We’ve all been aware that newspapers were a couple of steps ahead of books on that digital slope. We get occasional shreds of good news: The New York Times has worked out a way to charge for on-line content, and it seems to be working; Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post — and he obviously knows what he’s doing; but by and large the news has all been pretty dire.

41WMnWIeJvL._AA160_A new book from George Brock, Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age (Kogan Page, 2013) puts the story into some perspective. It is available in USA for the Kindle at $14.72, though the book itself hasn’t (yet?) been published over here. (Those odd Amazon prices always indicate an import, where they’ve had to do the currency conversion themselves.) The Times Literary Supplement year-end issue has a good review of the book by Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus at Columbia Journalism School. He starts off with words we in publishing might bear in mind (or maybe it’s just a matter of keeping them nearer the front of our minds): “People tend to have little sympathy with accounts of crisis in a trade or profession. It comes across as evidence of excessive self-preoccupation . . .”.

Here’s a BBC interview of Professor Brock with Nick Higham. Brock warns us on his own blog that this video may not be available if you are in the UK. In this earlier post the author gives you what he calls his elevator pitch of the book. In the interview Professor Brock engages with the bet (which I have made myself on so many occasions that nobody can remember the details) that after x years this or that newspaper will no longer be printed. He selects The Financial Times as most likely to be the first to go to reduced print, perhaps at first once or twice a week only.

Brock points out that what we think of as the real, traditional, “right” state of journalism and news publishing is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon. Advertising revenue for newspapers, which is what fueled the machine,  was $63.5 billion in 2000, but it had fallen to $19 billion by 2012. The newspaper business as we have known it is a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century: there was abundant, chaotic variety before, and there will probably be abundant, chaotic variety in the future. In words which we might all take to heart Brock tells us “in the main journalists are convinced or easily persuaded that what they do is so good and important that someone should pay them for it”. Lemann glosses this “. . . journalists could tell themselves that if they produced something, it must have economic and social value”. The key to Brock’s optimism is growing variety of other outlets for journalism, principally on-line. Just because it’s not possible to be sure how journalism will be paid for in future is not a reason to foresee it’s demise.

Do not let the parallels with book publishing slip past you. Working in publishing is soon going to be very different — but that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s a good thing: profits are up for established publishers; more books than ever are being published (if not by these same established publishers), and it’s easier than ever to get hold of a book. It’s hard to know for sure whether the readership for books is shrinking because of competing options or increasing because of demography — but in a way that’s not really the key issue. Book reading has always been a minority occupation: maybe we have just lived through its era of maximum market penetration.