I seem to recall the sequence, but there were so many pratfalls in these cartoon classics that I may be imagining it — Wile E. Coyote laying out planks or track in front of himself in a desperate attempt to survive a hare-brained scheme gone awry and bridge a fateful chasm, running out of materials, and then, after hanging implausibly in a moment of painful realization, plummeting with a whistle to become a puff of dust on the canyon’s floor.
Printers and newspaper publishers are doing an equivalent schtick, but instead of one mangy coyote hoping to buy enough time to make it to the other side, there are two, and they’re fighting.
Worse, neither can really describe the other side they’re supposedly aiming for.
This tragicomic effort was captured recently in three separate writings, two of which were related, as well as an interesting development in the world of popular fiction publishing.
The first essay, from D. Eadward Tree, analyzes how newspapers are trying to leverage the increasing amount of press downtime to take on the printing of competing papers, in addition to preparing for print jobs unrelated to the news. This bridging strategy — deploying underutilized current infrastructure to increase revenues while failing to create new strategic options — is a short-term win-win but a losing proposition long-term. That is, one newspaper gets to shut down its presses and save money by outsourcing printing to a rival, while the rival gets roughly equivalent revenues from running its presses more and staves off collapse for a time, while the factors leading to this uncomfortable accommodation remain largely unaddressed.
The macro trends leading to decreased print quantities and increased press downtime are not going away. The news business is moving online, and the pace of change is not going to slow. If anything, increases in bandwidth, device allure, and content management solutions will make newspapers seem even more of a relic than they do now. So, while the coyote thinks it’s a genius for buying time to get further out from the precipice, the forces of gravity are unrelenting.
In some cases, newspapers are purchasing equipment to allow them to print on non-newsprint stocks, an effort to create a stronger bridge made of more diverse materials. But I’m afraid that even being able to print magazines, calendars, and marketing materials suffers from the same short-term focus. In the long-run, digital will put printers in about the same position as automobiles put horse stables — remote indulgences and only useful to a few.
Like most manufacturing businesses, there’s a threshold below which continued solvency evaporates — you can’t run your presses along the full glide path from 100% to 0%; there is a moment when gravity exerts itself and you fall off the cliff. Paper manufacturers are experiencing this same phenomenon as step-functions of capacity drop them inexorably downward. At a certain depleted capacity, it makes more sense to stop completely.
The last buggy whip factory closed before the last buggy whip was made.
At the same time, underscoring how backward-looking some remain, we have the arguments from the print loyalists that print is still the defining measure of success. With magazines migrating out of print and into purely digital editions, print loyalists are stirred to speak. Samir Husni recently published a post in which he argued that if a magazine that started in print failed in print, it could have no future in digital:
Any magazine, that existed in ink on paper, and cannot survive in its original medium is DEAD. If a magazine loses its two sources of revenue, the readers and the advertisers, how on earth it is going to survive by the mere change of the platform? Do magazine publishers really think they can save money by not printing and distributing the ink on paper publication and can get the advertisers back just by transforming their publication to digital only? They better think twice.
This assertion led Bob Sacks (also known as BoSacks) to write a lengthy evisceration of Husni’s main argument:
From my perspective these words and thoughts couldn’t be more wrong. I firmly believe that ink is not one of the major components necessary for a magazine. . . . a magazine must be paginated, edited, designed, date stamped, permanent, and periodic. But it does not have to use either ink or paper to be an ‘official’ magazine. Ink and paper are an unnecessary restriction in the 21st century. . . . I can’t help pointing out that Samir delivered his article “So What is a Magazine Really?” in a digital blog and not in a printed magazine.
Sacks goes on to note that while print magazines have evolved bells and whistles like color, coated paper, fancy photography, and the like, the main item they still trade in is words — and magazines like the New Yorker are transferring very successfully to devices with no color, no bells and whistles, and the occasional cartoon. The conceit that a print magazine has to have a lot of fancy electronic trade dress to successfully migrate to digital bears re-examination, Sacks argues. Moreover, the conceit that a print magazine has to stay in print to succeed is being regularly disproved.
Meanwhile, one of the most successful self-published and e-book authors, John Locke, recently inked a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, but it’s a deal with a twist — Locke keeps all the e-rights while Simon & Schuster takes on the print versions. Immediately, Joe Konrath predicted the end is nigh, noting that:
This is an important deal, because up until now publishers steadfastly refused to give up e-rights. But now they have. And there is no turning back. Here are some things we’ll see happening soon. Big authors will fight to keep their erights. They can make 70% on their own vs 17.5% through a publisher. They have the leverage, and will use it. If Locke, whose print sales numbers are unproven and open to speculation, can demand to keep his erights, Stephen King and James Patterson will make the same demands. They’re watching Locke, and Pottermore. If enough Big Authors follow suit, the Big 6 won’t be able to recover.
Mike Shatzkin has a less sensationalistic and more nuanced read on the situation, forgiving the likes of Simon & Schuster from inking such a deal because they face “the challenge of feeding the big organization they’ve built to deliver print to its shrinking marketplace,” while noting that by signing a distribution deal, Locke is taking advantage of a trend that print publishers may also ultimately embrace to survive:
Since all the major houses have distribution deal models, it might not be long before there’s a person at each one assigned to making sure that authors and agents are as well taken care of as “clients” as they were in the past working through their editors.
Print is diminishing — readers are moving away from it, manufacturing pressures are forcing it out, and business models more often eschew it or compartmentalize it. Print won’t ever go away entirely, and will become viewed (and is already viewed to some extent) as a luxury good, while electronic becomes the utilitarian workhorse version. In this “print is a luxury” world, the remaining presses will be asked to do more when it comes to finishes, special bindings, run varieties, color, and paper in order to create these luxury goods, while print-centric publishing houses will be asked to modify their business models to fall into orbit around the dominant e-versions. And while newspapers try to absorb more newsprint and traditional publishers compete on author service, they are in an even clearer predicament — the consolidation trend they signal will ultimately sweep them up, as well.
And each of these players is being left in the dust of a fast-moving market they seem unable to capture.
There was a rule in making the Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoons — Wile E. Coyote was to be humiliated instead of hurt. There is no such rule in business.