Every now and again we like to put a question to our blog authors and present their collected answers. For this round, we asked a question that regularly comes up in strategic planning exercises for publishers, which requires us to gaze into our crystal balls regarding the future of print.
Ink on paper has proven itself as a valuable, long lasting interface for the transfer of information. It’s portable, high resolution and requires no power source, other than enough light to see it. Ink on paper is durable, both in the short term (being able to survive a drop in the bathtub) and the long term (books written hundreds of years ago are still readable, something I doubt we’ll be able to say about this week’s Kindle purchases). It provides a ready methodology for annotation and note taking (scribbling in the margins), something still problematic for electronic media.
Despite these advantages, the physical nature of ink on paper in a digital era reduces its value to us, particularly when we want to share and store documents, as well as search through and analyze the text itself. With all this in mind, I put the question to our “Chefs”:
When do we stop printing?
Answers are presented in the order received, and aside from me, you are the first people to see all the answers together.
Joe Esposito: This is really two questions: When do publishers stop issuing print editions, and when do end-users stop printing out digital files. The former is easier to predict; indeed, we are almost there now (for journals, though not for books). But the latter is going to take some time, as the end-user experience of electronic content is at best mediocre. There is a struggle, and probably a very large business opportunity, around the corner, as professional publishers come to terms with the end-user experience as most people understand it, and that is with platforms created by huge consumer tech companies: Apple, Amazon, and Google. Until it’s possible to read an STM journal electronically as easily as it is to read an ebook from Amazon, we have a lot of work to do. We should not be surprised to discover that Amazon et al., devise a way to extract a toll for the use of their platforms.
Ann Michael: Let’s assume that every content portfolio has an overall publication strategy and that every product within that portfolio focuses on a target market(s) and that market’s needs. Let’s further establish that the dissemination and communication strategies for journals versus books versus tabloids, etc. will vary by target market and intended use. Additionally, each of these products (and the portfolio overall) also has a variety of financial goals and priorities. All of these factors work together when determining which content delivery methods are the most appropriate.
That being said, when, where, how, and even if, we stop printing should be a byproduct of our overall understanding of our markets’ needs balanced against the financial realities each individual organization faces. What is the role of print now within the publication portfolio and for each product, and how might that role change (both from a market and financial perspective)?
If we want to attempt to look in the crystal ball, we can try to make assumptions (and then validate or invalidate them) –
- Print use is based on age: As the current senior members of our markets “age out” there will be a diminishing and ultimately no need for printed all. Time Horizon for it to stop completely? 10 to 15 years at least (people are working a lot longer than they used to – and unfortunately change is not their forte)
- “We” aren’t the ones printing: Publishers reduce the amount of print they provide, first moving to print-on-demand and then ultimately not supporting print at all. This does not mean that the individual user would not have an option to print things themselves. Time Horizon? This is starting to happen on a limited basis now (e.g., users printing PDFs). As to when we stop – see the next assumption. Note: Your mileage will vary in the book world.
- Publishers will* stop printing when it’s no longer profitable: This one is a little more complicated as it combines user behavior (a decrease in demand for print) with financial realities (you need to sell so much advertising, usually based on circulation, to make print profitable; advertising dollars do seem to be moving online and to mobile delivery). Time Horizon? Perhaps a lot sooner than the first assumption listed above.
*Note: The question posed was “When will…” not “When should…”
David Crotty: This is a question we ask for each of our journals on a regular basis. To begin, there’s a simple set of equations done: how do the costs of printing the journal (paper, print, bind, distribution, warehousing) compare with the revenue directly attributable to the print edition (print advertising, the amount of revenue that would be lost if all print and print and online subscriptions were converted to online only subscriptions, reprint revenue, supplement revenue, etc.). If the balance comes out in the positive, and we’re making more money from doing a print edition of the journal than we’re spending to do so, there’s no reason to eliminate a revenue stream.
There are also intangibles to consider. Demand for print editions remains high in some fields (medical doctors, according to this study, still heavily use print journals for example), so why not offer customers what they want? When working with a research society-owned journal, the print version of the journal is a tangible incentive that the society can offer to help drive membership levels. Print advertising, despite the growth seen for online advertising, still brings in much higher revenue levels.
