A photo of a mint printing money
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It has been a parlor game in STM and scholarly publishing the last decade and a half, making predictions as to when journals will cease being printed. Usually the prediction is “in five years” with the five-year horizon pushed back on an annual basis. The question of when print will end is often framed as if it is a natural occurrence (like predicting where a hurricane landfall will occur), an evolutionary question (when will the pinky toe just go away already?), or the likely outcome of a sporting event (leaving aside, of course pennant races involving the Cubs), rather than a business decision that publishers may revisit on a regular basis.

I have a deep appreciation of the printed journal and have labored on several occasions in my professional life to painstakingly redesign the print edition of several prominent titles. I have spent weeks deliberating over questions of weight, hue, and finish of paper stock. I’ve spent many years with a pica ruler in my desk drawer and am proficient in its use. I can talk Pantone colors all day. My office shelves are filled with printed journals and books and my living room resembles a library reading room. As a member of the last analog generation, I have an abiding reverence for, fascination with, and love of, printed works in all forms.

It is therefore with not a little sadness that I put forward the case that print editions of journals have, with a few exceptions, become a luxury that the industry can no longer afford.

A brief aside on what I mean by a “print edition” or being “in print” is necessary here. When I use the term “print edition” I mean an edition of the journal that is printed by default, in large volume, via offset printing, and that is bundled with membership and/or library subscriptions. I also mean a copy of the journal that is meant to be definitive or at least a facsimile of the definitive (online) edition.

I should also note here that this post only addresses STM and scholarly journal publishing. Books are an entirely different animal as are periodicals outside of the STM and scholarly space. Also, given the scale of commercial publishing businesses, their focus on Big Deal aggregations, and the lack of public reporting at a level of detail sufficient for this analysis, this post primarily focuses on society publishing (though equally applies to both self-published societies and societies published by commercial houses).

With those important caveats, let’s examine the costs of continuing to keep STM and scholarly journals in print:

The Direct Costs. Unless you are fortunate to publish one of the handful of clinical medical titles that generates more revenue from print advertising than the total cost of printing, shipping, and warehousing that title, or you have unbundled print from online pricing and pass the actual costs of printing and shipping on to all print recipients, your journals are probably losing money on printing. Possibly a great deal of money. Over the years I have had access to the detailed financial statement of a number of prominent society publishers, either due to my employment or through my consulting and other advisory work. In preparation for this piece, I’ve further analyzed the annual reports and publicly filed 990 forms of over a dozen prominent STM and scholarly publishers and societies. The costs of are illuminating.

Let’s take the example of what I’ll call Society Publisher X. Society Publisher X derives just over $16 million in subscription revenue and another $650 thousand in advertising revenue from its journal program. Additionally, a small portion of membership dues goes to support of the journal. Throw in reprints, permissions, and page charges, and let’s generously call it $20 million in revenues from journal publishing. This same publisher spends over $4 million annually on printing, shipping, and warehousing. In other words, approximately 20% of gross revenues are spent on printing and distribution. This example is on the high side but is by no means unique; indeed, there are examples of organizations with even higher percentages of revenues dedicated to print. On the low side of the spectrum, there are few STM organizations that spend less than 10% of gross journal publishing revenues on printing and distribution.

If this were simply the cost of doing business, as it was a decade and a half ago, such costs would be unavoidable. The print journal was the product being sold, and this is what it took to produce and distribute it. By not printing their journals, a publisher would have quickly gone out of business. But that was then. The key question to ask now is how much revenue would Society Publisher X forfeit by ceasing to produce print editions of its journals? I would posit that the answer, if the transition is properly framed with stakeholders, is almost none. As I will discuss in more detail below, few if any members will cancel their membership, and few if any institutional customers will cancel their site licenses. Secondary revenue streams like reprints, permissions, third-party licensing, and author page charges would remain unaffected. The only revenue stream with a substantive risk is print advertising. For a handful of clinical titles, this is a significant revenue stream. For 99% of STM and scholarly titles (Occupy Paper!), however, it is minor enough to be a non-factor in this calculus. In the case of Society Publisher X, perhaps some percentage of the $650,000 in advertising – we could conservatively predict that two-thirds or $433,000—would not transfer to the online edition, meaning the direct cost of printing and distribution – an unnecessary cost – is $3.6 million for Society Publisher X.

