Is Print Dead?

There is an unsettling myth being perpetuated about the death of print books. The news of print’s demise is simply not true. It sounds a bit like Mark Twain having to write a note to a reporter saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

To fully explain I need to start with the music industry.
The impression is that all sales are now digital. And iTunes has killed the physical CD. This is not true.

Approximately 12 songs fit on a CD. And since individual songs can be downloaded, the only way to compare physical CD sales with download sales is to divide the number of songs downloaded by 12. That way you have a one-to-one comparison.

With that assumption in place, Apple is the #1 retailer of CDs in America. No surprise. The surprise is that they only comprise 25% of sales. Walmart is #2 at 14% and Best Buy is #3 (my guess is that Amazon.com is #4 but wasn’t mentioned in the article).

Why is that surprising? Because that means 75% of all sales are still “hard copy.” Physical CDs. It is significant that Apple’s share has increased as a percentage of all sales from 21% in 2008, up from 14% in 2007. But it still means the physical product is outselling the digital by 3 to 1. (In total dollars, across all forms of music, digital downloads comprise only 35% of all music sales.)

Turn that same conversation to the book industry. The Amazon Kindle has impact primarily because they were first and did create a pretty cool device (I bought one the week it came out in Fall 2007 and upgraded in 2008). The Barnes & Noble Nook is shipping with reports of modest success. The Sony Reader has its followers. Plastic Logic just announced their cool tablet sized reader. And everyone is wondering what Apple will announce in the near(?) future regarding their answer to the “hardware” question.  But despite this we really don’t have an “iPod” equivalent. Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, wrote in 2005 that we are “one device away from a digital revolution.” In my opinion we are still waiting for that device. The iPhone is not the answer for most people. The screen is simply too small. And for someone like myself who reads rather fast it can be very annoying…

Don’t get me wrong. My head isn’t buried in the sand. That revolution is coming and some would say it is already here. But the “tipping point” has yet to occur.

Amazon had a lot of fun announcing that they sold more digital books than physical books on Christmas Day 2009. Think about it. On Christmas Day recipients of the Kindle opened their gift and downloaded stuff while playing with their new toy. But who else would be shopping on Christmas Day? No one. So while it made a fun press release it really isn’t as astounding as it first sounded.

I see the royalty statements. I know exactly how many digital versions of my client’s books are being sold. And while there are a lot more sold than there were two years ago (of course there would be) the volume is still less than 1% of the print version sold. LESS THAN ONE PERCENT.

So let’s do some math. Let’s say that e-books have 100% growth in the next year. That would mean they would comprise 2% of all sales. Then let’s say it grows by 100% again, to 4%. We have to keep doubling the number for 4 years before we get to a little less than 20% of all print sales. But that still means that 80% of all sales are still hard copy. Eighty percent.

Certainly this revolution could happen and is quite likely. The implications are huge, especially for the newspaper and magazine community. But it does not mean that print books are dead.

It is even possible that in one generation (twenty years) that the conversion will take place..at least in some form or fashion. If the e-book reader cost drops to under $100. If the device is in every home, on each family member’s nightstand. If the younger generation’s textbooks are placed into e-book format and that generation becomes used to it. A lot of “ifs.”

It is a very exciting time to be in the publishing industry. I almost get giddy when thinking about the possibilities.

If you want to read someone who will challenge every assumption you’ve ever made about “curling up” with your favorite book, get a copy of Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez. Get a group of friends together to talk about his conclusions, I guarantee a rousing discussion. If you want to learn how the music industry was ambushed by technology read Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper.

All I’m trying to say is that we need to stop buying into the myth that books are dead. It simply is not true. We are being influenced by the flood of media attention on the “new” and the “cool” and not looking past the sound bite. It is like relatives or friends writing to say “I saw that there was a flood in Phoenix…are you okay?” Yes. It flooded…in an area with a river wash and someone tried to drive thru it and got stuck. That picture hit the national news. The media gave the impression that the entire city was under water with their breathless coverage. So when you read that publishers are going under, and print books are dinosaurs, and all authors need to rethink everything…take a deep breath. It  is different. It is a time of careful consideration. No publisher wants a repeat of what happened to the record industry. But it is not as bad as you think.

In the end I implore you not to be one who helps perpetuate the myths and misinformation.

21 Responses to Is Print Dead?

  1. Mary Hampton January 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    Thanks for throwing some logic into a discussion that too often feeds on emotion and/or panic!

  2. Sharon Ball January 21, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Okay, whew…this was just the reality check I needed. The sky isn’t falling, worlds aren’t colliding, and books are still selling. Panic attack over. Man I feel better–hopeful for sure.

  3. Ellie Kay January 21, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Well said, agent man. We’ve had these discussions before, Steve, and I’m glad you wrote it into your blog so I can refer some of my Chicken Little friends to review it! Not that I have anything against Chicken Little. :-) You are more than an agent, you’re a very good writer as well!

  4. A J Hawke January 21, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    Thanks, Steve, for helping me resolve my confusion.
    Yes, I had heard the rumor that print is dead. I spend
    an average of ten hours a day in front of a computer screen.
    So you would think I would agree with the rumor.
    Only problem is my continued love affair with print.
    The time spent holding a book and losing myself in
    a great story is precious to me. If there is a choice,
    digital versus print book, the book wins.
    A consumer’s view.

