As someone who has now attended three decades of conferences in the book, photo, and consumer electronics industries, I have noticed one constant across them all: denial of the speed and depth of the coming changes.
This conference had many feel-good moments of “print is not dead” and “print will always be here” and one excellent speaker used an analogy I had not heard before: “Just look down at your shirt buttons, which have been around since the earliest times. The same will be true for the printed book.”
I dutifully looked down at my shirt and did indeed notice many buttons (all buttoned thank goodness!) but then continued downwards to my pants where I encountered a zipper and metal clasp. Hmm…I thought...plus geez I hope no one is looking at that strange balding dude up front.
The point of these changes is not about “going away forever” but how the companies making the buttons of their time adapt to weird things like Velcro, metal clasps, and zippers, which reduce the number of buttons they sell.
“In 1913, Sundback revised and introduced a new model, which had interlocking oval scoops (instead of the previously used hooks) that could be joined together tightly by a slider in one movement or swoop. This final model is recognized as the modern zipper, which took many months to find success in the industrial market. Retailers, who were prone to sticking with traditional materials and design methods, were slow to purchase the product.” (Source: Wikipedia, whatever that is!)
And then I started thinking about the great wooden boat builders here in my state of Maine and how they “totally missed the boat” when the rest of the world moved on into the age of metal. And indeed you can find some of the best wooden boat builders in the world still operating in Maine, but most ship builders who did not move forward are gone.
A direct mail guru once told me the reason people open sealed envelopes at a higher rate than wafer-sealed self-mailers is because this sacrosanct item dates back to the time of Charlemagne and is therefore deeply encoded in our DNA in signifying something important is inside. (He also had some important “ins” with a 6 x9 envelope vendor needing to dump excess inventory. Would I like to purchase 1.5 million today?)
The only thing that comes sealed in my mail is a treasured invitation to go see the newest Volvo S60. The important messages I receive are happening in email, text messaging, or on Facebook. And my missing a wedding invitation could be the best thing to happen to that lucky couple getting married.
The old photo industry denials were truly tough to fathom. “People love their prints, they will never give them up!” “You cannot match the quality of a printed photo with digital!” “Yes, things are shifting but we will be fine for the next 10-15 years and then I can retire.” (As in screw the younger people.) Well 15 years later the number of prints produced has dropped to a whole new scale and stalwarts like Kodak, Sony, and Polaroid are forever changed. And the number of photos being captured and shared has never been higher.
And what about those old paper mapping atlas denials? “People will always want a printed atlas,” the Rand McNally man is so certain, it guarantees he must be wrong. Funny but a woman sitting next to me at the Book Conference commented that her teenage son could not figure out how to use a paper atlas recently, where you have to go from page 14 to page 37 to connect to the north but page 17 to connect to the east and so on. Plus you cannot even see where you are on the page. “Jeez, Mom, I can figure that all out in a few seconds using my phone.” (Guess who never figured out how to penetrate the GPS market...yup, Rand McNally.)
Older people will lament the loss of map-reading skills and a few teenagers will probably die in the woods unnecessarily. But how many more will show up on time for their college interview? Will get into North Dakota State because they actually showed up in the correct town?
I think Sony had it right even though they have lost so much over the years. “Disrupt yourself before someone unexpected does it to you.” Many of the changes come with comforting but deceptive downward plateaus, where you get to catch your breath. But you are still in a stepping-down trend that becomes more and more problematic as key volume thresholds are passed. Retailers need to sell “x” amount. When it falls to the “g” amount, they need to ask you to leave the shelves. And depending on how smart they are in staying current (Staples does an excellent job with this) the stores themselves close. CompUSA, Borders, and Circuit City were not so smart apparently.
The hardest part is managing the profitability slides from print to digital with all those fixed overheads (e.g., human beings with kids to feed), but this control is not actually in the manufacturer’s hands. New competition comes along and baits you into eroding what you have. You follow you lose. You don’t you lose. But change was going to erode and alter everything anyway so why not figure it out yourself while you still can? Continuous innovation. Kodak did not. Palm did not. The list is very long.
