Swimming (or sinking) in a new world owned by device-manufacturers (who are, not coincidentally, store owners), publishers oft comfort themselves with the idea that the old will co-exist with the new somehow. Who knows, perhaps it will, but for a moment let's test the strength of the logic on which the most commonly advanced co-existence arguments are based, including this beautifully illustrated infographic from Mashable via Ilex.
As I read it, it's logic is simple: people who buy and use eReaders also buy and use print books, so print will live on.
What these stats don't ask is why the device owners also acquire new print titles? Experience suggests that that many books aren't available digitally, non-fiction titles might not be as appealing for colour, design, portability reasons, sumptuous coffee table works won't make the same impression, children might not have the devices necessary and, significantly, it's not easy to make a digital product into an appealing gift.
This reads very like a list of problems that eBook platforms, retailers, and publishers are all working hard to address; the number of titles available rises all the time, ePub 3 and colour devices mean that more types of book – including non-fiction – can be made into good quality designed digital products, and they can only get thinner, cheaper and more versatile. On portability, digital is starting to own the problem, with products like travel guides which can be enjoyed on the big screen of a tablet when planning a trip, then snuck into a smartphone on-the-go. Santa (and schools) might solve the children's dilemma if he gets them what they want and I'm willing to bet a Moonpig-moment is on it's way for eBooks as gifts too.
As each problem is solved, there will be one fewer reason for devices owners to go for print, and the number of device-owners is rising all the time anyway; a double-whammy which can only impact on print runs and, by extension, print prices. When passed on to customers, print will seem even less appealing (closer to currently prohibitive digital-on-demand prices). Without the dramatic reduction in cashflow, many stores will go by the wayside reducing print still further.
I freely admit there's a lot to debate here; people like bookstore's discovery, people like books, and specialist gifts and high-value products still have a good future even by this logic, but just because Kindle-owners buy print too, publishers ought not sit back and relax (vinyl sales are up a bit, but only in the context of a battered industry).
For what it's worth, I came out of Monday's conference feeling energised and excited about publishing. That's because I don't believe publishing means just books or ebooks, but about finding altogether better ways to curate and disseminate quality material. To paraphrase Stephen Page of Faber & Faber, I really want to be part of "the greatest shift in how reading and writing come together in 400 years". Who wouldn't?
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