Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 11: October 2009


Writing about Reading 4

Much as I’d love to proclaim the death of “death of,” that’s not going to happen any time soon. It’s time to consider some fairly recent death-of-books discussions, as well as some that are close neighbors of such doomcrying. (There’s a bunch more stuff on related deaths—print in general, newspapers, magazines—but that’s for another day, maybe in a different feature.) I try to take these commentaries seriously. Really I do.

One thing I see in some of the items included in this section is confusion among several different things—or perhaps unwarranted generalizations from one situation to a set of different situations:

·         Death of traditional big-publisher model: Some people argue that the traditional big-publisher publishing model (usually called “book publishing,” but really talking about the small number of very large publishers that forms the AAP model of publishing) has played itself out. That model can be boiled down to overpaying for some “big ticket” books, printing those books by the millions, and hoping to make enough profit from those to pay back advances and printing costs a larger group of “midlist” books that might sell in the tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands). That model might be played out—but it’s not even the whole of contemporary publishing, and has nothing to do with the death of books or the death of print books.

·         Death of print textbooks: Some people argue that print textbooks will and must be replaced by digital texts—and soon. I believe it would be desirable for digital texts to replace most print textbooks, for a variety of reasons; I’ve said for many years that this is the most reasonable way to achieve a multibillion-dollar ebook market. The idea that digital textbooks mean the end of all print books, however, only works if you make one of two odd assumptions: that the only encounter kids have with reading is in the classroom, or that textbooks are somehow linchpins of print publishing.

·         Death of traditional print runs: Tens of thousands of small publishers manage to avoid the feast-and-famine big publisher method by doing short print runs—but you could argue that trying to project the first two years’ sales of a book, and printing that many copies in advance, is a doomed business model in any case. I don’t know whether or not that’s true—but with print on demand technology, if it is true, it neither means doom for print books or, necessarily, for physical bookstores (or even for traditional publishers, although it would surely change how they operate).

·         Death of print books: None of the above implies this one—and admittedly, I regard this one as extremely unlikely—even if “death” is narrowed to something similar to vinyl recordings, that is, “reduction to a niche market.” Here’s the thing: even if it happened, that wouldn’t inherently mean the end of book reading (where “book” means “long-form primarily textual medium”).

Bye Bye Books?

Start with a March 23, 2009 news item in Inside Higher Ed—and a March 25, 2009 commentary on the item by Rhonda Gonzales on @ the library ( The item reports that the University of Michigan Press announced a shift from “being primarily a traditional print operation to one that is primarily digital.” The title? “Farewell to the printed monograph.” Really?

·         Michigan expects that by 2011, most of the monographs published each year will appear in digital editions. “Readers will still be able to use print-on-demand systems to produce versions that can be held in their hands, but the press will consider the digital monograph the norm.”

·         The move comes because Michigan has concluded that the current model for scholarly monographs—a specialized and traditionally low-sales part of the book industry—is broken. The plan is to shift budget from printing and distribution to additional peer review and other unchanged costs—and to publish more (digital) monographs. “Significantly, they said, the press would no longer have to reject books deemed worthy from a scholarly perspective, but viewed as unable to sell.”

The move itself may be not only rational but also a good thing all around. After all, libraries and others will still have printed monographs when they want them—they’ll just be produced as purchased, rather than based on hopeful estimates of future demands. So the article title is wrong on its face, as well as being a fairly abrupt generalization from an experiment by one university press for most of its scholarly monographs. “Michigan plans shift to downloads and print-on-demand for low-demand scholarly monographs” makes a terrible headline, though.

Consider some of the comments by informed readers who applaud Michigan’s decision. Thomas Bacher of the University of Akron Press says “Other university presses will follow this route” and suggests that “University presses will still advance culture and print traditional titles as regional publishers.” (“Joe Editor” has a long screed—but one that suggests he didn’t bother reading the story itself.) An emeritus dean notes something not covered in the story: the Michigan press is becoming a unit of the University Library, “a logical move.” A copy editor instantly assumes massive plagiarism by students and asserts that a digital publication from a university press “does not and will probably will [sic] never carry the prestige of paper publishing.” (I don’t usually [sic] online writing, but when it’s from a copy editor…) Lots of folks use the article as an excuse to moan about other things entirely. One wholly anonymous poster offered an excellent comment—but one that applies to the article’s headline and some other comments, not to Michigan’s decision:

Why must we treat these opportunities as all-or-nothing propositions (“paper will lose”)? Paper continues to have benefits for certain types of publications, and electronic publication will doubtless prove more beneficial for other types. It makes sense for the OED to be electronic for quick searching, but why would I ever want to read an art history textbook on a Kindle, limited both by screen size and grayscale (or online with the stunted web-safe color palette)? Let’s think about expanding the universe of publishing and determining what path makes the most sense for different types of publications instead of hubristic proclamations about the death of one technology or another.