The Opportunity Costs. I put the following scenario to you: Company A takes 10-20% of its gross revenues and invests them year after year in developing new products and services. Company B sinks 10-20% of its gross revenues into a product with no return and no future, while investing a fraction of this sum in R&D and new product development. Which of these companies is likely to be more successful? Which of these companies is likely to be in business in five years?

The largest cost of print is opportunity cost. The STM and scholarly industry is collectively not investing to the extent it needs to in the products, services, and technologies that will define its future. Nearly every publisher I analyzed in preparation for this post counted printing and distribution as their single largest cost after human resources (indeed, there are examples where print and distribution costs exceed human resources). The industry’s biggest collective non-human cost is directed to perpetuating a product line with no return and no future. Meanwhile, technology companies, often from outside the industry, are making in-roads because publishers are failing to invest in their own futures. Google, Apple, Amazon, and even Microsoft are knocking at the door. Private equity is funding technology start-ups to take advantage of this dearth of investment by established organizations. Growth will occur over the next five years in STM publishing, the only question is which organizations will capture the growth.

The Innovation Costs. In addition to the opportunity costs, there is a related drag on innovation within existing product lines. How many aspects of journal publishing are constrained by print considerations or, more subtly, to print-centric thinking? This cost surfaces in the form of innovation being held back due to the perceived need to reconcile online development with print workflows. Examples of this include:

  • Supplemental data – Supplemental to what? Supplemental to the print issue. If the data is valuable, why is it supplemental? It is supplemental because large data sets, large numbers of images, videos, or interactive media cannot easily be printed or else take up too much space in print journals. We therefore treat experimental data as ancillary and do not integrate it into the article in a manner most beneficial to readers.
  • Early release – Early compared to what? To the print issue? Why is Early Release not just “normal release” with an ancillary print edition to follow?
  • Color charges – How is it acceptable to anyone in 2011 that the quality, fidelity, and usefulness of images in scientific publications are subject to additional charges if rendered in color when there is not an image in a journal that was not created digitally?
  • Page restrictions – While I can appreciate a requirement for brevity for the sake of reader’s time, such requirements are often driven not by concern for readers but rather with an eye towards printing and distribution costs. Should article length be determined by an arbitrary limit instead of the number of pages necessary to best describe the research?
  • Editorial page budgets – These are the budgets given to editors the world over that dictate the number of articles a journal can publish in a given year. And while there are other factors involved in such a calculus, including the impact factor and the costs of copyediting and composition, the cost of printing and distribution often takes an outsized role.

The Organizational Costs. Organizations develop tools, workflows, skill sets, values, and cultures around their activities. The ongoing support of print creates a constellation of effects both subtle and glaring. Ann Michael has probably thought more deeply on this topic than anyone, writing in a Scholarly Kitchen post earlier this year:

. . . content creators are not always aware of how deeply print requirements have become embedded in their thought processes. It’s almost impossible for some publishers and editors to envision content separate from presentation (delivery mode and/or package). This situation leads to a cultural rift when content-centric thinkers naturally evolve at, or are hired by, print-centric organizations. They can meet with great organizational resistance.

One primary source of resistance is that print-focused staff, and the processes that have evolved over centuries to support print, focus on print’s immutable nature. Near perfection is required prior to distributing printed content. While no one advocates that quality be thrown to the wind in other delivery modes, the measures of quality, the culture of correction and discussion, and the ability to change content even after it has been distributed, all contribute to a different definition of quality in non-print modes.

The organizational costs can be seen in the expenditure on the internal friction over priorities, on lost digital opportunities due to a staff orientation towards and focus on print, and on workflows optimized for print that inefficiently serve online editions.


Given these direct and indirect costs of print, why do STM and scholarly publishers continue to publish print editions of their journals?  In my experience it is often due to one or more of the following fallacies:

The Convenience Fallacy. One of the arguments I hear often is that print is convenient as it so portable. Such sentiments are widespread despite being anachronistic in today’s age of tablets, smartphones, and laptops and their attendant article organizing software (e.g., Papers, Mendely, Readcube, Zotero), all of which require digital content.

