Publishing: Turning into 2017

December 22, 2016

I’ve become intrigued with the intersection of book publishing and machine learning, text mining, natural language processing and the like: technologies that get lumped under the rubric of artificial intelligence. Cliff Guren, who runs the publishing consultancy Syntopical, is emerging as one of the book publishing industry’s top specialists in this area. I thought it would be fun to catch up with Cliff on this topic — and others — as we approach the end of 2016. (more…)

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Magazines Come to TV

January 10, 2012

…or so said the article announcing Walrus TV. (more…)

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The Rise of 3-D

March 8, 2010

Grab it before it heads behind The New Yorker‘s firewall, Anthony Lane’s marvellous overview of the history of 3-D, taking us right through to Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (did you know that this film was shot in 2-D, and converted to 3-D during post-production? Cheater!), and speculating beyond.


It’s difficult to condense the history in this long article, but let me quote from the conclusion:

True, these are early days; I watched a DVD of “My BloodyValentine,” which came with a pair of crummy anaglyph glasses, and it was like having my eyeballs rinsed in lemon-lime Gatorade. Word is, though, that Blu-ray disks offer a better service by far, and who’s to say, in any case, that feature films will be the major draw? An outfit called 3ality Digital has produced a three-dimensional broadcast for the N.F.L., and before long it won’t be just the halftime commercials during the Super Bowl which require us to don our glasses. It will be the game. We will rise magically above the end zone, at the climactic play, and watch the football rifle toward our eyes. And if we feel like grieving at the end, and need to stream some 3-D porn to cheer ourselves up, it will not be because our team lost; it will be because the vision is over for the night. Those members of the “Avatar” audience who said that they felt blue, in every sense, as the movie ebbed away were the most accurate critics of all. 3-D will ravish our senses and take us on rides that no drug could match, but my guess is that, like so many blessings, it won’t make us happy. It will make us want more.

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Economics and the Future of Publishing

October 9, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy! A little less gloomy than earlier in the week, but another barrage of depressing madness. I found an article from a couple of days ago in The New York Times by Vikas Bajaj titled “Forget Logic; Fear Appears to Have Edge.” It begins: “The technical term for it is ‘negative feedback loop.’ The rest of us just call it a panic.” Yep, panic. As I write this the Dow, S&P and NASDAQ indices are all down between 35% and 38% from their 52-week highs.

In today’s Wall Street Journal there are several interesting items.

The first is titled “Housing Pain Gauge: Nearly 1 in 6 Owners ‘Under Water’,” meaning that nearly one in six U.S. homeowners owe more on a mortgage than the home is worth. Not good news. Authors James Hagerty and Ruth Simon generously state for us the obvious: “No longer having equity in their homes makes people feel less rich and thus less inclined to shop at the mall.”

Another one which really caught my eye is an article by Susan Carey and Paulo Prada called “Economy Takes Toll on Premium Airline Passengers.” Apparently British Airways first- and business-class traffic fell nearly 9% in September from a year earlier. This is far more serious than it may appear on the surface as, for example, Northwest Airlines admits that its elite frequent-flier members account for only 5% of its total passengers yet a full 25% of its revenue (we always suspected that’s why we get treated like bovines in cattle-class).

Which brings us to trying to get a handle on what the impact will be of the current economic crisis on the various publishing industries.

There needs first of all to be a division between advertising-supported media (primarily newspapers, magazines, radio and television) and non-advertising-supported media (primarily books, musical and visual recordings, and films exhibited in theaters).

I’ve often wondered what would be happening today to advertising-supported media if the economy weren’t in such a mess. How different would be the decline in ad dollars for newspapers, magazines, television and the like if we were in a booming economy? But sadly we appear to be heading into one of the worst economic messes since the 1930s, and as the articles referenced above make clear, the spill-over effect is strongly pronounced, in both obvious and unexpected ways.

Suffice it to say that if things were looking bad for newspapers over the summer, they’re looking ghastly today.

The traditional view of books, film, live entertainment and so on has been that they are relatively recession-proof, first of all because their unit cost has not traditionally been very high, and secondly based on the notion that even in a recession people need some form of recreation and amusement.

There’s a lot of research to be done to form a definitive case on this topic, but here are some datapoints. A 2003 article in Publishing Trends, quoting Bowker statistics, has good news and bad news about book pricing. Adjusted for inflation, hardcover fiction prices have sunk by 2% over the past 25 years, while nonfiction hardcovers dropped by 27%. On the other hand mass-market paperback prices have shot up by nearly 40% and juvenile titles soared by some 60%.