I’m with anonymous on this one. So, I believe, is the University of Michigan Press—as evidenced by the ten (or so) scholarly monographs each year that it expects to continue to produce as (preprinted) print editions.

Rhonda Gonzales, dean of the library at Colorado State University-Pueblo, did a followup post (with the same title as the article) noting “a fair bit of sadness. And a little skepticism” and raising two specific concerns. The first, in full:

I haven’t met anyone yet who actually prefers to read an entire monograph on a computer screen, Kindles notwithstanding. Sure, there are good reasons why a Kindle or other similar device is useful; like when traveling or reading in bed at night. And yes, electronic texts are useful for adaptive technology and also for full-text searching. But for regular cover to cover reading of a monograph, given the choice, most of our patrons have indicated they still prefer print.

The appropriate answer, I suspect, is that anyone desiring a print monograph can have one—and the price of a PoD monograph shouldn’t be all that much higher than the price of a very short run traditional monograph. The other concern is cost—specifically, for the site licensing scheme Michigan suggests. It’s a good discussion but out of scope for this essay.

In July 2009, Roy Tennant posted “Print is SO not dead” after running across the Print is Dead website. One response pointed to an article about another Michigan initiative, in which the library is offering on-demand copies of public domain books through BookSurge. He notes that Michigan is successfully selling print copies of books that are available online for free. “So let’s just stop saying “print is dead” and start talking about what we will increasingly have—a mixed environment of print and digital, and an increased ability to pick the format that you want for a given need.” Sounds about right.

Will digital kill print?

That’s the question Roy Tennant poses in an April 6, 2009 post at his Digital Libraries blog (at Library Journal). His assumption has always been the same as mine—even assuming that long narrative text in digital form sometimes becomes the norm: “I’ve long said that digital will kill print similar to the way that TV killed radio. That is, it didn’t. It changed it irrevocably, but it didn’t kill it.”

But although I’ve long held the position that digital books would not completely supplant print books, so far I’ve had precious little evidence that this would be the case. Sure, I think it’s fairly obvious that there are some categories of print books that are fairly safe, such as coffee table books and board books. I mean, how many people want to give a $300 digital device to a toddler on which to teethe? But beyond some clear categories it has been difficult to defend my position that digital books would add to the mix, rather than completely supplanting what came before.

Then comes a post from Chris Bourg at Stanford on how undergrads—today’s undergrads, “digital natives” by generational labels—use digital and print books. Bourg summaries survey results as follows:

It is a nice mix of students who are taking advantage of the full-text indexing to help them make efficient use of the hard copies of books they checked out, and students who are using books available in full-text on Google Books as a back-up when they can’t get the hard copy.

Fears that students would abandon libraries and library collections in favor of whatever they could find online don’t seem to be coming to fruition here. Students seem to be using Google Books to supplement their library research.

Tennant concludes from this that libraries ought to avoid getting rid of print collections in the “digital future”—at least if they’re serious about serving the needs of users, “which continue to be diverse and sometimes surprising to us.”

But it’s only fair to balance real-world evidence that “digital natives” still use books with the kind of “evidence” Wired does so well. Thus, “Five technologies our kids won’t even recognize” by Charlie Sorrel appeared May 6, 2009 in Wired’s Gadget Lab. Sorrel knows that “tech rolls in and out of fashion” (for him, presumably, radio did disappear once TV entered the scene). His first of five is the VCR, where his universal evidence (a sample of one) is that nobody’s taped a TV show in years. (I would tell Sorrel that we still use our S-VHS recorder to time-shift some shows, but he clearly believes he knows the answer to “Does anybody out there still have a video under their TV?” Still, he’s right in the long term—VCRs are on the way out, particularly given the shift to digital TV, which analog VCRs can’t record.) But it’s the second one that’s particularly amusing:


This one will take a while, but paper books will eventually be the written equivalent of the vinyl record—loved, collected and sold in small numbers, but really just a niche market. The e-reader isn’t nearly ready enough yet, but if the Kindle Magnum (or DX, or whatever) makes its way into schools and colleges, the formative experience of reading will be electronic, not paper, and that will be the beginning of the end.

See? Isn’t that simple? One could raise a few quibbles—for example, the importance of reading at home and public libraries to “the formative experience of reading” and the unlikelihood that ereaders will entirely take over classrooms in time for “our kids”—not “our great-grandchildren” but “our kids”—to not recognize books because they’ve never read one. That isn’t the Wired way, however. (The other three: handwritten letters, newspapers and “the desktop PC.” Oh, and Sorrel believes cellphones will be “the only computer most people will need.” In, apparently, a very few years.)

