Is Print Dead?

death of printThere is an unsettling myth being perpetuated about the death of print books. The news of print’s demise is simply not true. It sounds a bit like Mark Twain having to write a note to a reporter saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

To fully explain I need to start with the music industry.
The impression is that all sales are now digital. And iTunes has killed the physical CD. This is not true.

Approximately 12 songs fit on a CD. And since individual songs can be downloaded, the only way to compare physical CD sales with download sales is to divide the number of songs downloaded by 12. That way you have a one-to-one comparison.

With that assumption in place, Apple is the #1 retailer of CDs in America. No surprise. The surprise is that they only comprise 25% of sales. Walmart is #2 at 14% and Best Buy is #3 (my guess is that Amazon.com is #4 but wasn’t mentioned in the article).

Why is that surprising? Because that means 75% of all sales are still “hard copy.” Physical CDs. It is significant that Apple’s share has increased as a percentage of all sales from 21% in 2008, up from 14% in 2007. But it still means the physical product is outselling the digital by 3 to 1. (In total dollars, across all forms of music, digital downloads comprise only 35% of all music sales.)

Turn that same conversation to the book industry. The Amazon Kindle has impact primarily because they were first and did create a pretty cool device (I bought one the week it came out in Fall 2007 and upgraded in 2008). The Barnes & Noble Nook is shipping with reports of modest success. The Sony Reader has its followers. Plastic Logic just announced their cool tablet sized reader. And everyone is wondering what Apple will announce in the near(?) future regarding their answer to the “hardware” question.  But despite this we really don’t have an “iPod” equivalent. Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, wrote in 2005 that we are “one device away from a digital revolution.” In my opinion we are still waiting for that device. The iPhone is not the answer for most people. The screen is simply too small. And for someone like myself who reads rather fast it can be very annoying…

Don’t get me wrong. My head isn’t buried in the sand. That revolution is coming and some would say it is already here. But the “tipping point” has yet to occur.

Amazon had a lot of fun announcing that they sold more digital books than physical books on Christmas Day 2009. Think about it. On Christmas Day recipients of the Kindle opened their gift and downloaded stuff while playing with their new toy. But who else would be shopping on Christmas Day? No one. So while it made a fun press release it really isn’t as astounding as it first sounded.

I see the royalty statements. I know exactly how many digital versions of my client’s books are being sold. And while there are a lot more sold than there were two years ago (of course there would be) the volume is still less than 1% of the print version sold. LESS THAN ONE PERCENT.

So let’s do some math. Let’s say that e-books have 100% growth in the next year. That would mean they would comprise 2% of all sales. Then let’s say it grows by 100% again, to 4%. We have to keep doubling the number for 4 years before we get to a little less than 20% of all print sales. But that still means that 80% of all sales are still hard copy. Eighty percent.

Certainly this revolution could happen and is quite likely. The implications are huge, especially for the newspaper and magazine community. But it does not mean that print books are dead.

It is even possible that in one generation (twenty years) that the conversion will take place..at least in some form or fashion. If the e-book reader cost drops to under $100. If the device is in every home, on each family member’s nightstand. If the younger generation’s textbooks are placed into e-book format and that generation becomes used to it. A lot of “ifs.”

It is a very exciting time to be in the publishing industry. I almost get giddy when thinking about the possibilities.

If you want to read someone who will challenge every assumption you’ve ever made about “curling up” with your favorite book, get a copy of Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez. Get a group of friends together to talk about his conclusions, I guarantee a rousing discussion. If you want to learn how the music industry was ambushed by technology read Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper.

All I’m trying to say is that we need to stop buying into the myth that books are dead. It simply is not true. We are being influenced by the flood of media attention on the “new” and the “cool” and not looking past the sound bite. It is like relatives or friends writing to say “I saw that there was a flood in Phoenix…are you okay?” Yes. It flooded…in an area with a river wash and someone tried to drive thru it and got stuck. That picture hit the national news. The media gave the impression that the entire city was under water with their breathless coverage. So when you read that publishers are going under, and print books are dinosaurs, and all authors need to rethink everything…take a deep breath. It  is different. It is a time of careful consideration. No publisher wants a repeat of what happened to the record industry. But it is not as bad as you think.

In the end I implore you not to be one who helps perpetuate the myths and misinformation.

Leave a Comment

Incoming Proposals

To your left is an actual picture of the pile of proposals our office has received since December 1, 2009. About 30 days worth of incoming mail…during a slow time of the year. The stack of books next to the pile include books sent for review (consideration) and recent publications that I want to look at.

That does not include the myriad of email submissions we get (many simply ignoring our guidelines regarding email submissions)…inquiries from those who use the contact form on our web site (many of those ignoring the request to “Please do not copy and paste your entire manuscript into this form.“)

Or the poor soul that failed to proofread their email before sending this sentence, “I would like to send you my quarry letter….”

Nor does it include those that do an Internet search and call us. Recently we got a call that went something like this:
Agency: This is the Steve Laube Agency…
Caller: What kind of agency are you?
Agency: We are a literary agency.
Caller: What does that mean?

Read More

A Year in Review

This is one of my favorite times of the year. The Christmas glow is still present and since the publishing world is, in essence, on vacation, it is a perfect time to to reflect on the past twelve months.

