There’s Life in Dead Trees

According to ebook evangelists, the reign of printed books is over.  “Dead tree” publishing is the past, e-books are here to stay and the sooner we get used to it the better. 

I half agree… Ebooks have many advantages which I won’t go into here.  That’s for another post!

I’ll also admit that I’m increasingly buying and reading more e-books and online content.  However, I also love print books and still think there’s nothing like a well-written, well-designed and well-made book for a combination of physical and mental stimulation. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I think rumours of the demise of printed books have been greatly exaggerated. 

Let’s look at some of the challenges facing print books:

E-books – it seems like barely a day goes by without a story about how e-book sales are growing, and how print sales are declining. The truth is more nuanced, with growth in e-books sales stronger in some categories than others.  However, there’s no doubt that e-books are here to stay this time in one format or another. It’s reasonable to expect that they could continue to take significant market share away from print in most segments, particularly fiction and narrative non-fiction.  It’s not unreasonable to imagine that all mass-market fiction could be written and read as e-books within a few years.

Changing channels – e-books are perfect for online retailers.  Rather than having to wait for a print book (and the associated shipping costs) e-books can be downloaded instantly, without even leaving the retailer’s site.  

Bookshops closing – there’s no doubt about it; there are fewer bookshops on the high street.   Independents are closing. WHSmith only stocks a limited range, and although Waterstone’s is apparently committed to stocking in range it is ordering books in fewer quantities more often.

Online content – How many hours do people spend on YouTube, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and the rest just surfing or networking or whatever else.  It’s easy and cheap to buy or rent films or TV series to watch on tablet and mobile devices. The amount of disposable time that people have to read is diminishing. 

Self-publishing – the numbers of self-published titles per year is growing and outstripping the growth of non-self published titles per year. 

However, self-published titles tend to sell fewer copies.  It also means it’s harder to stand out from the crowd.  It’s never been easier to get a book published, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to sell a book as the competition for attention and the challenges of being discovered are greater than they’ve ever been.  

Interestingly, while ebooks are creating a revolution in the way books are sold and read; printed books have been undergoing an evolution of their own.  The printed book hasn’t changed, but the way it’s been manufactured and distributed has.

A combination of improvements in digital printing and technological innovation in the supply chain means that the book in your hand may not have existed 24 hours beforehand, other than as files on a server.

Print-on-demand enables publishers to hold less stock, or no stock, while also keeping their entire list of titles available and to launch new lists in print or to fill niche genres that may have small but loyal readerships.

There’s also increasing evidence of a sales link between ebook and POD, and being able to have all your titles in both formats with no stock will have the dual benefits of reducing the amount of cash tied up in stock while increasing sales opportunities.

In the market conditions, we’re in, print-on-demand provides the answer to many of the problems facing publishers, authors and booksellers.  So while ebooks continue to grow, I feel confident that printed books have plenty of life left in them yet.