And I imagine many button manufacturers who continued to supply the risk-averse retailers who confidently dictated what products they should make (do NOT go there) failed to survive as clasps and zippers and Velcro reduced their volumes. I will zip it now. Or button it?
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With permission of the American Association of Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group 2012 data, I recently took a look at how the ebook and print book revenue and unit splits came in for 2012, just for the trade adult fiction category.
It is important to note the following when looking at this data:
1) This study measures the traditional publishing industry, not self-publishing titles. If those titles were factored in, the balance between ebooks and print would skew further toward ebooks.
2) In 2012, net book sales across all categories fell slightly over the previous year, the third straight year of declines, but with more stability. Much of that decline was within the education, scholarly, and nonfiction book categories.
3) The excellent news is that two categories grew: adult trade fiction and young adult trade fiction. Some or quite a lot of this could be due to blockbusters in each category that will be difficult to replicate in 2013: 50 Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games. Trade publishing now represents 55% of the total book market, up from less than 50% a few years ago, which speaks in part to the emergence of ebooks but also the decline of the total pie as the other sectors shrink. It's probably a good news/bad news pie chart.
This is what I see in the 2012 Trade Adult Fiction category data:
2012 Trade Book Adult Fiction Total Dollars: $4.8b
Print books (all formats): $2.9b (62%)
Ebooks: $1.8b (38%)
When looking at the unit split, it was 40% ebooks and 60% print.
What this data cannot answer is how many people would have paid the higher paperback or hardcover price for a book if it was not available in ebook? (As in let's pretend ebooks don't exist.) Conversely, how many more people read the book and talked about it because they downloaded the ebook "before they forgot to buy the print book." How many new readers were created by ebooks for that title? In the case of 50 Shades, the book might very well have never existed had it not been self-published first as an ebook and the entire 2012 industry results and Random House would have suffered as a result.
I think common sense says there is a tradeoff at play here. But is readership of adult fiction and young adult fiction going up because of ebooks? Are more people reading books they would not have otherwise read? That answer must be yes.
If someone knows what adding the self-publishing units and dollars into this mix looks like I would be very interested in knowing. For instance, of all the books sold in 2012, how many came from the publishers covered in the AAP/BISG report and how many came from self-publishing programs? (NPD retail data, for instance, typically says: this data represents 91% of all cash register rings made via our measured retailers.) I realize this data for fiction alone is probably not available.
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-- Caleb Mason
Many music-lovers believe that Beethoven's music and those composers who followed during the great Romantic Era would not have existed without destiny's timely intervention, in the form of the iron sounding board added to the wooden piano forte frame.
The famous piano-maker Broadwoods made their last harpischord in 1793 and in 1808 introduced bracing bars of metal to support the wooden frame. Other engineering improvements followed and the art of the piano and musical composition was forever changed.
This interplay of new technology and artistic development is a fascinating one and I believe we are living in a similar time for books. These watershed time periods present many challenges and opportunities for the authors and composers and I would like to share some of what I have learned so far while editing manuscripts for my company Publerati.
This challenge is especially difficult for publishers originating content headed for print and ebook formats simultaneously. The author and publisher maintain control over their work in print because the reader cannot adjust font sizes, for example. The print text is not flowable. I witnessed a similar challenge when working for a map publisher, who had many exciting new user-experiences heading out the door digitally, while still needing to update and publish static paper atlases. For those managing this giant layered map data soup, aspirin and vodka were always on hand.
Because I can enlarge the type on ebooks, I am much more aware of punctuation. Punctuation, like a good waiter, should work efficiently in the background. (Hey: how's everything tasting Mister!) Full colons shout and wave at you in 24-point size in a novel. Em-dashes, given their larger size, work better if a connecting mechanism is truly needed but sometimes all this "punctuation intrusion" into the uninterrupted dream of reading is an indication further rewriting is needed.
