Friday, December 21, 2012

Digital Publishing: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

This is a guest post by Tony Viardo, the CEO of the publisher, Astor + Blue Editions. [Astor +Blue Editions has put its entire first season’s list of e-book titles on a holiday promotional sale for $0.99 or $1.99 until Jan. 7, 2013]

So how many articles have we read about E-books and Digital Publishing this year? For anyone who generally follows the book world (rabid booklover, book-blogger, industry pro or casual reader), we’re literally inundated with the amazing numbers—“E-book sales up 125% (again) over the 175% they were up from last year’s 225% increase!”—and equally amazing technological announcements—“Next Fall, the new ZimWittyZoomDitty tablet not only updates your Facebook and Goodreads friends whenever you snort in disgust … it cooks dinner for you at the same time!” 

This leads many to take at least casual stock of what’s going on/going to happen to the “Publishing World” as we know it. And if your friends are like my friends (hardcore print book consumers), that stock is usually pretty morbid (sharp Greenwich Village angst not included): “Print books are doomed, so are brick-and-mortar stores. Goodbye literary quality. Oh and some pajama-wearing techie living in a basement with a laptop is going to be the new Sulzburger; we’ll all have to bow down!” 

If you (or that good friend of yours) fall into the mortified category, my take (for what it’s worth) may come as positive news: E-books are not, and will not be, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas; in this case, the “Print World’s” bacon. Now, as the owner of a “Digital First” publishing house (Astor + Blue Editions, my opinions may easily be written off as self-serving and invalid. But bear with me for a minute… these are fact-based observations and I might just make sense (Someone tell my mom and dad). 

As someone who earns a living from publishing, I have to follow numbers and industry trends as closely as possible. And while some see doom and gloom for Print, I see exciting developments for both Print and E-book formats. What do the numbers show? Digital book revenue is skyrocketing, print revenue is declining. Natural conclusion? E-books are killing print books. But not so fast. Historically, Print revenue has always seemed to be declining (even before E-books were invented), but that doesn’t mean the book market is dying or shrinking. 

We have to remember that in fact the book market is growing. Readership always grows because population always grows. Every year, new readers enter the vast pool of the club that is “adult readership,” (despite Dancing with the Stars). And every year more readers are being born and theoretically being inspired by Ms. Crabtree’s elementary reading class. **So why the decline? Readership grows gradually, but the sheer number of books and book vendors grow exponentially, showing an investment loss almost every year. (Basic statistics: the widening universe makes it look like a shrinking pie when it isn’t). 

So what does this mean? If you look at the numbers (historically), revenue for print books may have declined, yes, but not more than “normal,” and not significantly more than it did when there were no E-books around. (This is arguable of course, but the long term numbers do not show a precipitous drop-off). The yearly revenue decline, if there is one, can just as easily be written off to economic conditions as to E-book competition. Bottom line: Any drop in print revenue that may be caused by E-books are not significantly sharp enough to declare that E-books are destroying print book sales. (Hence no Grinch). 

What may be happening, and what I believe is happening is that a whole new market for E-books is developing, while the print book market growth, like Publishing as a whole, is still growing at a historically gradual pace. (Boringly flat). Come up with your pet anecdote here, but I believe that more new readers are entering the market (who otherwise wouldn’t have) because of E-readers; existing readers are consuming more books (both print and e-book) than they did before; and while it would seem that a certain print title is losing a sale whenever readers buy it in E-book format, this is offset, at least somewhat, by the fact that more print titles are being bought (that otherwise wouldn’t) because of the extra marketing buzz and added awareness produced by the E-book’s cyber presence. All of it evens out in the end, and I believe, ultimately fosters growth industry-wide. 

So take heart Print fans, E-books are not the dark villain you think they are. And here, I should correct my earlier analogy—that E-books are not the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. They may actually be the Grinch…in as much as, at the end of the story, the pear-shaped green guy ended up not only giving all the presents back to the singing Who-villers, he created a flash mob and started a big party as well.