Speaking as a reader though, I can’t remember the last time I read an article in the print version of a journal itself. At the same time, I almost exclusively read articles as printed versions of pdf files. I find my concentration is more intense than on a screen, and I find great associative value in visual and positional memory. I can often recall specific figures in a paper from their shape and location–it’s a small figure at the top of the left-hand column in the middle of the article. This is impossible in a scrolling, responsive-design html webpage.
While this may betray my age and the fact that I began my scientific career in the pre-online era, I have a colleague who swears he can tell with 100% accuracy when his graduate students and postdocs have done an edit on a manuscript on a printout versus doing the work on a screen. His students, even those seen as “digital natives” seem to do a more thorough and detailed job scribbling on paper documents, distasteful as the thought might be to the iPad generation. There’s a reason some interfaces become so embedded, and so hard to replace–they work really well.
Which is kind of half an answer–we will stop printing when it is no longer economically feasible to do so, but readers may continue to prefer the ink and paper interface for a long time to come.
Rick Anderson: As a librarian, I can’t directly answer the question, “when will (publishers) stop printing?”. I can only say that when it comes to scholarly journals in particular, I hope it will happen soon. The printed journal issue is an information object that makes little or no sense on every level: it’s economically and ecologically wasteful; it forces artificial delays on the publication timeline; it can only be used by one person in one place at any given time; it is subject to permanent loss and disintegration. I recognize that in some parts of the world, internet access remains difficult or even impossible, and that print therefore remains an important format for accessing scholarly articles. But surely the best response to this reality lies in working to solve the problem of internet access rather than continuing to prop up an absurdly ineffective and inefficient distribution system. (That’s easier said than done, of course–but what isn’t?)
Todd Carpenter: People have been clamoring for the impeding death of print for several decades now and, years ago, I was one of those voices. But I simply don’t see a end to printing even in the distant future.
Despite the many benefits of digital content distribution, there are a couple reasons why print should not (and will not) move away anytime soon. The first is that there are preservation and reader-experience reasons for retaining physical items. Many readers simply prefer reading text on paper, be it for reading speed, convenience or even force of habit. And while great strides have been made related to digital preservation, nothing quite replicates the properties of a print copy.
Now, not every subscriber wants a print copy, but there is a substantial number that do and this brings me to my second reason that publishers will not stop printing; the fact that customers want it. This may be a diminishing number, but it is not insignificant, and the profits generated by producing even that relatively small number of copies are worth capturing.
This then relates to the third component of this decision–production costs for those small number or copies. If the first-copy costs of creating an issue need to be minimized to be able to covered by a smaller and smaller press run, than that production process needs to be as streamlined as possible. Style sheets and flexible production file structures allow for easy transformations from a Web-ready distribution file to a print-ready file. The costs of creating an issue from template-derived data can thus be minimal, allowing a print-on-demand model that is optimized for both print and electronic distribution (as well as mobile, etc). Efficient production processes can alleviate the problems and costs of creating print-ready files.
Combined with demand from customers and print-on-demand technology, why would any publisher need to “stop the presses”? So long as the first-copy and distribution costs of creating that single print copy exist, if it can be fulfilled profitably, why not sell it?
Alice Meadows: I can’t see print completely stopping any time soon – if ever. Although increasing numbers of us prefer to read at least some sorts of publications online – newspapers and journal articles in my case – I don’t know anyone who wants to read everything digitally, even my own millennial kids and their friends. In fact young readers may actually be reading more print, surprisingly – according to Publishers Weekly, juvenile fiction and non-fiction were up 0.2% and 5.8% respectively in 2013 over 2012. Having said that, I can see a future without print for some sorts of publications at some point that’s not too far off. But I wouldn’t want to put money on when – there are so many elements at play. Newspapers – those that survive – will surely go online only first. However, while I’m sure journals will follow suit, how fast they do so will depend, for example, on how much and how fast OA publishing grows, how soon everyone will gets equal access to high-speed Internet, how quickly smaller publishers are able to afford to make the switch to online only, whether some governments such as the UK continue to tax online content at a higher rate than print, and so on. It’s equally hard to predict when print textbooks and major reference works will disappear though I suspect they too will. But as for stopping printing other types of publications – from fiction to cookbooks, and from children’s books to magazines – I think we will be waiting a very long time.