Another example is the difficulty ebook conversion processes have with certain combinations of punctuation. "Everything was going well until my bi-polar wife Audrey screamed at the neighbor's son 'Get out of here or I'll gut you like a pig'!" That ending '!" trifecta is likely to set off machine-driven havoc on e-readers. So I would rework the sentence, probably getting rid of the exclamation mark as the first easiest solution. And the author might want to bump off Audrey.
So what to do? I think any editor working on a manuscript heading for simultanous print and ebook production needs to be sure to pay attention to what happens on the ebook, which means looking long and hard at the use of punctuation. This in turn, could lead to better writing via rewrites, which is a desirable outcome for the work in all formats.
Related to the above is to be sure to proof the book on ereaders in EPUB and mobi formats before simply releasing to the public unchecked. Assume those reading on ebooks will enlarge the fonts. Acknowledge you are giving up some control so write and edit to that new user experience where possible while taking care of print readers as well. I have found that when I go from "final" manuscript to first ebook proof I notice further edits that I cannot believe we all missed. I attribute this to the challenge of "state-specific memory," the reason you can recall your wife's phone number on your work phone but not on the phone in the next office.
Being able to change the context of the editing experience after staring at the same pages for so long and over so much time, (oftentimes sitting at the same desk staring at the same screen or printout), simply by injecting an ereader proof as a pre-publication tool, is a great development for book editing. Quite possibly similar to how a modern composer can play his work on a computer and revise before hearing for the first time at a live performance, which is what the 19th-century composers had to do, so they made their changes oftentimes in horror after that first embarrassing performance. Edward MacDowell once said he much preferred writing piano sonatas to symphonies because he could hear them right away fully under his control, literally at his fingertips.
I think the ebook proof is a better next proofing stage than the bound galley, which does bring the work closer to a print book but does not allow for the full editing power available on an ereader. For instance, once the proof is on the ereader, you can select any word to make sure it is spelled correctly or jump to the Internet by highlighting an historical character's name spelling, and in the process discover other fact-checking errors you and the author missed by being able to dive deeper.
Back to Beethoven. Instrument evolution for books will surely cause the artform to evolve as well. Some will gladly continue playing their piano fortes and harpischords for a welcoming audience. Others will head out onto the bleeding edge and quite possibly replace many forms of books with something completely new. Maybe Facebook and Google have already done so. The information we once got from books is quickly being replaced by the Internet, which is making life so difficult for education and non-fiction publishing.
I happen to believe the novel will survive as a sustainable art form, similar to the sonata. Personally, I am interested in fiction and the challenges of writing and editing fiction, which is why I started a company that only publishes this genre. But I also figure I am being near-sighted and fiction will change in unforeseen ways in the future. Especially when read by our relatives, the Borgs. (Not Bjorn. His grandson Cy.)
As always, I welcome your thoughts and hope you will hit the Share button below and share where you feel appropriate.
-- Caleb Mason
I recently made myself a promise to remain silent unless I had something positive to say. Anyone who knows me knows this is not a personal strength but I want you to understand I am working on it. I walked around the recent Book Expo (Print Book?) Show feeling like Rip Van Winkle passing through an industry that continues to operate in the same ways as 125 years ago, and just smiled and winked at the many ghosts passing down the aisles.
But this news today from Barnes & Noble brings me back to my chief concern for the future of print book publishing, and especially the authors to be impacted, which is their announced ongoing poor retail store performance.
As reported by Reuters: "The picture was also bleak in its retail business, consisting of its 675 bookstores and accounting for two-thirds of sales. Sales at stores open at least 15 months fell 8.8 percent last quarter. Barnes & Noble expects retail sales to be down by a high single digit percentage in its new fiscal year."
