It seems like every time I pick up a news magazine or read a financial newsletter, I find some sort of statement about how publishing is doomed and how in the future all information will be stored and communicated digitally. I am ready to concede that certain market segments that have relied on print will probably go entirely or almost entirely digital. The most obvious ones are where authors communicate information that is time sensitive. Newspapers have a huge disadvantage compared to the internet when it comes to updating people on current events. Internet users can get most of this information for free and much sooner than newspaper readers. So it’s not surprising to see that companies like Gannett (publisher of USA Today, or “McNews,” if you prefer) have been experiencing declining circulation and advertising revenue over the last few years and show no sign of recovering from the long-term trend.
Another area where digital trumps print is in market segments where portability is at a premium. Business travelers on cross-country flights can lighten their luggage considerably by carrying on a Kindle or iPad containing their reading material rather than several books. The same goes for families on vacation; if all the stuff I wanted to read over Christmas break were digitized, I could avoid the dirty looks my wife will give me when I throw a bunch of books into the minivan. Traditional publishers are going to have to adjust their business models to reflect these realities if they wish to stay afloat.
Most talk about the “end of print” focuses on the declining profits of traditional book publishers, but as this author points out, lower publishing profits do not necessarily mean that people are not interested in owning books. They could be a reflection of competition among retailers who, like Amazon.com, often insist on big discounts from publishers. And outside the mass-market publishing segment, book publishing is very healthy, particularly in the rapidly growing print-on-demand category.
Publishers like the Ludwig von Mises Institute observe that making a book’s text available online for free actually increases that title’s print sales. Robert Darnton, author of The Case for Books, notes that the number of books in print increases every year. Oxford’s Bodleian Library opened a new storage facility with 153 miles of shelf space last month.
The end of print? I don’t think so.