Oddly enough, given the technophilia of most visitors to Wired’s website, all but one commenter disagreed with Sorrel on books (and other things)—and the one exception was remarkable enough to quote in full:

More people owned VCR’s than read books. The bound book is toast.

Huh? Apart from the first sentence probably being wrong, the analogy makes no sense. But then, neither does the article, given its title. (Yes, I know, it’s Wired; over-the-top digiphilia is the house style.)

On paper, Empty walls and Clutter

Three related posts—two by Tim Bray and one by Nicholas Carr. The first, On paper, appeared on February 26, 2009 ( 2009/02/25/On-Paper). In it, Bray celebrates a coffee-table book he just received but offers the kind of argument about the death of books that’s impossible to counter—because it’s a flat assertion:

[T]he future of anything on paper is obviously limited.

All you can do is say “You’re right” or “You’re wrong”—or, I suppose, argue over “limited.” “Obviously” isn’t evidence or argumentation. Bray’s really on about “dead trees,” and there we get into the issues of whether books come from old-growth timber (almost never), whether they need to be made from trees at all (no), and whether printed books make up a large percentage of paper and paperboard use (not really). But he does go on.

Newspapers? He thinks they may have a future—but “there’s not a single reason in the world that they need to be on paper. I’d much rather have something small and electric beside my toast and jam.” Now, how this translates to “the future of anything on paper”—for everyone, not just Tim Bray, is beyond me. But I’m not Tim Bray.

Bray proclaims himself “bookish” but says “books are starting to feel like artifacts of the past.” Again, that’s a statement—followed by “It seems that the only virtue of printed books the electronic readers won’t match is pure beauty.” Another statement, followed by his explanation of why the death of print is a “good thing,” involving the horrors of the forestry industry.

The consumption of the forests in the interests of printing disposable paperbacks and superseded-every-year textbooks and whatever newspapers become is neither defensible nor excusable, looking forward.

That may be true. How it leads to the sweeping “future of anything on paper is obviously limited” is unclear. But in any case what we have here is a personal dictum: Tim Bray wants to be done with paper, therefore paper is dead. (I should add that it is, of course, true that the future of stuff on paper is limited, since it’s not infinitely expandable. On that basis, the future of gasoline is much more limited, the future of organic agriculture is limited—and the future of life on earth is limited. So?)

The second post, Empty walls, is an odd one—partly because it views books and discs as “media” that occupy wall space in rooms. Bray wants to get rid of his discs (which he spells “disks” and uses “less” when he means “fewer,” but that’s a minor point) as part of feeling “increasingly crowded by possessions in general and media artifacts in general.” Speaking as part of a couple who’ve never been particularly acquisitive, I’d tell Bray there’s a solution to being crowded by possessions: don’t buy so much crap. I’m a bit less ready to equate books with CDs and DVDs as “media artifacts”—but I should note that we probably only have a few hundred books in our house, largely because we tend to borrow them from libraries.

After telling us how much he wants to get rid of his discs, he proceeds to books, which he expects to have available on some Kindle-equivalent:

Less Books · Why would you keep a book around, once you’d read it? I can think of three reasons: One, you might read it again. Two, others in the household might (a big one when you’ve got fast-growing kids). Three, because it’s beautiful. We try to use these criteria, but still have five walls in two rooms that are substantially covered by books.

How long till I do to the books what I’m now doing to the music? I have issues with the Kindle’s business model and control structure, but clearly it’s a signpost. As I wrote recently in On Paper, books, as we know them, are toast. Their future is as objets d’art and antiques, and this is a good thing.

This is all true because Tim Bray says so. (The rest of the post has a truly interesting prediction and projection: He believes “geek fashion” and “intellectual fashion” will move “from library to monastery”—with the height of good taste being “a mostly-empty room, brilliantly lit, the outside visible from inside.” He titles that section “A Monastic Cell.” It serves as a particularly useful reminder that Tim Bray is no more Everyman than I am.)

Then we get Carr’s response, “Clutter,” posted April 21, 2009 on Rough type. Carr applauds Bray’s desire to get rid of CDs—partly because, in Carr’s view, “The CD jewel case is the single worst technology ever invented by man.” Whew. Overstatement, maybe? In any case, irrelevant to this discussion. (Sidebar: Yes, I’ve ripped all of our CDs and recycled a lot of the jewelboxes, although I’ve kept the CDs and liner notes. I’m not that much of a Luddite…and the only CDs we listen to these days are mix CD-Rs I’ve burned from those ripped files.)

