Print is not dead yet

©Ralph Freso/Reuters

One of the earliest citations of the phrase “print is dead” comes from the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, but almost 30 years later, print is certainly not dead. Print publishing still drives on average 80% of revenues and close to 100% of the profits for general trade publishers. But among reference and science, technical and medical (STM) publishers, digital publishing was embraced quickly and openly at the expense of print. 

Commercial digital products from large reference publishers started in the 1980s, and PDF was adopted as the preferred format for STM publishing in the 1990s. Digital-only publications were well-accepted by the turn of this century, and the PDF still holds unquestioned dominance. Digital production and distribution addressed a number of such publishers’ pain points, but print still maintains advantages for large trade publishers.

Take information that is published regularly, as in journals, or that must be kept up to date, like encyclopedias. Such information needs to be disseminated as quickly as possible. Print publications necessarily take longer to be produced and delivered than digital equivalents. But fiction titles, such as the Harry Potter series or The Da Vinci Code, have no information currency or updating requirements. Print still works for these books.

What about physical production and distribution costs? A typical reference or STM publisher could save tens to hundreds of dollars per unit by eliminating printing and mailing costs. For weekly journals this would be as high as $50-$100 per subscriber. The incentive to save on such costs is quite significant for publications containing information that is only valid for a limited time. However, large efficient trade publishers spend less than $2 to print and distribute a typical trade fiction book. Not much cost incentive for change there.

Or look at digital formats. STM publishers often use the same PDF file for both print and digital distribution. Trade digital delivery channels do not generally use PDF files, so a trade publisher needs to create an e-book file in addition to the print file. Complicating matters further, there are over 30 different popular device types, apps or file formats in use in the global publishing market. A publisher can achieve a basic level of compliance from creating one EPUB file and converting to other formats. But to take advantage of e-book device features for an exceptional reading experience, a publisher must invest in creating a dedicated file optimised for each device. The costs of doing this are substantial and in many cases are levels of magnitude above the print production cost.

Accessibility is one of the biggest advantages of digital publishing from an STM reader’s perspective. With the rise of networked computers and the internet, readers no longer had to go to the library to access a publication. By the late 1980s most professional scientists had a networked desktop computer to access STM publications–usually for free as their institutional library would hold the subscription.

Accessibility is also a major advantage for digital trade publications. No longer will airline passengers have to settle for what the airport bookshop is selling before boarding the flight. They can purchase and download from online catalogues. However, unlike PDFs on desktops, the devices used to access this content are not ubiquitous, cheap (for the reader) or interchangeable.

In today’s e-book market, content purchased from some channels is only readable in devices linked in those channels. It is difficult for all but the most technically savvy to transfer a large iBooks collection to a Kindle or Samsung Galaxy device, and vice versa.

On the other hand, PDF provides a dependable rendering format for scholarly publications, regardless of technology upgrades and platform changes. The PDF user experience for reference and STM publications is no worse than the print product experience. Users could still do all they did with the traditional print product, with some added advantages , and none of the disadvantages (even on-screen reading, as many readers still print out the PDF for reading on paper).

But in trade publishing, the user experience of e-books is very different from print and varies from device to device; in almost all cases devices are more complex to use than a simple book. Even on popular devices like the Kindle, navigating through a book is cumbersome, unlike “flicking” back and forth. Even with perceived benefits like resizable text and backlit displays, it takes significantly more effort to use an e-book reader than a book.

Until there is more standardisation of format, portability of libraries, and the reading experience is as good as, or better than, a physical book across devices, and until the cost and revenue equation makes sense for the publisher, print will have a long life yet in trade publishing. Nevertheless, there are many ventures seeking these outcomes, and technologies being developed to deliver them. Overall, digital publishing has a bright future.

*Typéfi produces automated composition solutions for print and web. Visit Typé  


©OECD Observer No 297, Q4 2013

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