Journals, however, aren’t even terribly convenient or portable if we confine ourselves to the print medium. This is because with the exception of a handful of titles (such as the BMJ, JAMA, the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science), no one reads a journal cover to cover. If you are only going to read one or two articles from the journal, why would you want to carry around the full issue? Even if you want to read a print copy of an article, you can just print out the PDF from your desktop printer and carry around a 10-page document (five if double-sided) instead of several hundred pages of content you are not ever going to read.

The Membership Fallacy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard society publishers say that they would love to cease printing but their members still want to receive the print journal. In many cases they mean that their editorial or organizational board still wants to receive print, which is often not representative of overall membership. In instances where they have surveyed membership, I always ask what exactly they asked their membership. Invariably it is something like, “Would you like to continue to receive a print copy of the journal(s)?” Of course the answer is “yes” as the question carried no consequences or alternatives. The better questions to ask would be, “Would you like to continue to receive a print copy of the journal, or would prefer that we spend $X millions of dollars ANNUALLY to develop new online tools and resources to help further support your practice/research, develop a suite of mobile applications to replace the print copy with a truly portable resource, provide dozens of new travel grants for young researchers/students to attend our annual meeting, and reduce our organization’s carbon footprint substantially?”

Add to this question, a note that members who really want to continue to receive print can do so at cost — a printed copy that is explicitly an ancillary product can be printed using a digital short-run press and sent to members who wish to receive it and are willing to pay for it — and I would be shocked if a significant number of respondents would affirm their desire to continue receiving a bundled print edition.

The Library Fallacy. Most of the librarians I talk to say they are trying to get rid of print journals as fast as possible. Some are literally packing them in boxes and shipping them off to warehouses, institutions in developing countries, recycling facilities, or elsewhere. Shelf space is worth more to them than copies of journals that they can retrieve online. Are there some libraries that still want print copies, due to archival considerations, tradition, the desire for a reading room copy, or antiquated VAT policies? Sure. However, why not simply print them a copy via a digital short-run press? Make it clear that this is a subset of the actual journal, and does not include things like videos, podcasts, interactive visualizations, “supplemental” data, or even all articles, and is delivered weeks if not months after the articles were published online.

The Prestige Fallacy. PLoS has showed that one does not need to print a journal to receive a high impact factor (PLoS Biology) or attracts gobs of manuscript submissions (PLoS ONE). Besides that, as I said to one journal editor recently who was reluctant to jettison print due to the Prestige Fallacy, “How would you know if your journal was no longer in print?” Publishers can print a limited number of copies using digital short-run presses and distribute them to a journal’s editor and editorial board, to distribute at meetings, or for other marketing purposes. If such copies can be printed more-or-less on demand but distributed only where they are wanted, how would you know if the journal was “in print” or not? Would such a distinction matter? And moreover, would the vast majority of journal readers and prospective authors notice or care?


Of course there are many benefits to print. Chief among them is the immediacy of the tactile object appearing in your mailbox. It is a visceral reminder that you have a journal subscription or a membership benefit. The question, however, is not whether a print edition is desirable or valuable — it is certainly both. The question is whether it makes economic sense to continue to provide a print edition and whether your organization can continue to do so while making the levels of investment in new digital products and services that are necessary to remain competitive in today’s marketplace. The cost/benefit calculus will, of course, be different at each publisher and indeed for each journal.

As I have written about previously, the STM and scholarly publishing industry has not heretofore been substantively disrupted due to the inherent cultural bulwarks of the academic and scientific reward system. While these bulwarks may continue to protect the industry from the tsunami waves unleashed by networked computing technology that have reshaped the news, music, and trade book industries, growth (at least the kind of growth the industry has come to expect) over the next 5 years will not come from existing product lines. Publishers have focused their efforts on maximizing site license pricing and extending markets over the last decade and half. While I do not believe the subscription model is in imminent threat, institutional budgets are flat at best and therefore site licensing will not be the driver of growth that it has been in the recent past. Substantive growth will only come from developing new digital products and by tapping new markets (funding agencies, individuals, departments, corporate). To develop these products, publishers will need to make investments, which may prove challenging if a large proportion of revenue continues to be dedicated to supporting the significant costs, direct and indirect, of print.