Carr admires Bray’s “dream” of shucking off material possessions, but…

But there’s a deep, perhaps even tragic, flaw in Bray’s thinking, at least when it comes to those books. He’s assuming that a book remains a book when its words are transferred from printed pages to a screen. But it doesn’t. A change in form is always, as well, a change in content. That is unavoidable, as history tells us over and over again. One reads an electronic book differently than one reads a printed book—just as one reads a printed book differently than one reads a scribal book and one reads a scribal book differently than one reads a scroll and one reads a scroll differently than one reads a clay tablet.

Carr quotes a portion of the Steven Johnson essay on changes in reading when you move to the screen (discussed in the August 2009 Cites & Insights) and adds this reading:

Whatever its charms, the online world is a world of clutter. It’s designed to be a world of clutter—of distractions and interruptions, of attention doled out by the thimbleful, of little loosely connected bits whirling in and out of consciousness. The irony in Bray’s vision of a bookless monastic cell is that it was the printed book itself that brought the ethic of the monastery—the ethic of deep attentiveness, of contemplativeness, of singlemindedness—to the general public…

When Tim Bray throws out his books, he may well have a neater, less dusty home. But he will not have reduced the clutter in his life, at least not in the life of his mind. He will have simply exchanged the physical clutter of books for the mental clutter of the web. He may discover, when he’s carried that last armload of books to the dumpster, that he’s emptied more than his walls.

Do I agree with Carr? I’m not sure…just as I’m not sure I buy the notion that reading from a well-designed digital device is inherently that different from reading a physical book. I’ve read too many observations of Kindle buyers who find themselves “lost in the text,” not thinking about the device in hand, to be convinced that reading on a sufficiently well-designed screen is fundamentally different. And Carr’s example is flawed: Ebook reading does not necessarily make books part of “the online world.” If you’re online while you’re reading, that’s by choice—and it’s a choice that’s not even available on some ebook devices.

The decline and fall of books

If Bray’s universalism from a sample of one and IHE’s overdramatic title are a bit much, this title—from the May 7, 2009 The Times—is way overboard. The tease: “Traditional bookshops are closing; vending machines are churning out novels; and e-books are the new paperbacks; so is this the final chapter for the book industry?”

Right off the bat, you have to ask: Which of those things does not belong? “Vending machines are churning out novels”—how, exactly, does that signal “the fall of books”? It could suggest some impact on one aspect of the traditional book industry (that is, large-quantity printing and distribution)—but that’s an entirely different issue.

Indeed, the first two paragraphs are about the Espresso Book Machine—hardly a “vending machine” but an in-store print-on-demand machine. One that produces, ahem, printed books. An odd way to signal the fall of books, what? Then there’s the Kindle—”yet another indication that the book industry could do with a new way of distributing and selling books.” And there’s a discussion of Amazon’s ability to handle a large range of small-selling books (many produced on demand).

What follows is a lot of text on the traditional business model of big publishers and the possibility that well-stocked bookshops might be replaced by Amazon and bookshops where most of the stock is available via print-on-demand. The final paragraph:

A Gutenberg-style revolution is not, on this evidence, expected in the next few months. But if you are a lover of well-stocked bookshops, then you should enjoy them while you can.

There’s a problem here—primarily with the title. The title has nothing to do with the story. “The decline and fall of well-stocked bookshops” might be more accurate, but less exciting. Simply put, increasing sales at Amazon, decentralization of book publishing and greater use of print-on-demand, including in-store book production, all speak to the ongoing health of books, not to a decline and fall.

The disembodied book

Claims that printed books are going away real soon now aren’t unique to my usual sources (the U.S., Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Here’s one from Germany—albeit in an English-language emagazine,

The tease says it straight up: “The age of the printed book is drawing to a close. But there’s no need to mourn its passing, says Jürgen Neffe.” Who’s Jürgen Neffe? “Author of a number of biographies.” What evidence does he provide? The usual: nothing—except the false claim that “sound and image” have already “dissolved digitally”:

Dissolved digitally like sound and image beforehand, limitlessly copyable, globally downloadable by the million with the click of a mouse, the book is entering the world of multimedia like its disembodied cousins from film, photography and music.

The medium of enlightenment is losing its message and probably some sense and sensibility along the way. Sooner or later bound piles of printed paper will be available only as luxury items in specialist shops, like vinyl records today. Even the most iron-willed bibliophiles won’t be able to get their hands on Gutenberg’s legacy in its current form. The collapse of the book industry, much as we mourn it, follows the logic of a long chain of bygone trades, crafts, manufacturing processes and business procedures.

The change is unstoppable, the only moot point is how long it will take to arrive. But we’re not talking generations

It’s inevitable because it’s unstoppable and, apparently, because (some) trades and crafts have been wholly superseded (although many others have not). This is a fairly typical extreme form of ahistoric commentary. (All emphasis in the original.)