A2) We already have, really.
A3) The moment the cost to print exceeds the income generated.
A4) The future lifetime of the medium is dependent on the context in which the message will be used.
“Print” has been with us as a culture across multiple civilizations, all the way from at least Mesopotamia in 3200BCE. The Chinese gave us paper sometime around 200BCE and we are still using it after two millennia. Resilient stuff paper, which is why the use case of preservation keeps a variety of custodians at a multitude of institutions still purchasing our wares in that particular medium. Print was a luxury medium for a long time (consider pulp fiction as a market differentiator) and I think it will return to that space, strutting proudly alongside pvc discs, signifying the owner as person of wealth, taste and distinction.
In real terms however, print is already gone. You don’t keep up-to-date by printing every piece of information that you consume. Despite the continued popularity of pdf, the journal article is continuing its metamorphosis into a new form, replete with data, resolvers to the creators and repositories of the information contained therein and increasingly constructed (however imperfectly) to be consumed by machines (preserve that with yer print based methods). We are well into the adoption curve, even if culturally the idea of there not being print, sits uneasily with us. Print. On. Demand… the seeds of extinction contained within those three words – only while somebody wants it and is prepared to pay whatever that cost becomes. Context? Our affection and attachment for print is wired to the idea of permanence, importance (stop the press!) and value. To be in print is to be a signal above the noise, or it has been for all these millennia. You can trust a book. After all, you can see exactly what and how it is constructed; no faceless algorithm or quietly whirring daemon encased in plastic and glass to unsettle you. Anyway, to jump the tracks on the original intent of the question, printing is going 3D, and there lies a wealth of opportunity.
Robert Harington: “Never say never again”. I just had to print off the question and look at it on a piece of paper before considering a response. Of course there are many layers in this question. Perhaps one way to tackle the issue is to point out that the answer will vary depending on whether one is talking about books, or journal articles, and then again by discipline. At the American Mathematical Society, we unsurprisingly publish math books and journals in print and electronic form. Let’s take journals first. I do believe that very few scholars require a printed copy of the journal. If print is needed, then printing an article as a PDF appears to suffice. This vanilla reading of an article is such a different experience to a more interactive online reading. I suppose it boils down to what the reader wants to do. If the priority is a quiet and thoughtful read then a plain, uninterrupted reading of an article surely is to be preferred. If you want to have key mathematical expressions, references and figures pulled out, with forward linking and so on, then yes you need to be online and immersed in the wizardry of HTML. Books of course are another beast altogether. Books provide context and a chance for contemplation. Information and opinion is absorbed and felt. The printed book provides a tactile experience – an experience that is not achieved on screen. Ebooks of course are vitally important. In fact as we move towards the digitally born book, we are entering a world of interactive possibilities that should open up new kinds of authoring and reading experiences, and deliciously interactive ways of knowing. The point is more that print and electronic will both remain relevant and both will thrive.
Angela Cochran: I am asked this question a lot. The answer I give is that we will stop printing journals when people stop choosing to pay for print. Many of our individual journal print subscribers are members of the society that have been getting print for a very long time. Those subscriptions are converting slowly, over time, but for now offering print is an important option for some members. More importantly there are international libraries and consortia that choose to purchase our “print + online” package of journals. These are mostly libraries in China or India. Chinese libraries have to pay for the amount of data that comes through their network and in remote areas, access can be spotty. Reliable access to the internet is also an issue at remote sites in India and other developing countries. Our concern is that restricting those libraries to online-only presents a hardship for them and a barrier to our content. Our ebook market is continuing to expand but we still see 90% of our book purchases in print.
Kent Anderson: The “we” in this question is clearly publishers, who create commercially printed materials for readers. Readers are printing more than ever, as the PDF has shifted printing to their computer infrastructures.
For publishers, what to print, when to print, and whether to print are all questions we need to be asking. We’ve launched three journals in the last few years, all online-only. One has already rocketed to the upper echelons of the specialty. Printing is not necessary for success in all cases.