This was a hard year for many as the economy touched everyone in some way. And yet, despite the ominous cloud of doom and gloom, there were many exciting things to celebrate.

On a personal level our middle daughter was married at the end of June. What a joy to see God at the center of the ceremony. And our oldest daughter had a blast playing keyboards for Alice Cooper (singing “School’s Out”) in front of 50,000 people at the ASU graduation ceremony in May.

Read More

Art of War for Writers

Periodically I plan to recommend a title or two for you to read. I’ve always enjoyed this form of “word-of-mouth” marketing, thus I will “pay it forward.” 🙂

Yesterday afternoon I received James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: fiction writing strategies, tactics, and exercises (published by Writer’s Digest Books). With interest I took the book home and devoured it. Not literally of course, as I’m not sure what the pages would have tasted like with extra cheese. But I could not keep from turning the pages with delight.

James Scott Bell has done an immeasurable service to writers everywhere. This little book is chock full of sage advice. Loosely based on the ancient classic The Art of War he consistently nudges the reader with nuggets of wisdom that are hard to assail.

Read More

Do you Facebook?

The following article appeared in the UK on November 5th, “Facebook Users Spend Three Solid Days a Year on the Site.”

Three full 24 hour days on Facebook per year! Or nearly two full work weeks if you count a work week as 35-40 hours a week. And I suspect the statistics hold true in the U.S. as well.

Not all writers are full-time. Some must juggle day jobs or home-life responsibilities around their writing. So let’s say the average writer is cramming 20 hours a week of actual writing into their craft.

Thus if you are a writer AND you “Facebook” (is that a verb now?) this would mean the average writer is spend nearly a month’s worth of work time…on Facebook.

Read More

The Wave of Digital Creativity in Books

I went to high school in Hawaii (I know.. a rough life) where I learned the joys and perils of body surfing. That experience is a great metaphor for the new “waves” of digital revolution we are seeing in the publishing world.

The key to great body surfing is waiting for the right wave and then time your push just right. The ride is exhilarating (I still remember riding inside the tube of a perfect wave off the beaches of Kauai). BUT if you catch the wrong wave or mistime the push, there is no ride. Or worse, catch a wave that throws you wildly into a bunch of rocks…

But unless you are in the water and making attempt after attempt you will never achieve the perfect ride.

I see this metaphor applied to the new world of digital publishing. It is really fun to play a small part, but even more fun to watch others be extremely creative in their experiments. There are some very bright and exciting people trying new things in merging the traditional book with all things “interactive.”

Read More

The Singular “They”

Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:

“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”

Fill in the blank. Should you use his, his or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”

Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.

So what is correct?

Read More

Book Manufacturing

If you ever get the chance to visit a printing press, do it. I’ve had the privilege to visit two of them. The first was Standard Publishing’s printing press in Cincinnati. Their plant is quite large and they do a wide variety of printing, everything from books to curriculum to Star Wars coloring books.

The other plant was Bethany Press International in Bloomington, MN. During my years with Bethany House Publishers I visited this plant many times since their building is about 100 yards from the back door of the publishing house! I watched them move from the old “film” method of processing to a completely digital technology.

The beauty of watching the books being printed is partly the fascination of cool machines, but also an insight into all of the incredible details that go into the manufacturing process.

Read More

2009 ICRS Observations

Like many going into the 2009 ICRS convention (aka CBA or the Christian Booksellers Association convention) I was wondering what would be found. It was great to see that instead of the projected doom and gloom there was light and hope. (Yes, that is Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber in the photo to the left – courtesy of Christian Retailing Magazine.) A few observations:

1) The total convention exhibit floor was about 30% smaller than in past years and the middle section, housing CBA’s events and displays was HUGE. In fact you could walk through the entire book section very rapidly for the first time in years. Everything seemed condensed.

2) The net effect of the smaller sales floor was that you felt the crowds. There was noise, energy, and excitement in the air. This was a major change over previous years where it always felt so quiet.

Read More

ICRS / CBA Bookseller’s Convention

Today is the official opening of the convention in Denver. This year will be my 28th consecutive ICRS (International Christian Retail Show) or CBA as we veterans still call it (Christian Booksellers Association Convention). I absolutely love the experience. I’ve attended as a retailer, as an exhibitor, and now as an “industry professional.” I find it amusing that each name badge is color-coded to help exhibitors know whether the person in their booth is a bookseller (and thereby a potential customer) or a browser, like me. What makes it particularly fun is that the “agent” color is black….the color of an agent’s soul.

PRO: There is nothing like the experience of walking the floor of the world’s largest Christian bookstore. Everything is there, the good, the bad, and the outrageous (like the balloon art crucifix or the painting of a junkie shooting heroin into the arm of Jesus). The spirit is electric. It can be overwhelming, but ultimately it is a picture of God at work. As a writer you can meet key people, network with fellow writers, collect catalogs (those that aren’t digital), and simply increase knowledge of what the industry is all about.

CON: Unrealized expectations. Too many writers think the convention should be all about them. It isn’t. Disappointment is palatable with some folks at the end of the experience. Their publisher didn’t pay enough attention to them; not enough people came to their signing; no editor was available for an appointment…etc. Go to the convention with modest expectations and the chance of disappointment with be minimized.

Read More