Most of the rest of the 3,500-word commentary is a celebration of the book “freeing itself of its body” and becoming so much more in the process. Part of which is that old dream of people who don’t much care for text:

If books can soon be read on all imaginable gadgets that simultaneously display images, play audio and connect to the Internet and other devices, then it is only a matter of time before their authors start to make use of all this multimedia, to produce works that have no place in Gutenberg’s universe.

That’s right: It’s the all-dancing, all-singing, all-movie version of books. Plus, to be sure, clicking through boring old linear texts to get definitions, hear appropriate music, etc., etc. And, once again, it’s inevitable:

Whether “we” want this is as redundant a question as whether we wanted private TV channels or mobile phones or the Internet. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it never returns. Coming generations will not believe it could ever be contained. Like life itself, culture will crawl into every nook and cranny in an expression of its consciousness. The borders between the book and the rest of the media world will eventually dissipate as entirely as those between advertising and entertainment.

As you might expect, this would-be guru doesn’t care for e-ink readers because they “do little else than allow us to read books as we know them.” (Apparently, German mobile phones must be a whole lot heftier than ours—he says “every mobile phone has enough memory to store and allow you to read a thousand weighty tomes.” Since smartphones are still less than 20% of the mobile phone market, this seems, um, wrong.) And here’s what happens when you take such a blindered view of the past, present and future, sure of your Inevitabilities:

Applied to the book this question could soon be: what would we rather – that people read from monitors, or not at all?... Actually the question is not how people will read and write in the future, but whether they will write at all and how much and what?

Ah—then we get to what may be the author’s real message: That, since everything’s going digital any day now, and since that means it can and will be copied endlessly, we need state-financed newspapers and books—just as Germany apparently has state-financed radio, TV, film, theatre and art.

I could note other oddities in this article—e.g., the broad statement that “newspaper publishers in the USA are keen to distribute their own reading devices free of charge to their subscribers as a cost efficient alternative to printing and distributing their papers.” I must have missed this broad movement to provide free ereaders…

Maybe I should cut the writer some slack: He wrote the piece in German. Maybe he didn’t really write all those sweeping generalizations and erroneous readings of current history. Or maybe it’s just another “death of” article from someone who, in this case, apparently wants state subsidies for his biographies.

Reality changes more slowly than I like to think

Since I’ve been grumping about sensationalistic titles that misrepresent the content of the articles, it’s time to applaud a singularly good title—one in which the author, Mike Shatzkin, concludes that maybe, just maybe, he’s been a little overenthusiastic. (The piece appeared July 8, 2009 on The Idea Logical blog, which shows up in browser headings as The Shatzkin Files; Shatzkin is founder and CEO of The Idea Logical Company, active for decades in the bookselling and publishing industry—and a believer in “the transition to digital delivery of published material.” He also walks the talk: As he notes in a comment, “I have been reading ebooks for 10 years. I prefer them to printed books.”

He’s reporting on a panel at NYU as part of a summer publishing program, where he shared the stage with four others and spoke to several dozen “very attentive 20-somethings with a serious interest in publishing.” It sounds like a great panel. One publisher “spoke optimistically of a revival of book reading, as in printed ones.” A writer spoke about her self-publishing experience (and calls 1,500 copies a success—which I’d absolutely agree with). One speaker talked about print-on-demand. And one former editor talked about his new recipe-aggregation website and got lots of feedback by asking poll-type questions.

Then comes the fun part:

As the conversation evolved to a close, I realized I had a precious opportunity. Though I’m considered to be wildly (crazily?) forward-thinking in some circles, expecting print runs of books to nearly disappear in 20 years, for example, I am unabashedly conservative in others. For example, the idea of books as collaborative or social experiences leaves me cold and it really leaves me cold to think of interrupting good narrative reading to explore links and, particularly, to see video…. Maybe today’s generation would find it boring not to have a video interlude interrupt unbroken text. Well, with all these very smart Born Digitals in one room, I’d… ask!

So, with time running out, I got the indulgence of the organizers to ask the crowd a couple of questions. The first one was: “how many of you read ebooks?”

Two hands went up. Two.

The next question was not worth asking. But I sure got a dose of new information to ponder.

It’s important to note that the plural of anecdote is not data for this finding any more than it is for the “other side” (“my kid prefers ebooks, therefore all Born Digitals prefer ebooks”). But it is an anecdote involving somewhere between 50 and 100 people—and there’s the salutary note that it gave a firm believer in “going digital” reason to pause. (My take? Twenty years is a long time. I would be astonished if new print books aren’t still produced and sold in the hundreds of millions twenty years from now—but I wouldn’t want to bet on traditional print runs being a dominant or even major part of the business.)

