Open Book Reflections: Crystal-balling the future of the publishing industry

With every panel held on the future of print media or the book, our visions of the future for the book get ever more cloudier and, as such, publishers’ long-term business plans are becoming ever harder to work out. 

Our Open Book Reflections series continues today with a post from our bookkeeper and office manager Dezre Little, who tries to pick apart the publishing world’s increasingly pressing dilemma: digital or print?

Being an impulsive reader with admittedly limited writing skills, I would like to invite you inside my head for just a moment to follow my personal opinions on the topic on the tongue of every publisher and lover of literature at the moment: the future of the printed book. Of course, as someone more embedded in the financial world than the literary, I’m not exactly an expert, but, with the thought-provoking discussions at the Open Book Festival stirring up my mind and making me seek out facts and observations from the wider digital community, I thought I would give it a shot.

Stephen Johnson, managing director of Random House Struik, noted during the aptly-titled “The Future of the Book” panel at Open Book that statistics in book publishing in South Africa are hard to come by and different in nature to that of international statistics. The consensus seems to be that no-one is absolutely sure what the future of the book is really going to look like, especially in South Africa, and that there are mixed sentiments on publishing preferences from both authors and their readers.

Locally and internationally, it’s obvious that sales for e-books are rising each year at a rapid rate, and naturally there is a lot of hype and excitement about the development of books in the information age: they are becoming cheaper, more interactive, and generally more accessible.

The rate at which e-book sales are increasing each year is impressive, and it is easy to understand why publishers would want to flock in this direction. To overlook this fact as a business would be a mistake.

On the other hand, I believe it would also be a mistake to overlook the fact that book sales are still doing well, and, in many markets (especially in the developing world), are still increasing year on year. What this means is that you mustn’t just change or re-invent your business in reaction to new trends, but perhaps you should carefully consider making your business more flexible in reaction to all of the new options that are now available to your customers.

Looking at the only facts that I know for sure that I can bank on, Paperight CEO & Founder Arthur Attwell disclosed at the discussion that healthcare manuals published by his other company, Electric Book Works (EBW), were being accessed on their mobi sites10 times more often than people were buying the physical books. But although access is up on the mobi side, EBW still makes the bulk of its money selling printed copies. The economies of print and digital don’t match up.

The crux of the matter comes down to the consumer’s preference. If you are exclusively into the digital age, great! You can enjoy the thrill and energy that comes with e-books and other emerging digital formats. If you are traditional and are committed to preserving the ideal of the printed book, you’ll still find millions of people who will always ultimately prefer everything in print.

Investing in both worlds is a strategic move that allows your business to progress and meet the diverse needs of readers. Personally, I appreciate the fact that I can read my Bible at home in print (which, in all honesty, is my preferred medium) and the fact that I can read it on my phone – anywhere, anytime – and store bookmarks and special passages as I go. I would not want to be limited to one or the other.

The synergy between the digital and printed publishing is reassuring. Some of the audience at the discussion shared their inclination to first read a book on Kindle and then purchase the books that they liked. They explained that the more books they read, the more they wanted to read, and the more books they bought both in e-book and printed format. The e-book did not take away from them a desire to read printed books. In fact, it increased it.

The digital age does not necessarily mean the end of printed books. True demand will reveal itself in the end, and it looks to me like it will be a bit of both worlds. Publishers should take heed to the trends, and do well to adapt.