The article goes on to quote a 2002 piece by Christopher Dreher. “…what’s taken a huge bite out of America’s book budget is the rise of the trade paperback, those larger paperbacks of better quality that can now be found occupying prime real estate on tables at the front of bookstores. Since the 1980s, publishers have increasingly kept their backlist in trade paperback, and used this format to publish the paperback versions of books that don’t have a mass-market appeal or million-copy sales potential, such as more-literary or specialized titles,” Dreher writes. This format usually retails for 3 or 4 times what the equivalent mass-market paperback might, and can drive away cost-conscious buyers.

A January, 2008 entry on quotes data from an August 2006 study by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and concludes that during the 2001 recession “growth in books sales actually remained positive and then rebounded quickly to their historic growth rate.”

The study is actually an NEA study which quotes data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. When you examine the whole chart a slightly different perspective emerges.


Yes, book sales did continue to grow and bounce back quickly. But “Recreation consumption spending” as a whole far outperformed books, as did “Nondurable toys & sport supplies” and “Video & audio goods.” Watch out flower shops: “Flowers, seeds, & potted plants” took the biggest hit in 2001!

However the book publishing industry did even better during the recession of 1991, as data from the noted industry statistician William S. Lofquist authoritatively demonstrates.

The book publishing industry is today a substantially different beast than it was in 1991 or even in 2001. New books can be found at a discount by everyone as a result of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others. Used books are far more easily sourced than ever before, and the lowest prices discovered, through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and from more specialized online sellers like Audiobook sales had been exploding (although they’re down by nearly 27% this year — perhaps falling victim to podcasts).Even e-book sales seem finally to be gaining some traction (at prices generally lower than comparable paper versions).

As I was writing this entry today the Association of American Publishers (AAP) issued a press release stating that “Book sales tracked by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) …were down by 1.4 percent for the year.” Two comments. 1.4 percent is not much when you think about the calamity that we call the U.S. economy, and as I demonstrate in my article on book publishing, the AAP data misses a tremendous amount of publishing sales volume that takes place outside of the larger publishing houses.

Meanwhile, over on Bill Conerly’s Businomics Blog, an August 7th entry discusses a Wall Street Journal article and makes the observation:

“Hollywood has said that it’s recession proof, because in hard times people will seek escape from their worries by going to the movies. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports a new study that found just the opposite — when times are tough, people skip the movie-popcorn-soda expense. Perhaps they watch a movie on broadcast television, or rent a DVD for a couple of bucks. So far this year, box office sales are down 3.27% from last year.”

The original article in the Wall Street Journal is a good read, with more data and insight. Author Lauren Schuker interviews Hal Vogel, a longtime media analyst (whose “Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis” I reference frequently). Vogel points out that “‘the availability of …alternative forms of entertainment means that today’s economic slowdown could have more of a negative impact on the film business than previous times of economic turbulence.

“‘You can’t compare how this slowdown might affect the movie industry to previous recessions,'” says Mr. Vogel. “‘The industry still has a degree of recession resistance, but this time around there is all this new technology and all these new distractions for moviegoers — you didn’t have Web episodes and cable television and computer games coming out of your ears in the past.'”

I think that this point, as much as any other, will be a key factor why most forms of publishing are going to suffer worse through this recession than they have through any other.

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Watching Lawrence of Arabia on Your iPhone

August 23, 2008

I’m catching up on my old New Yorker magazines. I prefer the print version because the best articles are long, and, I think, far more enjoyable to read in print than on the Web (although The New Yorker has become increasingly generous in sharing most of its content on the Web). Today I read a March 31, 2008 essay by the always erudite and often hilarious film critic Anthony Lane examining the career of film director David Lean, who directed many fine films, but is probably best known for Lawrence of Arabia.

I do not watch the Oscars, as the pain outweighs the pleasure, and so missed the incident in this year’s affair, described by Lane as follows: “(The big screen)…That is (the film’s) natural habitat: the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. ‘I’m watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s just awesome,’ he said, adding, ‘To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.’ And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”

It was a great reminder to me than in this age of Kindles and iPhones and more, there remains an issue of optimal form-factor. I keep seeing comments on blogs from folks who insist that they get as much pleasure from reading an eBook as they would from holding and reading the book itself. I have no reason to doubt them, but they do not sway me. Why do people buy 42-inch plasma TVs if the iPhone is such a great way to watch video? I remain convinced that the best devices for perusing electronic content have yet to be invented, and the current mania for the mini is merely that, a mania (with the possible exception of music).

BTW: Later in the article Anthony Lane reminds us of the marvelous quip by Noel Coward after the premiere of “Lawrence”: “If Peter O’Toole had been any prettier the film would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia'”

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