What first appears to be a set of comments turns out to be one comment and a conversation between Shatzkin and the commenter. The commenter is another one who doesn’t read print books any more (me, therefore the world?) and feels that Shatzkin asked the wrong question. But then, this commenter also says that California’s odd little initiative toward digital textbooks (with the readers paid for how? with vouchers?) makes the transition to digital books in general a “done deal.” If he heard my opinion—that textbooks could, and possibly should, move to digital form without any serious effect on the rest of the print publishing market—he’d probably just dismiss me as someone who doesn’t get it.

Why is the book biz so scared?

That’s only part of the title of this August 14, 2009 Entertainment Weekly (or piece, and it’s not the primary part: The first is “Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’” This is a digression of sorts—about the peculiarities of “the book world,” which may endanger traditional publishing a whole lot more than ebooks do.

To wit: Publishers are worried that people will go online or into bookstores to buy Dan Brown’s book—”and they won’t buy anything else.” Some even argue that the no-doubt major hoohah around this book “will drown out media coverage of other books—and eat into sales of those books too.” I like Thom Geier’s comment:

It doesn’t take a Harvard symbologist to see that this is mostly sour grapes and a whole lot of hooey. It reminds me of the stink that publishers raised over the Harry Potter series, successfully persuading The New York Times and other outlets to demote the titles from their adult best-seller lists so that J.K. Rowling titles wouldn’t hog up so many slots. Why do we have to compete with a book that appeals to a youth-skewing mass audience, beyond the usual Starbucks-sipping B&N crowd?, the publishers asked. That just isn’t fair!...

Geier suggests that, for all but a handful of other books that might debut as #1 bestsellers, the Brown book will make no difference at all. Similarly, media attention for the Brown book is mostly attention that goes to mass-culture phenomena, not other books.

It’s the other way around, as Geier concludes, given that a lot of Brown buyers probably aren’t habitual book buyers: “It’s hard to see how a sudden swell of motivated book consumers is a bad thing. Even if only 5 percent of Symbol buyers pick up another book, isn’t that a good thing?” Commenters generally agreed, other than those too busy putting down Brown’s books.

The revenge of print

This piece by Eric Obenauf appeared in the July-August 2009 The Brooklyn Rail ( 2009/07/express/the-revenge-of-print). It’s a reminder that The Biz can be a dangerous place to be. Obenauf says,

Today, anyone involved in the business—from newspapers to magazines, from book publishers to advertisers—seems certain about the fate of the printed word. There is a widespread belief that is now accepted as nearly absolute: Print is being replaced by screens and in a generation or two will be obsolete.

This “widespread belief” could be right, I suppose; “a generation or two” is a long time—although if we use 15 years as a generation, then I expect to be alive for two more of them, and I definitely expect print to be around for the rest of my life. But I’m not in The Biz. Obenauf notes some counterindications:

·         Jacek Utko, an architect who became art director for several newspapers in former Soviet bloc nations, transformed the newspapers, and increased readership by anywhere from 29% to 100%.

·         Dave Eggers says print is alive and well and tries to provide evidence for that view.

Ah, but Obenauf is after something much more important—and offers insights that may show why some traditional print publishers appear to believe in (and welcome?) the death of print:

It is true that print is probably not sustainable at the current volume. For those who depend upon dollars tallied in spreadsheets to measure success (or even whether or not to initially accept a book for publication), the concept that there may be a cap to their print audience spells doom for the medium… However, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic: there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s say “print”—crudely defined as books, magazines and newspapers—is about a $100 billion industry in the U.S. at present. (I think that’s low, since I believe magazine and newspaper advertising revenue alone add up to $75 billion or so, and BISG figures for U.S. book publishing run to about $40 billion—but it’s a nice round number.) And let’s say that, given advertising issues and places where digital media really should replace print, the plausible market in, say, 2024 (one generation from now) is $50 billion in today’s dollars.

That’s a huge decline, and for quite a few newspapers, magazines and publishers, it might be the end of the line. But it would not be the end of print as a medium; it could even be the renascence of a more sensible set of individual media—e.g., does it really make long-term sense for big magazine publishers to mail me big, overstuffed, glossy monthlies where I’m not even paying $1 a copy towards the actual costs?

The next portion of the essay is intriguing and suggests that contemporary Big Publishing has a fatal flaw: Instead of existing to create books to inspire and inform culture, too much of Big Publishing works to meet immediate demands for hot-button topics.

For someone writing in New York City, another two paragraphs constitute a revelation—one that many of out in The Sticks (i.e., anywhere except New York) know but that seems to escape the New York group:

Some point out the ever-shrinking space allotted for book reviews in newspapers and magazines as further evidence of print’s rapid decline. There is always a big to-do when a major newspaper folds its stand-alone book review or incorporates the designated space within the pages of a more general section…

However, this is not in any way indicative of a popular lack of concern for books... Instead, it is a matter of book review sections not generating the advertising revenue necessary [to maintain them]…

The reason most metro dailies don’t have separate book review sections and that the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Books section (still a separate section) is six to eight tabloid pages, not eight to sixteen broadsheet pages is simple: New York publishers do little book advertising outside of New York publications, and without advertising, book review sections are unsustainable.

