Wondering whether printed books will outlast printed money, or football
When you’re trying to figure out what will happen in the book publishing business in the years to come, any prediction depends on how things work out that are beyond the control of the business, and sometimes well outside it. This will be increasingly the case if the book business, in what has remained a fairly lonely expectation of mine, is increasingly the domain of people who aren’t publishing or selling books as a primary commercial activity, but as an adjunct or complement to some other principal objective.
This past Sunday’s New York Times tackled the question of disruptive change in the world in general with a graphic report created by Claire Cain Miller and Chi Birmingham, based on the predictions of a panel of expert technologists and futurists. They asked four questions:
What far-off technology will be commonplace in a decade? Among the suggestions were that we’d see thousands of drones, chips implantable in humans that would deliver access to all one’s devices, and personalized medicines crafted to your specific DNA.
What industry will tech put out of business next? Among those predicted to meet their demise were higher education, the auto industry from drivers to mechanics, airline pilots, and consumer banking.
What technology will seem antiquated in a decade? The nominees here included email, computer keyboards, chargers, keys, and cash!
What is the next issue to undergo a sea change in social acceptance? Future targets from currently acceptable endeavors include football, factory animal farming, and ubiquitous recording and surveillance.
That’s quite an agenda for the next ten years.
There is logic behind all these predictions and the list of those contributing thoughts is stellar, but I daresay few of them are based on data as much as on insight. There’s no data to predict the end of wired charging or banks, or even to predict that football will become massively scorned. But there are straws in the wind for all of them.
So it is when we think about the future of publishing. There are things we simply can’t know for sure, subjects about which a range of outcomes over the next ten years is certainly possible, that will have a profound effect on what book publishing will look like — as an industry and more broadly as an activity — in ten years.
Here are some of the key questions, to which I’m quite convinced nobody can be sure of the answers, that will affect what publishing will look like ten years from now.
How persistent an activity is immersive long-form reading? There are all sorts of threats to it. Perhaps it is needed more than ever as an escape from the ever-more-intrusive demands of connected daily life, but it is also undermined by the accelerating pace of everything else. It is hard to discern this because each person’s personal reading patterns change over a lifetime. We’ve always sold more books to older people than younger ones, with exceptions for cultural phenomena that sweep through the young (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight). Long-form reading has always been required in schools, but as humanities increasingly take a back seat to more “practical” education, can we count on that continuing? It seems hard to build a case that long-form reading won’t be reduced per capita because of the ready availability of so much else and an increasing societal tendency toward short attention spans. (And that last is my impression, not one I can defend with data.)
As my generation is replaced with digital natives, a decline in the market for novels would seem to be a very likely consequence. Or, at least, novels as we know them now.
How persistent is the demand for printed books for long-form reading? The ebook revolution is in its seventh year, if dated from the launch of the Kindle, which was when explosive growth began. Over the past year or two, the explosive growth has stopped and there is the belief in some quarters that many consumers are still expressing a preference for printed books for long-form reading over digital ones. That’s probably true. A recent Harris Survey of Internet-connected adults said that 46% exclusively read print books and only 6% only read ebooks. The remaining 48% are pretty evenly divided among those who read more print, those who read more ebooks, and those who read about the same number of each.
My hunch, again offered without the support of meaningful data (because there would be none), is that ebooks will continue to take share from print for long-form reading, in fits and starts, but inexorably. The logic behind that conjecture is simple and two-fold. One side of it is that the print book experience won’t improve and the ebook experience will. With the first blush of fascination with “enhancing” ebooks by the insertion of distractions passing and real enhancements (the static dictionaries improved into author-built glossaries, improved bookmarking and page-flipping navigation, excerpt-sharing enabled) bound to become more common, there will become more and more reasons to prefer the digital version. (Even the killer app of print — the ability to write notes or underline — will ultimately be digitally-enabled in a ubiquitous way.) The other reason is that the proliferation of (mostly ebook) titles in the marketplace, hand in hand with diminishing shelf space for (mostly printed) books in stores, will increasingly drive online purchasing, which favors ebooks over print.
