don’t let their kids use them. Does this extend to pure reading? My sense is that adoption of tablet reading for books was and is too low in the youth population to draw reliable conclusions.

Even the younger population who, as you say, "live on screens," report fatigue with their devices. There’s a growing movement amongst 20-something’s to break their addictions by leaving their phones behind for greater and greater chunks of the day. 12 Step programs have cropped up. You can do some digging into this, if you’re interested. It will likely effect tablet reading, I would think–but again, enough people even in that age group report preferring print that I don’t know that too many are considering digital as a replacement technology versus an alternative living alongside.

I hear that you prefer e–which is the point I was originally making. Any one individual’s preference isn’t sufficient to draw wide or definitive conclusions about the future.

Randy Lea September 20, 2017 um 4:50 pm

I think parents buy phones to keep track of their kids, then have many issues with all the things kids can do with smartphones that they shouldn’t. The answer should be feature phones, but that hasn’t happened.

What kids really need is a feature phone with GPS that constantly reports back on their location.

Jenny Milchman September 20, 2017 um 8:53 pm

Hmm, that’s an interesting angle, Randy. Not one I’d considered. As an aside, we heard from a teacher yesterday that her 15 year old had posted 35,000 Snapchat pics since signing up. Snapchat isn’t even that old.

However, this article presents an alternate view, relevant to this little offshoot we have going!

Dan A McDougall September 22, 2017 um 1:02 pm

I own a used bookstore, and have been doing it for 30 years. There are thousands of these shops around the country, that aren’t counted in Indy bookstore data, because they don’t order new books – the "sky is falling" argument doesn’t hold, because the people who actually go to the stores, new and used, the charity discount shops, the libraries, do it because there is something about the feel of the book. A whole new area are the needs fields – specialized stores may have gone on the wayside or been revamped, big box stores are constantly being reshaped, the publishers are being restructured, but the customer still wants to try before they buy, and the add-ons like gifts, and coffee shops, the mobile bookstores, and even breweries, etc., have added to the inviting environment that cannot be provided online. There’s your "data" that demonstrates that this article can be tossed in the virtual trash can – you’re welcome!

Nate Hoffelder September 22, 2017 um 1:17 pm

Data from the US Census Bureau shows that bookstore revenues are less than half what they were ten years ago – and what the data doesn’t show is that a greater percentage of that revenue comes from non-book sales.

Jenny Milchman September 24, 2017 um 7:37 am

Nate, revenue is down significantly across many industries, products, etc.–including e-readers, by the way. A better statistic for you to work into your thinking might be that independent bookstore openings are up overall–despite the ones that close–and have been since 2009. People aren’t advocating for bookstores in their towns, forming co-ops to open them, taking on the mantle from multi-generation bookstores (Argosy) or choosing as twenty-somethings to open a bookstore (Mystery Lovers Bookstore, Book Culture, Once Upon a Crime) out of a need for greeting cards.

Randy Lea September 24, 2017 um 5:44 pm

When you say "revenue is down….", are you speaking about Amazon, both ebooks and hardware? The market data I see shows Amazon selling more tablets 2Q 2017 compared to Q2 2016, and I’ve seen nothing that speaks about Amazon’s ebook sales numbers, but I’d agree ereaders are done.

Jenny Milchman September 25, 2017 um 9:12 am

Randy, I have read that sales of e-readers first flattened, then dipped, over the past two years. I can try and recall which sources, if you like.

But what I meant in my comment was that if it’s true that revenue at independent bookstores is down, they are not the only industry to be experiencing this–even industries that clearly are not going anywhere report the same (for example, restaurants).

Lower revenue than in the past doesn’t signal the end of bookstores, it may be a reflection of overall belt-tightening, a portion going to online sales, etc. It doesn’t mean a) that print is dying or even b) that bookstores are, and in fact, the number of new bookstore openings suggest the opposite.

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Richard November 4, 2017 um 12:17 pm

No one is going to give a digital present.

dodod November 5, 2017 um 9:13 am

I don’t think it’s got anything to do with digital vs. physical book. Book is a book no matter on what medium you read it. The perception of one over the other is part of bigger process. Physical publishers lost it as the digital world became more important, but were talking about digital as a whole, not just the medium they are selling. They are not lacking in what they publish, but they’re completely lost in how they do that. The times where you’d force an author down the throats of readers by launching a well planned publishing campaign involving classical media, reviewers, Times best sellers list, appearances on television, few well placed adds, are over. Readers don’t rely on these anymore, they find what they like online, from persons they trust. That has broadened what people read considerably, and as a consequence it has destroyed blockbuster model that classical publishers relied on. Amazon, was ether the first to see that, or more likely, lucky enough that their system allowed it, so they’re profiting from their own model. They don’t sell one author as much, but their volume is much higher.

Now, here digital editions, for now, are in advantage, as their initial investment is lower, but that too is changing. Printing on demand is on our doorsteps. There are already editions available where buyer can decide what he’ll buy from a book. Nortons Shakespeare is notable example of this. You can order a collection and decide yourself what version of a play to have in your physical book. The future is. Cheap digital, on demand print.

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