Will electronic print kill physical print? In a word, no. In a few more words, no, but it will change it. In a lot of words we have my blogpost.
I want to get into how ebooks and other electronic publishing will change libraries (but not kill them), but the discussion of electronic vs physical print is too much for a mere digression.
There are a lot of advantages to electronic publications. You can carry huge quantities easily. Since electronic print does not require ink, paper, packing material, shipping carriers, or warehouses, AND since there are no excess prints on any run, the per item cost is significantly cheaper. However, there are two places e-printing loses to p-printing: some formats, and end-user cost. Yeah, that last seems to contradict an advantage, but I’m going to make you wait a minute and start with format.
There are types of books for which e-printing fails. In fact there’s a particular industry for which the inroads will be minimal which demonstrates the primary issue. I’m speaking of children’s books, and particularly the 0-6 year old books. Green Eggs and Ham, Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, and the Very Hungry Caterpillar are not going to do well as electronics in the hands of the five year old. (As you can see by the link to HHFT this can be bypassed, but we’re speaking of reading skills.) Children don’t have the fine motor skills needed to properly manage most electronic devices. It’s hard to ‘share a book’ with e-print. Pictures turn out to be critical in the earlier learning process. These all contribute to the result that while you may (and in fact will) be able to find electronic print children’s books, the physical side will remain strong. Other areas where e-printing will fail to shut down the other print will be anywhere large display areas are preferred. Art display books and atlases come to mind. (Not the road atlas – that’s pretty well killed between GPS and the online mapping places. No, I’m speaking of special atlases such as the Atlas of the Civil War. Sometimes you have to see the area to get an effective grasp of the situation.
In fairness there are places where e-printing will pretty well kill physical. One of these is the University Press, and another is the textbook industry. This isn’t really a digression. I brought these up to lead to the second reason e-print won’t kill p-print; end-user cost.
I need to caveat before I go on. I’m going to be digressing in a bit, and that digression will show that this is not a locked in reason. It is, however, a strong one. See, while the books themselves will be cheap, the readers… aren’t.
The Kindle won’t take over the world for the simplest of reasons – US$400 for a device that will last (estimated, normal tech life) five years. Sure, that’s three or four college textbooks. It’s maybe a dozen professional manuals. At a nominal US$9 per paperback, it’s well over 40 casual fiction books. For the average purchaser of such books who goes through a book or two a week, that’s six months to a year ON TOP OF the books themselves. I have to buy that many books just to break even.
Now, that doesn’t seem a lot to most of the folk saying e will kill p. Thing is, most of those people fall into two categories. They’re either fairly wealthy (making in excess of 80,000 per year, ie in the top 15% of households in the US) or they’re students. To balance this, that forms about half the market for these books – but there is still that half. As long as the readers are so expensive, that up front cost for a device that in itself provides nothing is, well, it’s a barrier to enough people that keeping the printing plants running still makes money.
I said I’d be digressing as I always do, and further that I’d be putting up a bit of a counterpoint to the second. Let me open by noting I’m still job hunting. I tried to get some work using the following as a sample marketing precis, but can’t seem to get the people who decide to listen. So I’ll sacrifice this one in the interest of making a more complete post.
In simple summary: Cut the Paper with Gillette. King Camp Gillette made the insightful statement, “Give away the razor and sell the blades.” On this insight he made Gillette THE razor company of the world. Or so it was until the disposable razor made the two inseparable. On this insight rests the plan.
A publisher needs to find (or design and have built) a CHEAP reader. The Kindle is marvelous – weighs comfortably, reads well, and the display is magnificent. At $400 (well, it’s down to $360) however, it’s too expensive. The publisher needs to find a display that’s almost as large as a paperback. Add a very basic set of buttons. Eschew (for now) the bells and whistles (probably including wireless) of the Kindle, and accept a display that was ‘pretty good’ five years ago. The goal is to have a device that will hold at least ten (more is a lot better) nominally average paperback books yet costs less than US$50 to produce. I’d go for less than US$20 if I could but am not certain that can be reached.
Make this reader a loss leader. Give it away when a buyer purchases a certain amount of books. Alternately, sell it for production cost AND allow the purchaser to load the purchase price (sorta) worth of books of choice onto it. If the publisher is Harlequin Enterprises (for one example) make the ‘certain amount’ six romance novels. Yes, I know that’s only about $36. The intent is not to make money today. It’s to make money tomorrow. e-print costs the publisher less in so many ways it’s not funny, and genre fiction is probably the major place where e-print WILL (at least mostly) kill p-print. I said if Harlequin – the other side of the coin (say, West Law just tossing in one per order on request is easily managed. sigh – Yes, law-books are another place, like children’s books, where print will last for a long, long time.
Yes, I know the fear of “OMG, they’ll just order a bunch and undercut us.” It shouldn’t be a fear. The profit is in the books, and the sooner you can sell ton-lots to most of the potential readers, the sooner you can cut your frustrating old tech – if you want.
In the long run, I expect eprint to replace pprint in some areas: genre fiction; textbooks; and many professional journals being among the list. At the same time there are areas for which eprint is the worse option.
There’s also a threshhold issue, whereby a large portion of the potential e-book population cannot afford the necessary technology to take advantage of that option, and so by stopping pprint the publishers cut total sales. Sooner or later that will be bridged – either by clever marketing or by older readers becoming common while “no longer cutting edge” yet still usable in sufficient quantities as to be available to the masses, either works. As a third possibility, it’s likely that smartphones with their larger display screens will gradually be copied and available to the lower markets. That route is slightly between the previous two options. I guess the question for that part is simply who ends up getting that slice of money, and more important gets to dictate what standards e-publishing follows.