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


34 Thoughts on "The Costs of Print"

A very good article. Incidentally, I don’t think books are such a different animal – much of this article applies to book publishing too.

However, the article overstates its case in referring to ‘fallacies’: most of the arguments identified here as fallacies do not, so far as I can see, involve strictly logical errors. For example, you may think people are ridiculous for believing that a print copy is more portable, but the error here (if there is one) is to do with perception or mis-estimation or lack of empirical knowledge, rather than logic.

If one drops the print edition without a price change then the market should see this as a price increase, that is, less product for the same money. Given the known cost of print it is a big price increase. Sales should drop accordingly, the only question is how much? You are basically claiming to know the market well enough to say not much, if at all, but that is really a conjecture. Publishers may simply not want to take this gamble, since it is potentially a big one.

Not that it will never happen but it should happen quite slowly as the market feels its way into a new structure.

You have identified a key point here and one that I didn’t address in any detail. Many publishers have made this shift successfully so it can be done. Usually it is rolled out with other pricing model changes so it isn’t perceived as a price increase. I would hazard, however, that publishers can frame ceasing to include a print copy as a move to forestall a price increase that they would have otherwise had to pass along. Of course one wishes to avoid a Netflix-style transition

David, it depends on whom you mean by “the market.” An individual subscriber who feels that he gets real value from both the print and online versions of a journal for which he’s paying $X per year may well experience a move to online-only as a price increase for the online (or, more accurately, as a drop in the amount of value received for the same $X cost).

But a big part of the market for scholarly journals is libraries, and libraries increasingly experience the receipt of print as more of a cost than a benefit. Receiving, processing, shelving, and managing print issues incurs real and serious direct and opportunity costs for libraries, and those costs are decreasingly offset by value (as indicated by patron use). We realize real and significant savings when a journal shifts to online-only, even if the price we pay for the journal remains the same.

Given the high costs and the low use of print, you may well ask, why don’t libraries simply cancel print in favor of online access? The answer is that we do that whenever we can, but sometimes we can’t because of pressure from faculty members who (despite the fact that they never use the print issues) insist that print is essential. Publishers who stop offering print at all are doing libraries a tremendous favor in such cases.

Rick, I am a bit skeptical of your ability to speak for all libraries. In many cases those pesky faculty you refer to may call the shots I think, especially the Deans. When it comes to choosing between two journals I can see the one including print as being seen as a better value. As Michael points out, one may want to make the change in the context of repricing the product. Buyers should object to getting less for the same money on principle. I would.

David, I don’t claim to speak for _all_ libraries, but I’ve been a serialist at multiple research institutions and spent six years on the executive board of the North American Serials Interest Group (one of them as president), which has given me pretty good exposure to the thinking and subscription practices of a very broad range of academic libraries. In academic libraries generally, the combination of factors I described (the high direct and opportunity costs imposed by journals in print format, and the plummeting use of journals in that format) has led to a massive move away from print subscriptions. I can also tell you that it’s a very common sentiment among librarians who manage serial collections that print-plus-online very often provides worse, not better, value than online-only. I don’t ask that you take my word for it; feel free to ask around.

You’re right, of course, that in many cases it’s those pesky faculty (including deans) who call the shots. That was exactly the point I tried to make in my comment, and it’s why the library segment of the journal customer base will often (though obviously not in absolutely every case) benefit greatly from publishers deciding not to offer print anymore. If print is unavailable, the professor doesn’t get mad at me, the librarian, for failing to buy the print. To be clear: in those increasingly-rare cases where the print actually gets used, I’m not necessarily eager to see the print go away. It’s in the cases where the faculty member insists on the necessity of continuing to get print and then never actually uses the print that my colleagues and I would really like to see print stop being an option.

Rick, I was not questioning your knowledge or credentials. It is useful to know that the sentiments you describe exist. But if I had a client that was contemplating this step I would do some heavy duty market research first, including talking to the librarians among the subscribers.

