Book in­dus­try shows it’s not all over for print

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - Leonid Ber­shid­sky

If the me­dia in­dus­try needed proof that it moved too quickly to de­value its print prod­ucts on the way to chas­ing dig­i­tal au­di­ences, the book in­dus­try has been mak­ing a convincing case in the last few years.

The rise of print book sales and de­cline in ebooks in 2015 was no ac­ci­dent. Last year, the trend con­tin­ued, and self-pub­lish­ing in elec­tronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in pre­vi­ous years. In 2016, the unit sales of printed books in the U.S. in­creased by 3.3 per- cent. That's not un­usual, ex­cept this year, the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try didn't pro­duce any run­away best­sellers like 2015's "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins, and only a hand­ful of books, mostly from pre­vi­ous years, sold more than 1 mil­lion copies.

The in­dus­try made up that de­fi­ciency by sell­ing more non­fic­tion books. That's an in­di­ca­tion of book pub­lish­ers' over­all health: They are flex­i­ble and versatile.

In dol­lar terms, hard­back and pa­per­back books were both headed for solid growth in the first eight months of last year, while ebooks ap­peared des­tined for an even big­ger de­cline than the 14 per­cent drop reg­is­tered in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data re­leased by the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Pub­lish­ers.

If tra­di­tional book pub­lish­ers ac­cepted that the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion meant a to­tal over­haul of their busi­ness — the way the mu­sic and me­dia in­dus­tries have largely done — they would be locked in the same race to the bot­tom that those two in­dus­tries have faced. The ease of dig­i­tal self­pub­lish­ing and read­ers' sense that dig­i­tal books should be cheaper than pa­per ones have re­sulted in grow­ing unit sales but fall­ing rev­enues — much like the au­di­ences of ma­jor news me­dia have snow­balled since the turn of the cen­tury with­out a con­cur­rent growth in rev­enue. On the dig­i­tal side of book pub­lish­ing, this "death spi­ral" is not only ev­i­dent in the U.S. but also in more tra­di­tional mar­kets, such as Ger­many.

Book pub­lish­ers also learned to be cut­throat com­peti­tors, as stand-alone authors are be­gin­ning to find out. Pub­lish­ers can try to prop up ebook prices by driv­ing a hard bar­gain with elec­tronic re­tail­ers, pri­mar­ily Ama­zon. And they may have also suc­ceeded in push­ing the dig­i­tal re­tail gi­ant to shift the at­ten­tion of its users from from self-pub­lished books to those pro­duced by pro­fes­sional pub­lish­ers.

They can­not, how­ever, ex­plain to read­ers why an ebook — which is clearly cheaper to pro­duce and, let's face it, not as pleas­ant to read — should cost about as much as a pa­per one.

Even in the U.S., the most ma­ture ebook mar­ket in the world, printed books are far more pop­u­lar than ebooks. Last fall, Pew Re­search found that 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans had read a pa­per book in the pre­vi­ous 12 months, while only 28 per­cent read an ebook. The pop­u­lar­ity of both for­mats has been steady since 2014, thanks to older con­sumers who refuse to leave print be­hind and younger con­sumers who seek a more ana­log life­style. Read­ing a pa­per book — or lis­ten­ing to vinyl records, whose re­mark­able come­back con­tin­ued last year — is a state­ment, a hu­man be­ing's an­swer to be­ing in­creas­ingly sur­rounded, and now even threat­ened, by ma­chines.

Book pub­lish­ers have kept their pa­per­based op­er­a­tions and helped their phys­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion net­works to stay alive by charg­ing low whole­sale prices. They have also main­tained a time gap be­tween the pa­per and dig­i­tal re­leases of im­por­tant books. Peo­ple seek­ing a tra­di­tional ex­pe­ri­ence have al­ways been able to find it, and they were re­warded for it by be­ing the first to read the in­dus­try's best of­fer­ings. The printed book ecosys­tem sur­vived the tech rev­o­lu­tion, and it no longer ap­pears to be in dan­ger from it.

Much of the news busi­ness fell vic­tim to the tech hype that it helped cre­ate. News pub­lish­ers got sucked into the death spi­ral and tricked into of­fer­ing their prod­uct free of charge, some­thing they are still in the painful process of over­com­ing. They bought into the idea that any­one could pro­duce what their cus­tomers were pay­ing for when they should have held out the way book pub­lish­ers did. Af­ter all, self­pub­lished authors haven't killed off Ran­dom House and other big in­dus­try play­ers, and blog­gers and free web­sites wouldn't have killed old me­dia com­pa­nies. Pub­lish­ers just needed to more per­sis­tent and in­ven­tive about sell­ing them.

Of course, the news me­dia had an ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue de­pen­dence that cheaper dig­i­tal ads couldn't feed. Book pub­lish­ers didn't have that prob­lem. But it's the me­dia's own fault for not trust­ing read­ers to pay for good con­tent. Now, the best of them are cor­rect­ing this mis­take.

And, amaz­ingly, some me­dia out­lets did hold out.

In the last cou­ple of days, the French press has been feed­ing on a scan­dal in­volv­ing cen­ter-right pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Fran­cois Fil­lon, who ap­par­ently paid out about $534,000 (500,000 eu­ros) in salary to his wife while he was a leg­is­la­tor. French par­lia­ment mem­bers are al­lowed to hire their fam­ily mem­bers, but the satir­i­cal and in­ves­tiga­tive pub­li­ca­tion that broke the story, Le Ca­nard En­chaine, also re­ported that Fil­lon's wife Pene­lope had not done any­thing to earn the pay­ments. There is now an of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ar­range­ment.

The Fil­lon story is not on Le Ca­nard En­chaine's web­site. In fact, there's noth­ing much on it at all, apart from a brief message to the read­ers who would like to read the pub­li­ca­tion on­line. "Our trade is to in­form and en­ter­tain our read­ers us­ing newsprint and ink," it goes. "It's a beau­ti­ful trade that's enough to oc­cupy our team." It's a beau­ti­ful sen­ti­ment, and, as de­vel­op­ments on the book mar­ket show, an ex­ceed­ingly mod­ern one.

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