Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Does Digital Equal Death for the Print Publishing Industry?

Since I’m a writer, I thought it’d only be appropriate to start the New Year off writing about something that’s near and dear to my heart—books. Specifically, the explosive growth of the e-book industry. A lot of people are freaking out about it, and rightly so. A lot of people have a vested interested in the continuing growth of traditional, print-based publishing, myself included. But personally, I don’t think anyone ought to worry—yet.

Yes, the publishing industry has undergone nothing less than a complete transformation in the past year, so it’s easy to see why a lot of industry people are worried. Borders continues to see big financial losses and in December announced it would be closing 16 stores. Barnes and Noble will also be closing stores. (This must be an especially tough pill for BN to swallow, considering they’ve dominated retail bookselling for 40 year and revolutionized hardcover bestsellers.) E-books are cheaper to produce, so large retailers have no choice but to discount book prices or slash overhead if they wish to compete. Major publishers and retailers have been forced to lay off employees left and right. Overall, physical books saw a -1% change in sales in 2009 and a -5% change in sales in 2010. Scary stuff, right?

But hold on.

Let’s keep in mind that e-books are still in their infancy. They only comprise 9% of total book sales. That means a whopping 91% of books sold are traditional, paper-based books. Books that people are still driving to retail stores—or hopping online--to get! That means there’s a healthy pipeline of people who are printing, warehousing, shipping and selling all those books. That amounts to a lot of gainfully employed folks supplying books to fans of the written word in paper form. People who still—in the face of fancy, shiny technology—prefer to hold a book in their hand. People like me. When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Many people might think I’m burying my head in the sand. They’ll claim I’m old-fashioned and biased because I’m a writer first, reader second. (Okay—I’ll admit those two claims. There’s no experience for me like walking into a room full of books, and writers still make more money by selling paper books.) But I recognize that the bookstore model is in trouble as the digital revolution continues to sweep the media world.

Digital books are only 9% of sales now, but by the end of 2012, a conservative estimate puts total sales at 20-25%. And those percentages will only increase. Eventually, maybe bookstores will see the same end as music and video stores, which started closing in large numbers as consumers started downloading digital music and movies. But that transformation happened rather quickly; the e-book revolution took off slowly. Major publishers didn’t put much stock in a fad that wasn’t making a lot of money, and no one took e-books very seriously. Until Kindle came around, that is. proved that e-readers were here to stay, and retailers and electronics makers struggled to catch-up, introducing the Nook (Barnes & Noble) and the Sony Reader and the Kobo (Borders), among others. There’s no doubt that e-readers are here to stay; technology always goes forward, it never goes backward, and people generally don’t completely abandon products they’ve become used to having around.

The questions remain: how quickly will the digital book industry continue to grow? And can e-books truly take the place of paper books?

To this purist, the answer to the second question will always be “no.”

No comments:

Post a Comment