One additional point here – even if publishers LOWERED their prices to reflect the cost savings of print, I posit that they will come out substantively ahead as they will eliminate the indirect costs. If it costs me $100 per customer per year to deliver a print issue, and I cancel the print edition and lower my price by $100, I still come out ahead as I haven’t lost any bottom line revenue and have eliminated indirect costs.

One aspect I don’t believe you covered is the appeal of a print edition to authors, especially in the top tiers of a given domain area, where the competition is stiffest. Imagine being the first top-tier journal in an area to drop print. That would feel like a strategic blunder, and authors may drift (slowly or quickly) to competitors. There is a foundational aspect to printing right now, one which may go away, but it’s still with us.

That said, there’s also the fact that even without print, the disciplines print created (layout, composition, editing, brevity) may be even more valuable in the digital world.

Being published in a top-tier journal is a big deal for most authors. Many are so proud of their accomplishment that they mount the cover page of the issue on their wall (some with scotch tape, others go as far as to have it framed).

Would providing such a service to authors (mounting, matting and framing an archival copy of the article with a cover image) work to provide that kind of visual reward of academic achievement and help attract the best authors without having to stay in the business of print?

Speaking as just one author whose articles appear in print journals regularly, I can say that I would not bemoan the loss of the print edition. Much more important to me is the journal’s policy about allowing me to post the definitive edition at my web site within a relatively short time after initial publication. Against the Grain, for instance, permits me to post the articles I write for it within two months following initial publication. Presence on the Web is key, presence in print not so much.

I don’t think most authors care anymore (see: PLoS) or would have any way of knowing even if they did. Leaving aside clinicians, how many print journals does the typical author receive? Last time I checked the longitudinal numbers (via King and Tenopir) it was somewhere south of 4. And unless the author is submitting to one of those journals that they receive in print, how would they know whether the journal they are submitting to is in print or not? Are you suggesting that authors spend time in the library reading room pursuing the latest journals?

I do like Phil’s suggestion and the margins on framed work are probably better than reprints…

PLoS printed at the start, and still has a link for “PLoS in Print” on most of their titles. It lets readers buy reprints, but you can also buy complete printed issues for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine — their top-tier journals. So, I stand by my assertion that top-tier journals will have the hardest time letting go of print. QED.

Also, PLoS has a store powered by Zazzle. I’ll bet Phil’s framed covers aren’t too far from reality there.

This is an interesting article, and there’s little doubt in my mind that long-term the print academic journal is a doomed species. But I would have to add that in my necessarily limited experience, the numbers do not always work out as presented here. Even now, it is possible to find journals in which the decision to cancel print will result in a significant financial hit for the association with revenue losses exceeding cost savings by a noticeable margin. When this occurs, generally as the result of higher print subscription and ad revenues than posited above, the association faces a conundrum. Continue print for as long as possible, knowing that it is ultimately doomed, or drop it and plan to deal with an immediate financial challenge. Or, to put it another way, one must choose between a long, agonizing, death or getting it over quickly. The way out is to develop new online revenue sources as rapidly as possible that can replace the ultimately doomed print revenues. This is, of course, easier said than done, but it is, I would argue, precisely the dilemma facing many scholarly associations today.

As a small journal publisher with only a dozen journals, Penn State Press was able to go electronic only via Project Muse, which it joined as the first press besides Hopkins itself to have its journals sold through this mechanism beginning in 2000. It took only a few years for the income from Muse to exceed the income from print subscriptions, and over two thirds was coming from Muse by the time I retired in 2009. I doubt much would be lost by cancelling the print edition altogether. The savings, however, would not help the Press directly with technological innovation for journals since it remains entirely dependent on Muse for its survival as a journal publisher. More likely, the savings would further help the Press support its book publishing program, which has always benefited from a subsidy from the journals program.

I read an article the other day (can’t remember where – I think the Washington Post or NYT) which stated that since The Economist added a tablet edition they have seen both an increase in tablet and print subscription. The article stated that they generate more revenues from their electronic versions than from print. The purpose of the article was to demonstrate a successful print to electronic strategy. I personally have given up print altogether. I read everything books, journals, newspapers and magazines exclusive on line or on tablets.