Obenauf would like to see a higher goal for publishers—a goal that is, I believe, foremost in the operations of most small and medium-sized publishers: “The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensible.” Then he comes to a real kicker, the “this club is too popular, so nobody comes here anymore” argument by oxymoron:

There is a stock response by some corporate publishers—followed by an eye-roll—that there are simply too many books being released. Technology has made it possible for anyone to become a publisher which has in turn created a virtual avalanche of books barraging consumers and leaving them shell-shocked and incapable of pulling the trigger on the purchase of a hardcover tell-all of addiction and abuse by a childhood television star. Or, at least not in as large of numbers as they had previously. Therefore, logic follows that this goes to enforce that print is dying and the end is nigh.

There are too many books. Therefore, books are dead. Gotcha. But this version peels away the oxymoron: There are too many different books, and they take away from blockbuster sales. The difference between AAP estimates of total publishing revenues and BISG estimates suggest to me that, if the big publishers simply disappeared overnight—or put all their energy into ebooks—there would be a healthy and wildly diverse print book publishing industry in the U.S., one with sales in a comfortable eleven-digit range (that is, more than $10 billion). Obenauf sees an interesting possibility:

I believe that book publishing will re-generate in the near-future into two separate models: the corporate model, which strives to attain the widest possible “readership” in as short of a time-span as possible by use of electronic devices, interaction, and gimmicks; and the print model, sustained by independent, university, and re-branded imprints of large houses, that believe as Eggers, in reading as a “beautiful rich tactile experience,” and who are satisfied with a book selling five thousand copies.

Is corporate book publishing dead? Probably not—but maybe it needs a good shaking up. Does a possible death of that best-seller model mean the death of print? Perhaps it’s the other way around. Read the whole article; it’s excellent.

A sidenote here about a post (or set of posts) that I’m not discussing—namely “Bits of destruction hit the book publishing business” on ReadWriteWeb. I’m leaving it out partly because it’s about “the biz”—the current version of corporate book publishing—and partly because it’s probably not complete. The series does include interesting analysis and certainly doesn’t come to any sort of “books are dead” conclusion; quite the contrary.


Let’s close with an oddity—one of my posts from Walt at random and a commentary on that post on A blog around the clock. Neither was primarily about the death of print or books, but both touch on it. My post—”Five years on”—appeared July 29, 2009 and was inspired by my awareness that the 250-movie pack of mysteries on DVD I was starting to watch would probably be finished (that is, I’d finish watching it) in around five years. And that I’d seen lots of projections that within five years, DVD would be dead, books would be dead, what have you would be dead.

So, since I’m not much for making prognostications but am acutely aware that most things just don’t move that fast, I offered my own quick response:

If you believe some pundits, physical media will all be gone in five years—we’ll rely on that great digital jukebox in the sky for everything, when and as we need it. I don’t buy that for a minute. For a variety of reasons, I firmly believe that many of us will be buying physical media five years from now, enough to make for healthy industries.

On a medium-by-medium basis? I’m deliberately not a futurist, but here’s my best guess:

Ø  Music: Even though CDs have already reached the 25-year mark (over the history of recorded music, a given medium has typically been dominant for about 25 years), they still represent the majority of music sales (about 2/3), despite widespread assumptions that CDs are already dead. There are two reasons for that: First, every DVD player is also a CD player; second, no replacement physical medium has succeeded (and those that have been attempted were, by and large, CD-equivalents). I’d bet that there will still be a multibillion-dollar (per year) CD industry five years from now, although it will probably be considerably smaller than today’s industry. But I’ll also bet that vinyl will still be with us five years from now, even though I’m not among the “digitization destroys music” brigade. (Not even close: The day we purchased our first CDs was a bit after the day we purchased our last LPs.)

Ø  Films & video: I’m nearly 100% certain that there will still be a large (that is, multibillion$) commercial market for DVDs five years from now—and almost certainly a decade from now. Unlike music, the infrastructure for a truly workable universal video jukebox isn’t in place—and, as with music, there are millions of us who actually prefer a physical object. I’m about 90% certain that Blu-ray Disc will also be a multibillion$ market five years from now. Will Blu-ray become dominant over DVD? Short of a forced conversion, I think it’s unlikely—not because there’s anything wrong with Blu-ray but because most people either don’t notice the difference or don’t care about the difference. (By all accounts, a very large percentage of people who own HDTVs never actually watch high-definition TV. Those people aren’t going to pay $1 more for a Blu-ray version, much less $5 more.) I think Blu-ray will do just fine, but for some people, anything short of market domination is a failure, in which case I think Blu-ray will fail.