You see it is all a house of cards and I lived through this during the decline of print photography and see so many parallels I would feel remiss for not sharing them even if they fall upon denying ears. The parallels are these:
1) The core print retail business erodes much faster than the internal denial plans for, with too-rosy financial assumptions (the people driving the bus understandably want to stay employed) proving to have been far too optimistic when viewed in hindsight. That escalating erosion plays hand in hand with:
2) You cannot continue to invest in new competitive digital areas like the Nook without a funding base, so both the new and the old are failing in tandem. I witnessed this working for Konica in the 1990s and also watched it happen at Poloroid, Kodak, and others. What these giants had in common were huge investments with mega-retailers to push through huge volumes, via expensive multi-year contracts. And also huge investments in R&D digital image capture, edit, and share product ideas (e.g., cameras/phones, photo software, and send/storage).
3) This major retail erosion is truly bad news for the publishing Big Six in my view, who have built publishing models scaled on these superstore retail volumes. Increased royalty advances, larger print runs...all made possible by widespread retail presence through B&N and Borders (gone). The current consolidation is similar to what happened in the photo industry, when Konica merged with Minolta (and eventually wisely got out of consumer photo altogether). Sony also exited as did others. The new growth came from new players. The industry survivors rapidly downsized themselves to new smaller niche market segments (e.g., Nikon). And one of the world's longest-standing, most-prized brands -- Kodak -- was brought to their knees. Impossible people thought.
So if you are a major publisher, with all those newly combined overheads and impending staff reductions, how do you make it work as your core retail business dries up? I do not pretend to have answers but based on what I saw in other industries forever altered by the digital revolution, would suggest that they need to take their best and brightest and put them to work with the West Coast best and brightest in launching new brands using new business models. Or buy new brands while they still have cash. The good news is the food will still be served, but it will be on a new plate, as Douglas Adams famously said over a decade ago.
And if I were B&N? I would be working hard and fast on a new store-within-store branded retail concept to go into supermarkets and mass merchants while the brand still has value. A combination of bestsellers and print-on-demand from a new wave of cheaper faster machines. This is what Fuji did in the photo business to stay afloat. Today, their self-service photo stations are everywhere from Walmart to Walgreens to Kroger. Kodak once had that space locked up but Fuji out-innovated them.
The good news in all this? The sooner we get through the painful transition, the faster the new jobs can be created. But sadly they will not be the same people, many of whom look like they are over sixty based on what I saw at Book Expo. The twenty-somethings will continue driving major new changes in the decades to come. I doubt there are many former Kodak people working at Facebook or Apple in the new world of consumer photo we all enjoy so much today. What happens to all the good "old" people is truly the saddest part of these disruptive changes and I sincerely hope they can manage a soft landing.
I promise...my next post will be extra bubbly to make up for this Debbie-Downer one.
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-- Caleb Mason, Publerati
What is the biggest problem digital content solves, in books, photos, texting?
And what does digital sharing supplant?
Old-fashioned print. Photos in shoe boxes. Books in the mail. Checks in the mail. The snail mail itself.
How much have we really mourned these “losses” in recent years?
Do you miss mailing photos to Grandma? (Put that tablet down I'm talking to you Mrs. Facebook.)
Do you miss requesting and waiting for a AAA TripTik to arrive in the mail? ("Can't go dear, TripTik not here yet." Divorce.)
Do you miss licking ten envelopes a week to pay bills? (How many have died needlessly!)
Do you miss mailing books as birthday presents? (All that time lost in long hopeless lines.)
The point is this. Digital does supplant print because it offers so much more. Print does not go fully away, but it does find a new much lower level of usage from where it was before digital became widespread. (Let us hope this happens to printed catalog mailings soon.)
So if digital enables sharing, then let’s build new business models that encourage sharing.
Which is why Publerati shares our ebooks freely for use in developing nations and also believes in the power of expanding literacy using ebooks and e-readers provided by sharing of funds. One person pays, another person gains access.
Remember the kids who would never share? They don’t work at Publerati.
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