Michael, in the end, I think you are right. Each journal needs to decide (based on its own circumstance) when to end the print edition. That decision should be made on the unique cost and revenue structure of the journal. I predict that most journals will make this transition in five years time…

The subscription model of The Economist appears to want readers to hold on to their print. One can subscribe to the digital version for $110/yr or spend just $17 more dollars and get print+digital for $126.99. Based on Michael’s argument, either this is a losing proposition for them or print ad revenues are very high.

In the case of the Economist, it is the later (they do a decent book of business on advertising). The above post really doesn’t apply to consumer magazines, which is a totally different market. That being said, the Economist has taken a very savvy approach in thinking not about revenue per format but about revenue per customer. For $126 you get the Economist in print and across all devices. Read it where you like. At some point in the future as print advertising trails off and more customers shift to digital reading (which is a very different point for magazines like the economist as compared to STM journals – there is not bound to be much printing out PDFs of economist articles – one does really read that magazine cover to cover) the Economist will no doubt rethink continuing to print but will have done so without disruption to its customers (who will presumably all be reading on tablets or something by that point).

The problem I have with this article is that it doesn’t mention the true reasons why publishers are pushing to go straight to digital. Publishers like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley are doing this because it reduces their workforce (save for outsourced workers who do more work for less money), saves money in print costs (which doesn’t go back to their employees but to their shareholders), and ultimately circumvents the public library system. By reducing print runs to just the bare minimum for copyright and archive purposes, publishers like the ones I’ve mentioned become the new keepers of knowledge. In fact, it’s common to hear higher ups (like myself) talk to lower level employees about how the new model is to bypass libraries. This way people pay directly into their online “services”, thus leaving the less fortunate to scrape by using older, outdated articles for reference.

These publishers also say that it helps the environment to go digital. This is a lie. Digital makes content easier to control by whoever owns the copyright. Of course, articles and whole issues can be pirated, but in the case of a corporation, having your products ready for purchase at the click of a button is far more manageable than printing physical books that need to be distributed. In fact, addiction to digital devices has become the new norm. How many times have you sat through a meeting to see people unabashedly look at their phones and start texting, looking at pictures, or playing a game? Another fact is that while paper is easily recyclable and can be used again, digital devices cannot be recycled but must be destroyed due in part to their components like mercury, cadmium, and chromium. These components are not biodegradable and are dangerous to human and animal life.

Another problem is that for the e-only model to work a constant stream of power is needed. Electricity, top grade servers, and high end digital devices. With print anyone can pick up a book and start reading an article. At that point you are only limited by your understanding of the subject and your commitment to learning more. With the digital model, a person is limited by what I just mentioned and what kind of machine they have that can effectively access the content and how much money they can spend (if any) to look through it.

If this e-only model is what the future is going to be, then I say we must keep print alive at all costs. Digital should be a small part of the plan and not the end result. If there are any librarians reading this post then you must keep print in stock. Do not let publishers vie for control of knowledge for profit. H.G. Wells once wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”. If the e-only model is not questioned and ultimately defeated, then not only will there be economic and educational disparity in the real world, but will soon be prevalent in the virtual world.

If anyone disbelieves these facts I’ve just written, let’s just say, even as a director in one of the aforementioned publishers I’ve noted who has implemented e-only for profit models; I’ve had a change in conscience recently and refuse to let the public be held hostage to greedy, renegade publishers.


