A Renaissance for Print, or is Flat Just the New

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 03/14/2014

Interesting discussion about our preference for print media versus digital media.

Dead Tree Edition
March 12, 2014

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.