Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More Death Rattles From Print Publishing

The Christian Science Monitor is discontinuing its print version and going to a web-only version. (No word yet concerning the plans of its main competitor, the Muslim Superstition Merrimac.)

Seriously, that is big news------this is the first major (seven Pulitzers to its credit) newspaper to abandon print and opt for a 100% web version. The circulation of the Monitor had been in a steady decline, along with that of most other major newspapers. And newspapers are responding with staff reductions followed by more staff reductions. That's why I have to congratulate the Monitor for taking such a bold step to position itself for the future; it certainly beats the half-assed, emphasis on cosmetics approach of the floundering New York Times. ("I flew back from California in coach!! Oh, the horror of it all!!") And the financial markets and credit-rating agencies are starting to notice the problems of various media companies. Many print media companies are highly leveraged (that is, they are up to their asses in debt) and it is only a matter of time before some of them will be forced to liquidate assets, likely at fire sale prices which will drive down the value of media assets held by other companies. It will not be a pretty sight, and the closing of publications and job losses in 2009 are both inevitable. The only open questions are "how deep?" and "how many?".

None of this pleases me. My entire career has been spent in magazine and book publishing. I love the feeling of holding a physical book in my hands that I've written; I enjoy the tactile feedback I get from turning paper pages. But I'm a realist. Too much of the consumer cost of print media (books, newspapers, and magazines) is tied up in the printing and distribution of physical printed materials; consumers are tired of footing those bills. Advertising and ancilliary revenue sources can't close the gap. In fact, many advertisers have permanently migrated the bulk of their efforts from print to the web, and no upturn in the economy will reverse that trend.

For better or worse, a transition from print to electronic publishing has to happen; economics alone dictates it must happen. But I get this terrible feeling many in the print publishing world are not prepared, and are not preparing, for that day. There seems to be this unspoken hope that somehow, some way, it will be possible to ride out this crazy internet fad and one day circulations of newspapers and magazines, along with book sales, will return to their per-capita rates of the 1960s. All that's required is to hang tough, refuse to compromise "journalistic principles" (whatever they are), and eventually those people who insist on getting their news and information from the internet will come to their senses.

I understand what motivates those sentiments. I've tried for the past few years to figure out what the future of book publishing will look like, and I must confess I still don't have a clue in hell how it will shake out. I have this feeling it will eventually evolve into something where a physical printed book is only a small part of the total revenue mix. I suspect "book publishing" will morph into something involving a web site (with ads) where readers and others meet to to discuss the book content with the author and each other. eBook versions, supported by embedded ads, will be freely available and widely circulated. The web sites and eBook versions could include video and audio clips that can't be included in a print version. In a sense, a book might never be completed but rather continuously updated and revised as long as the readers (and author) care about the material. And print books could become something akin to a high-end souvenir, much like a team jersey or sweatshirt purchased during a trip to Texas Stadium to see a Cowboys game. (And those "high-end souvenirs" will increasingly be the product of print-on-demand technologies.) In my vision of the future, most author/publisher revenue would come from the electronic publishing side, and the print revenues would be strictly ancillary income, a reversal from today's revenue models.

And, as I've previously blogged here, maybe many authors will find it more lucrative to self-publish through Amazon's CreateSpace or than to go through established book publishers.

Again, I have no idea how any of this is going to be play out or whether I'm barking up the wrong tree here-----no idea whatsoever. All I know is that the tectonic plates under print publishing are shifting rapidly these days, and there are going to be some big winners, and big losers, over the next few years. There's a part of me that wishes I could be in a position to take part in this revolution, while another part of me is grateful I can watch this from the sidelines. If I were still in the print publishing business these days, I would be both excited and apprehensive about the future.