1. The number of times that any policy or other practical attempt to curtail technology-driven productivity growth to prop up demand for labor has worked, in the entirety of human history, is precisely zero.
2. Whether to print or not to print has nothing to do with offshoring labor costs.
3. Digital distribution does not circumvent the library system. On the contrary, there has been an enormous concentration in the library as primary revenue source since the advent of digital delivery.
4. The notion that “Digital makes content easier to control by whoever owns the copyright” is profoundly at odds with recent historical evidence. cf. Virgin Megastore, et al.
5. The scholarly and professional societies to which Michael refers do not have shareholders. (The do typically have Boards of Directors, who–judging by comments above–may frequently represent the pro-paper end of the spectrum.)
5.b. Re commercial publishers: You’re correct that various savings captured by various business activities do not go directly to employees. Employees are paid based on competitive labor/skill market conditions. Shareholders get what’s left over after they’ve met those conditions and all other business expenses.
6. Your comments with respect to (unabashed, addictive) social behaviors of device users seem more about your own social preferences than an objective cause to deter digital distribution.
7. Both print and digital editions cost money to produce and distribute. When you state “with print anyone can pick up a book and start reading an article,” you presuppose both the availability of a printed copy and the unavailability of any appropriate digital reading device. This is an error of logic. And as a practical matter digital devices are cheaper and more ubiquitous every day. The user of a $79 Kindle has instantaneous access to a vastly greater array of titles (all cheaper than the print), from anywhere, at any time.
8. Digital delivery has made educational content and learning opportunities far more broadly available than physical/real-time education alone could.

In closing, I don’t disbelieve the “facts” that you wrote, such as they were and to the extent that I could identify them.

Having observed the industry first-hand over the last decade and a half, I have seen no evidence of the transition to digital resulting in fewer jobs – in fact quite the contrary. It is true that typesetting and XML markup are now largely automated or outsource to other countries. However, XML markup was not a job function that existed anywhere 20 years ago (so it is hard to argue that those jobs were lost) and the loss of typesetting jobs has been more than offset by the increase in positions related to digital product development and production (jobs that generally pay substantially more than the positions they destroyed). The jury is out on whether the digital economy has been a net gain for the US thus far – and certainly many good paying manufacturing jobs have been lost – but the STM and scholarly publishing industry has seen gains not losses in terms of on-shore jobs.

I agree with you that the publishing industry is moving from a product to a service model. This is not something that publishers are driving, however. In fact the publishers I know (including those you mention) tend to be product focused and are moving towards a service orientation only because the large information ecosystem in which they operate requires such a transition. The professionals – the end users – are demanding this transition. If publishers do not adapt they will soon be out of business and someone else will be providing these services. That being said, STM and scholarly publishers have no interest in disintermediating libraries. If publishers disintermediate libraries they then have to deal directly with individuals which requires a much more costly and complicated approach to sales, marketing, and product development.

It is true that print journals are a wonderful technology in that anyone can open one – including in the distant future – and just start reading. On the other hand, they are totally impractical for readers today. Researchers wish to search or browse a wide swath of the literature, download content from many journals, share and discuss specific articles with colleagues, download images for lectures, perform text mining, set up alerts on key topics or individuals, create personal libraries that are accessible from anywhere, and other activities that require digital content.

The claim that digital content is somehow less “green” than print is ridiculous. In addition to the trees that must be cut down for the paper (even “recycled” paper is not 100% recycled), you have the coating that goes on the paper (nasty stuff), the inks, the plastic wrapping the journals are mailed in, and the fuel costs associated with distribution. Your argument presupposes that people are buying computers, tablets, and phones for the sole purpose of reading STM and scholarly content – which is obviously not the case.

I am not one who thinks all progress is good and certainly we need to think the ramifications of the changes sweeping the industry lest we inadvertently destroy that which we value. However, your arguments do not withstand scrutiny. In moving to digital publishers have created jobs, created shareholder value (I fail to see how that is a bad thing), provided more access to more people at less cost than ever before in history, created products that are more useful to end users, thought deeply about issues of preservation, and become more environmentally friendly. Is everything sunshine and unicorns? Of course not but if you are looking for demons to hunt, I suggest you look elsewhere. There is no shortage at present in investment banking, real estate, or European politics.

I think the only thing to fear in this transition from print to electronic delivery is the propensity for electronic technology to deliver a winner take all result (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple). The risk in electronic delivery is that one company could come to dominate STM publishing in the electronic age. Beyond this risk, I see little reason to fear or cheer (for that matter) this transition. I agree with Thane, whatever your opinion about technology the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

Couple of reflections:
1. the savings on print really only accrue when a publisher abandons print entirely across the whole list. Then one can be rid of the entire print management ecosystem and make the savings. This might be possible for a journals-only publisher, but for a publisher offering both books and journals, that day is still far off. We what have learnt is that adopting a rigorous print-on-demand approach reduces costs significantly yet retains an ability to supply print to those customers who still want it.
2. we still see strong demand for print from what the ‘stakeholder’ community – that’s the network surrounding the editors, authors, owners, funders etc. So far, there is no better format than print to meet their need to give something tangible to influence/impress their contacts. For many of our publications, fully half of our print demand is coming from this ‘channel’ and I see no sign of it diminishing or being replaced by digital editions.

