One of the exasperating things about working in publishing is that you frequently bump into people in social situations who immediately engage you on the print-vs.-digital issue. “Will there always be books?” they ask. The conversation then devolves in one of two ways: someone may love printed books, so much so that the very smell brings pleasure; and there are those who peremptorily declare that the future is coming; they have a seat in the first row of the maglev train and pity anyone with a sentimental attachment to print, whether for books, newspapers, or anything else. Publishing is one of those fields, like politics, where everybody is an expert, so we have to pit our noses against those of the lover of print or discourse on the market cap of disruptive tech companies (my favorite: “Google is just getting started”). Print and digital: it’s supposed to be either/or. You are invited to declare which side you are on and fight to the death. Soon to be a TV series: Game of Books, set in the mythical kingdom of Suburbia and starring Jerry Mathers as the Beaver (“Literature is coming!”).
While I doubt there is a publishing professional anywhere who has not pondered whether print will always be with us, the point for managing an enterprise is not to predict the last day of print but to craft a strategy that mediates appropriately between the two until the End of Days. This means acknowledging the huge differences from one publishing segment to another (what do medical textbooks have in common with apps for cooking and recipes?) and also that the rate of migration from our aromatic print publications to our clinically sterile digital formats differs widely for these segments. Financial publishing, for example, except for a few consumer magazines and the wheezing Wall Street Journal, is wholly a digital game, dominated by the likes of Thomson Reuters and, of course, Bloomberg. (If you have never seen the Bloomberg service, you have missed out on one of the wonders of the publishing world.) But children’s books? Putting aside the problem of having your adorable little kid drop an iPad into the bathtub, parents continue to like the experience of turning pages with their offspring, and the persistent sales of children’s books are proof positive.
Even within academic publishing there are multiple segments, each of which marches to its own drummer. STM journals are almost entirely digital by now, of course, but not so scholarly monographs, which still recognize over 80 percent of their sales from print formats. Particularly interesting are those publications that are anchored in one medium or the other. PLOS ONE, for example, does not and could not have a print extension and still call itself a pure open access (OA) publisher for the simple reason that the variable costs associated with print would be unsupportable in a purely OA environment. But art books? Display technology continues to lag behind high-quality color printing. We may have to wait a while before removing our treasured art books from the coffee table.
A better way to manage a publishing enterprise is to think of print’s half-life. That is, how long will it take for half of the current print production in a particular segment to become digital? The half-life of anything is a moving target: today’s half-life is tomorrow’s starting point. So STM journals, for example, are already well over half in digital form, but the half-life question is how long will it take for one-half of the remaining print publications to become digital. In some segments this is a very big question–college textbooks, for example, where the print supply chain continues to exercise significant influence on what books get published, how many copies they sell, and how often they get revised.
Thinking about the migration to digital formats often gets stuck on production issues and misses the larger point that when the medium changes, the ecosystem often changes as well. In trade books the shift from print to digital is not merely a matter of ebooks but the collapse of the physical bookstore. In STM journals the shift to digital has inspired an entirely new outlook on the part of funding agencies, which now may mandate OA publishing, whether of the Green or Gold variety. That’s a much bigger issue than whether or not you have an XML workflow down pat. And when you get that XML workflow, what are you going to do with it? Do you believe your business can flourish if you sell journals by the article or books by the chapter? Does that even remotely support the size of the investment? For an organization contemplating the role of print, the first-order questions are not about products or the organization but about the broader economic environment in which the organization operates. Interestingly, the journals world thus far has mostly been able to ignore the ecosystem-changing aspects of digital media despite the disruptions nibbling at the margins. This is because the institutional markets (meaning libraries) remain the largest customer segment for journals, whether in print or digital form. Libraries are about preservation: of texts, of standards, and of ecosystems. A “disruptive library” is a contradiction in terms.
A half-life strategy quickly brings us to realize that if some people are intent on sticking with print, there must be a reason for that, and those people can be taxed for that preference. This is why advertisers pay so much to appear in the print edition of the New York Times–they could be anywhere, but they feel that they must be here. We are happy to accommodate you, established print publishers say, but this is what it will cost you for that scarce resource. A book publisher that already has a digital product line in place has a compelling invitation to raise prices for print books. I just completed an assessment of a university press and concluded that the prices of its print volumes could be increased by 30%. Trade publishers have caught onto this, too: the prices of trade paperbacks in bookstores appear to have risen from $10 to about $15 in just a few years. More profit for the publishers and, not incidentally, for the bookstores, who could use the margin. If you want print, you will have to pay for it.
Sometimes the economic interest in eliminating print is not immediately measured in dollars and cents. Large journals publishers, for example, routinely attempt to nudge their society clients to drop their print editions. The ostensible reason for this is to reduce the cost of maintaining print publication now that so few people read in print. Not so fast, I think. Those print readers tend to be among the most loyal to their societies. The larger publishers, which act as service providers, have an interest in migrating loyalty to their large aggregations away from individual journals and societies (even as OA advocates attempt to migrate loyalty away from journals to articles). This is not to suggest that there is a conspiracy, but publishers act in their own interest. Trust but verify.
A half-life strategy thus will encompass the following at a minimum:
- A plan for price and margin-optimization for print formats.
- A disinvestment plan that identifies the milestones that will trigger cutbacks in overhead. It’s always best to have this in place well beforehand, as downsizing is hard to accomplish in the best of circumstances.
- Correspondingly, a target for when the sale of assets may be undertaken (there are in fact buyers actively seeking rights for print properties).
- Different compensation schemes for the print and digital units. This is hard for an organization to come to grips with, but the incentives for managing a declining business are inherently different from those for a growth business.
- A commitment not to preserve a market by handicapping services geared to new markets. This is the “don’t cannibalize the old with the new” problem. Organizations that make this mistake serve up a nice rump roast for the competition.
- An economic analysis of all the players and components of the ecosystem. Print publishers sometimes seem to think that printers will always be there, but they could disappear before consumer demand for print dries up. Every link in the value chain must be profitable for the ecosystem to endure.
Above all, don’t build business plans on anecdotes. It doesn’t matter whether you like the smell of print or not or if you feel very cool reading articles on an iPad while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The question is the trend lines for the ecosystem as a whole, and to get at that information you have to get to the data.