How print beat digital in the book world

If the media industry needed proof that it moved too quickly to devalue its print products on the way to chasing digital audiences, the book industry has been making a convincing case in the last few years. The rise of print book sales and decline in e-books in 2015 was no accident. Last year, the trend continued, and self-publishing in electronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in previous years.

Last year, the unit sales of printed books in the United States increased by 3.3 per cent. That's not unusual, except that the publishing industry didn't produce any runaway bestsellers such as 2015's The Girl On The Train, and only a handful of books, mostly from previous years, sold more than one million copies. The industry made up that deficiency by selling more non-fiction books. That's an indication of book publishers' overall health: They are flexible and versatile.

In dollar terms, hardback and paperback books were both headed for solid growth in the first eight months of last year, while e-books appeared destined for an even bigger decline than the 14 per cent drop registered in 2015, according to the most recent data released by the Association of American Publishers. If traditional book publishers accepted that the digital revolution meant a total overhaul of their business - the way the music and media industries have largely done - they would be locked in the same race to the bottom that those two industries have faced. The ease of digital self-publishing and readers' sense that digital books should be cheaper than paper ones have resulted in growing unit sales but falling revenues - much like how the audiences of major news media have snowballed since the turn of the century without a concurrent growth in revenue.

On the digital side of book publishing, this "death spiral" is not only evident in the US but also in more traditional markets, such as Germany. Book publishers also learnt to be cut-throat competitors. Publishers can try to prop up e-book prices by driving a hard bargain with electronic retailers, primarily Amazon. And they may have also succeeded in pushing the digital retail giant to shift the attention of its users from self-published books to those by professional publishers.

They cannot, however, explain to readers why an e-book - which is clearly cheaper to produce and, let's face it, not as pleasant to read - should cost about as much as a paper one. Even in the US, the most mature e-book market in the world, printed books are far more popular. Last autumn, Pew Research found that 65 per cent of Americans had read a paper book in the past 12 months, while only 28 per cent had read an e-book. The popularity of both formats has been steady since 2014, thanks to older consumers who refuse to leave print behind and younger consumers who seek a more analog lifestyle. Reading a paper book - or listening to vinyl records - is a statement, a human being's answer to being increasingly surrounded, and now even threatened, by machines.

Book publishers have kept their paper-based operations and helped their physical distribution networks stay alive by charging low wholesale prices. They have also maintained a time gap between the paper and digital releases of important books. People seeking a traditional experience have always been able to find it, and they were rewarded for it by being the first to read the industry's best offerings. The printed-book ecosystem survived the tech revolution, and it no longer appears to be in danger from it.

Much of the news business fell victim to the tech hype that it helped create. News publishers got sucked into the death spiral and were tricked into offering their products free of charge, something they are still in the painful process of overcoming. They bought into the idea that anyone could produce what their customers were paying for when they should have held out the way book publishers did. After all, self-published authors haven't killed off Random House and other big industry players, and bloggers and free websites wouldn't have killed old media companies. Publishers just needed to be more persistent and inventive about selling them.

Of course, the news media had an advertising revenue dependence that cheaper digital ads couldn't feed. Book publishers didn't have that problem. But it's the media's own fault for not trusting readers to pay for good content. Now, the best of them are correcting this mistake.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'How print beat digital in the book world'. Print Edition | Subscribe