Interesting points, Toby. Can you elaborate on #2? What network are you referring to?

POD has been a blessing in many ways, not only to cut down on inventory expense and enhance cash flow but also sometimes even to get rid of infrastructure altogether, as we did at Penn State Press when we switched from warehousing books in the UK to fulfilling all UK orders through LightningSource UK.

Toby – This post explicitly does not address book publishing and also makes a very clear distinction between “print” and “print on demand.” A rigorous print-on-demand approach is very sensible and is exactly what I am arguing for.

I would take issue with only one of your points, which is your statement that benefits of eliminating print (or moving to print on demand) will only accrue, in the case of publishers who produce both books and journals, if they make changes across both product lines. Most publishers (unlike OECD) operate journals and books in distinct silos with separate P&Ls, separate staff, and separate production workflows. Moving to online-only (with ancillary print on demand) for journals will provide all the benefits described above regardless of what occurs with book production.

I did not discuss books as the issues can be very different there. For example, reading a 500 page book on a desktop or laptop is not for everyone and printing out a copy of a 500 page book via a desktop printer is not practical. Until everyone has a tablet/ereader and that reading technology advances, it makes sense to continue to print books (especially with the rigorous print-on-demand approach that you espouse).


Great article. Do you see a day soon where book / journal publishers do deals with societies to supply their membership with devices to consume their newly e-only journal/book editions? I have to imagine that a publisher could supply a large membership (maybe not as large as the AMA) with basic eReading devices that come configured with the journal / book they get as a benefit to membership (heck, the Kindle is dirt cheap now!) and still fall under the Mason-Dixon line of profitability? Print could, of course, be an option to retain at some incremental value (simple button in the welcome screen)

I also have to imagine that with the mobile advertising in its infancy, rates on tablet/eReader display ads will start to rival and possibly exceed those of their print counterparts. Given the level of engagement and interactivity available in an HTML5 rendered ad on iPad. Once that happens, I think it will be a mad rush to eOnly for the smaller specialty journals and then finally the big guys will follow suit (which one will be quite interesting.) Its all going to happen in 2017.

Great article from Outsell today, on this very topic (not limited to STM), entitled “Sea-Anchor Print Pricing Impedes Moves to Digital, Subsidizes Waste.”

Relying on over-priced print advertising revenues is but a temporary salve. Will the professional STM market learn how to create step-factor improvements in ad value and pricing? Or is digital competition so ferocious — due to effectively unlimited supply — that revenues for existing print powerhouses will never be replaced?


I agree, but there are two interesting canards in your comment — that online supply is “effectively unlimited” and that the change is in the hands of the STM market.

I think one of the surprises that has greeted online properties as advertising has grown in acceptance is how comparatively difficult it is to create advertising inventory online. It’s a black art at best, owing to the weighting, algorithms, and unpredictable traffic patterns across days and within days. Print advertising was comparatively scalable and predictable — sell another ad, insert a new page, count it at full circulation. By comparison, finding another 50,000 impressions in a month given current traffic can be a challenge for many sites, especially when qualified (professional) traffic is what really matters (i.e., trash traffic via Google won’t cut it).

The real drivers of change are the agencies purchasing advertising and their perceptions of online value. Once they see the facts for what they are (they’re overspending on print and undervaluing online severely), the shift will be on. But creating funky new ads isn’t the answer. The answer is in getting these agencies to value advertising online as much as they valued advertising in print. Right now, they will only pay a premium online for lead-generation or crazy targeting, when in print they were satisfied to advertise. They want direct marketing online, and that’s a different thing. But in either situation, the agencies and advertisers need to make the change or advertising won’t migrate online. We’ve had the venues up for over a decade, and it’s still not happened.

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