For publishing businesses, printing can support one or more lines of revenue, such as advertising or subscription dollars. Part of the reason print will diminish is that the desire to advertise in or receive print is diminishing. As these lines of businesses shrink, step-functions will occur — i.e., there will come an economic point beyond which printing stops making sense, and both the line of business and the printing function will cease.
Many journals that have printed historically are continuing to print while rethinking what and when to print. This has led to refactored print edition. Print articles are becoming shorter. Brief print versions are pointing to full online versions. Issues are becoming thinner and less frequent. Ancillary print materials are disappearing.
I think there will be a cliff for print in the next five years, mostly driven by the shrinking print advertising market as well as a growing unwillingness among paying subscribers to receive print as part of the deal. Not every print journal will go over this cliff, but many will. Some will skid to the brink and see a good portion of their print go over, while some remains behind. Shifting metaphors, print may become like the guest who won’t leave the party.
As an industry, we will never stop printing entirely. But we will continue to print less, print less frequently, and launch new initiatives that don’t rely on print.
Judy Luther: Publishers will stop printing long before users stop printing. For publishers it is a matter of economics and demand. For users it is a matter of utility that is influenced by discipline and varies with the tools we use. The electronic version is the norm for discovery and delivery – but print is still the preferred medium for many readers. Print will persist until we are no longer dependent on a page layout – in other words a long time.
The ease and efficiency of desktop delivery has resulted in articles that are distributed electronically and printed locally. The function of printing has moved from journal publishers to the readers of journal articles. This change has resulted in reduced demand for a printed journal issue though the need for print has persisted in fields where browsing was more efficient in print.
The PDF ensures a faithful representation of the page for print. Usage data indicates a clear preference for the PDF version. One signal of the demise of print will be when innovations in display and utility preclude the need for a printable page. To the extent that we are still designing for the page, we acknowledge the expectation for a page view that can be printed.
There are a growing number of examples of innovative design and increased utility. Combine these capabilities with use of a touch screen tablet and the user has more options for annotation and recall. When the screen replaces the page with all of its current functionality for the user, then “we” will stop printing.
Michael Clarke: Predicting the end of print has been a parlor game in STM and scholarly publishing since I entered the field. The standard estimate, which has held steady since the mid-1990s, is “in 5 years.” 20 years later, I’m not sure if this question really has meaning, though of course it is still fun to play.
This parlor game, it is important to note, has been focused on journals. Textbooks, monographs, and reference works are entirely different and it was not even worth speculating about the end of print for these formats until the quite recent rise of tablet computing. Even now it is premature, except for maybe reference works. But even focusing solely on journals this is an elusive question. In clinical medicine, some journals continue to have healthy print advertising revenue streams–revenues that exceed the cost of printing and shipping. Revenue that will
not instantly migrate to digital advertising. For other fields without strong advertising revenues, there remain other reasons why one would continue to print. A print copy of a journal can be a powerful marketing tool, a visible reminder of the value of membership in an association. A print issue does not compete with the deluge of email in the inboxes of members. It does not compete with the myriad distractions on a tablet. It provides a quite repose, an excuse to tune out the rest of the world for a period.
I recently worked with an association client on determining whether the association should cease printing one of its journals. They were even offered financial incentives from their commercial publisher to do so. As it turns out, however, their members, who spend most of their working hours in the field, continue to value print–even though the journal offers both a mobile optimized website and a tablet app. As the association has bundled the print subscription with membership, to simply cease printing will be perceived by members as value subtraction and would likely cost the association more money in membership attrition than it would save on printing and postage. The association is considering unbundling the print subscription from membership and transitioning to an add-on model in the future, with members who wish to receive print paying more to do so. So for some members, print will continue. For others it will cease.
Which brings us to a counterpoint to question originally posed: If a journal ceases being printed, how would you know? With print-on-demand and digital-short-run presses, a handful of copies can continue to be printed economically for anyone that wishes to receive one. So what does “stopping print” look like? If one person continues to receive a print copy, is the publication “in print?” I’m not sure the answers to these questions matter. STM and scholarly content will be printed less and less, with great variation according to format, field, and the specifics of any given publication’s business model and audience.
Will print entirely go away over the next 20 years? I sincerely doubt it but even if it did, how would we know?