It wouldn’t take a big change year-to-year for the numbers of exclusive print readers and exclusive ebook readers to be reversed over the next decade with half continuing to do some of each. Since each reader shifting her preference from print to digital further undercuts the support for shelf space, you have (depending on your point of view) a virtuous circle driving ebook growth or a vicious cycle working against print. And against stores.
How well do informational illustrated books compete with alternatives? The informational illustrated book business, largely instructional, has not fared well in digital form. While the share of ebooks for immersive reading has generally ranged from 20% to more than 60% depending on the subject or genre, the numbers are a sliver of that for illustrated books. This has put pressure on illustrated book publishers to make the most of stores, to find direct paths to their customers, and to make the most of the global opportunities for print sales. My candidate for a Black Swan here is some industrial-strength attempt to curate the vast amount of video and other Internet-based content into “packaged” competition for books that teach skills. Just as MOOCs are disruptive to colleges and educational publishing (note the prediction in the Times story that higher education would be “put out of business” in the next ten years), the dagger that will prove mortal to much illustrated publishing may already exist.
Visuals and illustrated books and doing the things people use illustrated books to do (knit, garden, decorate a room) are not my personal milieux, as everybody who knows me personally will attest. But I’d suggest there’s a business out there with which I personally promise never to compete — assembling the library and creating the directory of the publicly-available material that would substitute for these books. Somebody’s going to do that in the next ten years. Here’s an example of something that points in the right direction, but I don’t think can solve the problem in the way I’m describing. Other nods to this idea exist in many verticals, albeit most likely in less-cohesive forms — wikiHow, Google searches, YouTube playlists, internet discussion boards and forums — but they really only hint at the solution I’m imagining.
How much of the creation and selling of books spreads beyond the book business? One of the leading Anglo-American CEOs pointed out to me many years ago that the day had passed when he could just call the CEO of his biggest accounts to discuss a problem. Retailing of print books requires Amazon, for whom it might be 10% of their total business and Walmart (is it 1% of theirs?) in the US, supermarkets in the UK. Global retailing of ebooks, with everybody in the publishing business rooting for Barnes & Noble to crack this, is in the hands of four companies — Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Google — all of which employ book retailing as a strategic component of a larger endeavor.
So far, the publisher side of the value chain has not been affected by the same phenomenon, but I think it will be, in a very different and more disparate way. The concept of “content marketing” hasn’t really discovered the book business yet, but it will. Athough there are a handful of exceptions, today they are just the straws in the wind that indicate the possibilities.
I’m sure that in less than five years every multi-million dollar marketing plan will have an ebook component: sometimes free, sometimes freemium, sometimes paid. Over time the businesses that do this work will learn, probably faster than many book publishers, how to use the online discovery mechanisms to drive the attention of relevant consumers. And part of what could be a tsunami of new competition is driven by another reality: anybody who creates content for any other (usually advertising-supported) audience can carve up or recombine or represent their content as a competitive book product. It takes an organization and much more sophisticated expertise around subscription management and advertising for a book publisher to do online magazines (although it is a reasonable thing to try).
Because of self-publishing authors and public domain title miners, the new titles currently flowing into the marketplace are already coming more from non-traditional publishers than from the establishment, creating an ever-growing challenge around discovery and branded authority. If an ebook publishing program becomes a standard component of branding and corporate and consumer marketing over the next ten years, the new competitors to publishing as we’ve known it will be coming from a flood of well-marketed content whose purveyors may not have to make a profit from it. Imagine what happens to fiction publishing if Hollywood figures out that ebooks and marketing them is a far better development tool for a motion picture or TV show than the fourth rewrite of a script!
Ten years is a long time and a long time allows for some pretty radical predictions. Last week I was on a subway platform with hundreds of people, noticing that virtually all of them were looking down at a device in their hands. I was thinking, “my Dad died in 2002, he never saw this. My Mom died in 2007, she never saw this.” Ten years ago, I think few would have predicted that the number of people on a subway platform looking at devices would outnumber those reading newspapers by 50-to-1 or more. Maybe ten years from now we won’t have keys or cash. And maybe there will be very few people reading paper books.