  5. Victorya Rogers January 21, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    Totally agree Steve! I AM one of those “curl up with a book” people. Even with the hype, I don’t like seeing books on kindle or summaries on my iphone. When I read a book I like to hold the book. I also still go to movie theaters to see movies, even tho’ I have DVDs and Pay Per View at home.

  6. Jill Williamson January 22, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    I find all this very interesting. My novel (paperback & Kindle) really only sells online and to libraries because my publisher doesn’t offer a large enough discount to make bookstores happy. 20% of my first year sales were Kindle sales. I think this is because my Kindle book swims in a smaller pool on Amazon that my paperback does, so Amazon’s referral system helps my ebook more than my paperback.

  7. Steve Laube January 22, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Jill, that is one of the big challenges for all small presses. The larger publisher’s biggest advantage is distribution…not just availability. Shelf space in a store is a finite proposition and the fight for those spots can be titanic. Note that most bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble charge for placement on their front tables. A smaller press usually does not have the budget.
    Before anyone gasps at that information, realize that is what happens in your grocery store too. That is why your favorite brand of cracker disappeared from your favorite store. They probably lost their space to a competitor.
    Exposure to a product is everything. If you don’t know about it you would never buy it. Thus your book, Jill, is getting referrals and recommendations on the Amazon.com site…a form of word-of-mouth.

  8. Lora January 22, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    I also equate it to electronics vs acoustics.

    keyboard, electric guitar or violin have surely come on the music scene, but… they can never replace the sound, feel, touch, beauty, or ability of the real thing, the instrument from which they were derived.

    Another example could be seen in vector/computer graphics vs traditional illustrations/artwork.

    A glowing screen with graphics will never have the look or feel of the real thing. The book.

  9. C.J. Darlington January 22, 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this piece, Steve. Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of something I heard (might have been Michael Hyatt) who referenced audiobooks in comparison to e-books. There are certainly differences, but people thought audiobooks would kill paper books too. Only they didn’t. They’re just another way for people to enjoy story.

  10. Mark Young January 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    Steve, great article. Helps me put this part of the industry in perspective. I know the revolution of change seems faster and faster each decade … but to think of a future without books?

  11. laura January 23, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    I agree print is not dead. While on vacation with a full car, I wandered into a Library with a booksale going on. $2 a bag. I gave a $20 to get just 4 bags and donate the rest. The librarian threw a pile of bags at me, and I went nuts in that conference room filling bag upon bag with beautiful hardcovered books with magnificent coverslips. Then I stopped when I realized my husband would murder me if I brought that many books back to the hotel.So I had to sort through and leave behind masterpieces. It was a heart breaking experience and I finally left with the 4 bags full that I originally intended and donated the other bags to people entering that bookfinder’s paradise. I was still reprimanded by my husband for the insane quantity of books I brought back. I may never read all those books, but just to look at them and caress them and hold them in my hands is shear pleasure. No the printed book is not dead.

  12. Pegg Thomas January 24, 2010 at 5:56 am #

    Thanks for the common sense approach to the issue and giving us some solid stats. There is so much “stuff” blowing in the wind that it’s difficult to sort it all out from outside the industry.

  13. Rebeca Seitz January 26, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Brilliant! Not that you ever deliver anything less.

  14. Lenore Buth January 27, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    Steve, it feels like you just hung a plumb line in the midst of the chaos. Thanks.

  15. Teri Dawn Smith January 28, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    My kids pool their money and bought me a kindle for Christmas. I love it, but my daughter said rather sadly afterwards. “Now you can’t share all your books with me.” I agree that until every night table has an e-reader, books will not disappear. But they will also have to have sharing capabilities. Even now when I think of downloading a kindle book, I reconsider. Would my daughter also enjoy this book? If so, I head to the local bookstore and buy a hard copy. I want too much for her to keep reading too.

  16. D. Ann Graham February 1, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    An e-book is not a treasure…

    It cannot be coppied or bought at a bargain. It cannot be wrapped up beautifully and thoughtfully given away as a gift on special occasions. Considering a major percentage of traditionally printed books are bought for this purpose, it seems to me that — regardless of pricing and convenience — e-books will never reach this market. At most, they will attain gift card status, offering an isolated experience of choosing your own gift from the vendor, with all the surprise and thoughtfulness of the giver left out.

    Even if you enjoy it, you cannot have the added pleasure of turning around and making a gift of it to someone else, because it is not tangible. It is merely a collection of electronic impulses making up a file for one particular machine. Sometimes it even disappears off that one. And while e-books might be convenient and fun for those who have the money and inclination to consume them…

    They are not treasures.

  17. Denise Miller Holmes March 4, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    Well Steve, you have convinced me that print isn’t dead, but you haven’t convinced me it isn’t dying.

  18. Bubba Gump July 28, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    Electronics are just too fragile. Books will always entertain you even if the lights go out. Besides, they make good emergency fire starter. This is especially true if the economy is about to go down.

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