Speculating about the demise of the printed book should probably be outlawed — so much nonsense is offered up that a moratorium would be of great benefit to mankind. In particular, comments that book publishing is going to be fine because, look, look, e-book sales are down, are supremely nonsensical.

The Book Industry Guild of New York’s annual President’s Night on 12 January 2016 was addressed by Bill Burke, beloved owner of Sterling Pierce. He too used the e-book slowdown as a hopeful sign, as well as the increase in the number of independent bookstores. For a book printer such optimism is of course a requirement for the job, just as his focus has to be relatively short-term. — But of course, he is not wrong. We are printing lots of books today. We’ll print lots more tomorrow. Beyond that who knows; but nobody can see the end of it — so please just let’s stop speculating about that end. All the worrying would be better directed towards say, climate change. I’d bet that when Miami Beach is permanently under six feet of water there will be printed books telling us all about it.

There are three main errors in most of the discussion of this “problem”:

  1. When people say book, they mean different things at different times.
  2. When people say publishing, they mean different things at different times.
  3. When people talk about sales they elide the difference between dollars and percentages, and selectively mix up dollar sales and unit sales.

By prejudicially assorting among these three options you can make it look like the end of the world is at hand, or if you prefer, that everything’s coming up roses. It’s obviously tedious when giving a speech to spend half your time defining your terms, so few of us bother. When writing something however, readers might reasonably expect some greater precision and attention to detail. For myself I think it would be reasonable to say that for trade publishers (2) the printed book (1) is in decline. It’s hard to get at 3, the real sales numbers either dollars or percentages, and it remains true that many many printed books are still being manufactured and sold by trade publishers, and no doubt will for years to come. As the numbers decline, one could speculate that a time may come when the trade publisher might think the game not worth pursuing. If and when that happens it won’t be Armageddon: it will be a rational commercial decision reached after long debate, and based upon a judgement that “books” in a different format are more profitable than printed books. The reality will be less exciting than many commentaries will strive to make it.

The temptation to talk in superlatives is often hard to resist. Edward Renehan, publisher of New Street Communications, twits Faber’s boss, Stephen Page at Medium  for what he describes as “magical thinking”. Page’s faulty thinking apparently consists in failing to accept Renehan’s assertion that “Fact is, eBook and audio sales have vastly outstripped print in recent years.” Please define your terms! Apples or oranges. The claim is obviously not true for “legacy” publishers. Just what weight we should give to the massive market of indie/self-published material available from Amazon principally, is hard to figure out. But even if we include these sales in the numbers, and even if this does show that e-books outsell print books, this doesn’t really tell us much about the future (or actually the present) of the industry. How many of the indie e-books have actually got a print version at all? When they do, how are they priced? If you have to pay twice as much for a POD hard copy, the e-book is likely to be the one you go for. The recent explosion in self-publishing has been enabled by the existence of the e-book. No longer does the self-publisher have to get an edition printed and store it in the garage while copy by copy they go out in the mail. The entire business model is dependent on the e-book — what a surprise that the majority of sales should be in this format. And however many e-books self-publishers and traditional publishers sell, the printed book still sells extremely well. Look at this table (of percentages only) from Publishers Weekly of 4 January 2016, covering sales from legacy publishers only of course. (If you click on it a couple of times it becomes a little more readable!)37715-v1-600xAre we meant to abandon 40% of our business just because Edward Renehan and his sympathizers tell us that we are failing to count books we didn’t publish? Viability is viability, and the print book is obviously still viable.  Mr Renehan falls into the trap of generalizing from the particular. His e-book sales are good — ergo e-book sales are the key to the future.

Furthermore the moment (if and) when trade publishers decide print is no longer viable for them will NOT signal the end of the printed book. It will just signal the end of the printed book as a format used by publishers who’s business model is based on providing popular entertainment. Academic publishing, university press publishing, technical publishing, business publishing, schoolbook publishing, college publishing, children’s book publishing — all will behave differently. Many of the print volumes abandoned by trade houses will find a perfectly satisfactory life here, with a publisher set up to sell books in their hundreds rather than thousands. Already one might say that reference publishing has already gone digital, yet even here books are still being made and sold, if in smaller quantities than hitherto.

Here’s a piece from The Digital Reader about the startling news (so startling it’s obviously wrong) that audiobooks have begun to outsell print books. We may be less amazed by the real information: that one or two audiobooks have outsold their printed versions. To generate their excitement Marketwatch didn’t even have to resort to the manipulation of the three “variables” alluded to above. They created their thill by generalizing from tiny particulars.

The Passive Voice brings a digest of a piece from Memo. Do go to the site and look at their Monty Python comment. Fingers crossed that’s not the real future of our business.

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