Ø  Print magazines: Not going anywhere. Of course some are failing. Some always fail, and recessions aren’t great times to start magazines. It’s a tough time to start Yet Another Business Magazine (sorry, Portfolio); it’s a tough time to start Yet Another Any Sort of Magazine. I’ll still be subscribing to print magazines five years from now and ten years from now, and probably still paying absurdly low prices for some of them.

Ø  Print books: Do I even need to discuss this one? Unless you believe that an 0.2% dip in sales in the midst of the worst recession in decades means Books Are Doomed, there’s really no sensible discussion here. I hope ebooks, done right, take a few $billion of the book market where ebooks do it better—but I don’t happen to believe that ebooks are likely to “do it better” for most long-form narrative fiction and nonfiction in my lifetime, much less the next decade. (I plan to be around three more decades, with luck, and my family history suggests that’s on the short side.)

Ø  Print newspapers: I believe that hundreds of small and medium-sized print newspapers will still be around five and ten years from now; they’ve generally been doing better than the huge metro dailies. I hope that the better metro dailies will still be around—but I’m a little less sanguine. (Will we renew the San Francisco Chronicle next year at more than $400 a year? Hard to say...but I’d sure miss it, even though most content is available at SFGate.)

So, there it is: My personal take on what I think’s likely as regards physical media. I know some hotshot futurists say Everything’s Going Digital Real Soon Now. I also know the history of new and old media—and the wonders of DRM aren’t really helping. (Yes, Amazon probably did what it had to—but it also waved a Big Red Flag about the mutability of that big celestial jukebox. The book you “purchased” yesterday may or may not be the book you’re reading today...)

I could be wrong about any of these. I could be wrong about all of them—but I’d be very surprised…

On August 2, 2009, “The perils of predictions: Future of physical media” appeared on A blog around the clock, a direct “riff off of” my post (as the blogger says within the post). His overall comment on my post: “He takes a cautious, conservative tack there, for the most part. I am supposed to be the wide-eyed digi-evangelist around here, but I was nodding along and, surprising to me, agreeing with much of what he wrote.” He notes his own approach to questions requiring predictions (trying to duck specifics and look at the needed order of events, while avoiding actual numbers). If pressed, he’ll suggest things that might happen “pretty soon” (10 months to 10 years), “within our lifetimes” (10 to 100 years) and “in the far future” (25 to 1,000 years). He thinks I “unnecessarily hampered” myself by using a strict five-year measure—but, of course, I was deliberately looking at what I think of as the short term. As he notes, social change doesn’t happen as fast as technological change, and—a key point, one I wish more pundits would keep in mind—that the “disappearance of existing technologies…is the domain of societal change, not technological.”

He also offers four useful considerations:

·         New media technology hits first in big cities in the developed world—ignoring billions of people in more rural areas as well as the whole developing/undeveloped world.

·         Changes in technology depend on existing infrastructures—in a complex manner. Thus, if landlines will “die,” it will happen faster in developing nations because they don’t have fully-developed landline systems

·         People adopt new technologies at different rates—and traditionalists and fans of old tech stay around for a long time.

·         If producers of an older technology have any sense, they adopt to new niches. “Horse breeding is still a multi-billion dollar business.”

He also offers his takes on my specifics and, other than Blu-ray (which he thinks will be essentially dead and I think will be healthy but not dominant), there’s not much disagreement. And as far as “Digital Natives” spelling any near-term doom for print books, he’s more emphatic than I might be: “We have a long way to go before we have something that new generations will adopt as ‘their’ technology.”

Other than the Blu-ray question (where my confidence level in my own take is not terribly high), the only real disagreement here is whether I “unnecessarily hampered” myself by using a specific date. I don’t think so—because what I was commenting on was the feverish “death of X” predictions, most of which have short time horizons.

I was bemused by one comment—another one of those “nobody goes to that club; it’s too popular” items. This commenter thinks print books are going to disappear “sooner rather than later” in part because book lovers own too many books and can’t cope with the sheer bulk. (Ever hear of the public library? I read a fair number of books, now that I’m back to using the library, but collect very few—and I’ve never thought much about the smell of a new book or the feel of its binding, particularly when I’m reading a mass-market paperback…)

Yes, the death of print books might change the way we read (or it might not, depending on the success and uses of ebook readers)—but that death seems no more imminent now than it did in 1982, when early prognostications of books dying within a decade were being made. Check with me in 2013, or 2019; I’ll bet there will be loads (hundreds of millions) of print books (and loads—possibly even tens of millions—of ebooks) being published, sold, purchased, circulated and read in both years.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 11, Whole Issue 121, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

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