How Book Publishing Aced the Digital Transformation

May 30, 2017 by Thad McIlroy

…with good luck, not with a solid strategy. So writes Sam Missingham in an astute article published yesterday, called “Print sales might be rallying, but don’t get complacent.” It should to be read by the management of every traditional publishing company. 

We’ve been inundated (once again) with stories of print’s resurgence, occasioned this time by an April report from the Publishers Association that UK print sales rose by 8% last year, while ebook sales fell by 3%. The headlines reveal the triumphalism of print’s cheerleading community: Paper book sales rise as e-books plungePhysical book sales increase as ebook popularity continues to wane, and most ridiculously, How real books have trumped ebooks (real books?).

Jane Friedman provides a wrap-up and analysis of this meme in her post The Myth About Print Coming Back. She points out that most of the stories are just “wishful thinking rather than an understanding of what’s actually happening.” She followed that with further analysis pointing to the mainstream media’s “lack of understanding of industry statistics” and its “knee-jerk judgment regarding anything Amazon does.”

It’s Missingham who points to the pernicious impact of the “print is back” mindset. It’s making the industry complacent. Traditional print-focused publishers are acting as if it’s “time to put the kettle on and sit back and put (their) feet up.” This can work only if publishers “anticipate no further transformation happening. Or put another way, if we hope nobody else enters the industry looking to disrupt it.”

After you read the rest of this excellent post join me over at Porter Anderson’s recent An Arms Race of Monetized Distraction (and don’t miss the comments). An April presentation by Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn triggered his thoughts. Tamblyn describes the “fifth wave” in book retail, a force that pushes the competition for book publishing out into other media industries.

Cliff Guren put it succinctly in a March post: “The battle isn’t print vs. digital—it’s reading for pleasure vs. all the other forms of entertainment that now compete for our attention at home and on our mobile devices.”

It was Netflix CEO Reed Hastings who first alerted me to this concern; I wrote about it last year. Hastings described Netflix’s broad competition as video gaming, web surfing, watching DVD, TVOD, or linear TV, wandering through YouTube, book reading, streaming Hulu or Amazon, or pirating digital content.

Netflix had revenue of nearly $9 billion last year, more than twice the sales of the largest trade book publisher, Penguin Random House. If Netflix is worrying about this range of competition for “relaxation time and disposable income,” shouldn’t book publishers be doing so also?

The last word goes to Missingham: “This is not the time to sit back and hope the status quo will last. We might not weather the next wave with such good fortune.”



  • Jules Older

    May 31st, 2017 : 6:02 AM

    “reading for pleasure vs. all the other forms of entertainment”

    I was thinking of this only last night. For an hour, I read an excellent novel, “What You Don’t Know” by Joann Chaney. For another, I watched “Better Call Saul.”

    The novel was brilliant. The show was genius.

    I want to read Ms Chaney’s next book. I cannot wait to watch the show’s next episode.

  • Thad McIlroy

    May 31st, 2017 : 9:48 AM

    Good example. Thanks.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Jun 3rd, 2017 : 5:01 AM

    Print versus digital has become like the old PC versus Mac wars… and about as pointless. I publish my books in almost every format and let readers choose. That seems the best option.

    I fully agree with Cliff Guren where the real issue lies: “The battle isn’t print vs. digital—it’s reading for pleasure vs. all the other forms of entertainment that now compete for our attention at home and on our mobile devices.”

    I don’t recall books being mentioned in the Wall-E movie. But it isn’t hard to imagine their non-presence among so many “other forms of entertainment” as yet another illustration of how disturbingly prophetic that film is.

    Notice at the very end of that movie snippet, there’s a view of a pool, but no one is swimming in it. Those who made the movie are brilliant.

    And yes, as “Wall-E” illustrates, movies do have their place. It just shouldn’t be so large that it displaces almost all other away-from-work activities—not exercise, not socializing, and not reading.

    And here’s an illustration of how a so-called modern movie adaptation can wreck a classic children’s tale:

    Turning Anne into a “moody modern feminist” is a particular obscene book-to-movie translation. The Anne of the book is so bright, bubbling, and happy, she overwhelms her somber, grumpy adoptive mother.

    Creating such vile literary-to-movie horrors is particularly cruel for kids growing up in modern, dysfunctional, single-parent homes. Above all others, they need to see an orphan who succeeds against all odds. And that’s why they need books that preserve the past untainted.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Jun 3rd, 2017 : 12:09 PM

    Publish in every format “and let readers choose.” Sensible.