2.10 The Death of Print

Digital has not so much killed off print media as exposed flaws in the business models of publishers. The leading US media companies saw a 6.1% gain in revenues from 2010 to 2011, for example, but newspapers continued their decline, and results were mixed in the book and magazine publishing markets. {1} UK print media fared even worse. {18}


Newspapers have declined in circulation and profitability as the public increasingly took its news and information from the Internet. Many local US newspapers have been obliged to close, or go online: 46% are already charging for some online content, and another 39% plan to do so. {2} The Times now charges for online content, indeed has tried several models in recent years. {3} Helpful to newspapers have been the iPad and similar tablet computers, {4} as readers will pay for the convenience of reading on such devices, but reading patterns are changing. Online readers do not turn to the once popular (and advertising-rich) home and garden, travel and automotive sections, but go direct to Homes and Gardens, Bing Travel and Edmunds. {5}

The traditional newspaper business model is failing because newspapers, especially when local: {6}

1. Have not invested in technological change, but simply extended advertising spread by acquiring other newspapers. The bond with the reader — i.e. through cultivating newsstand sales and subscriptions: customer relationships — has weakened.
2. Became bland and safe, more lapdogs than watchdogs. Afraid to upset readers, government officials and advertisers, journalism no longer aspired to any serious duty, turning even important issues into trivia or shallow party propaganda. {31}
3. Were no longer expressions of the community, allowing even 'forthcoming events' to be taken over by free webzines and blogs.
4. Are pervaded by an outdated camaraderie: afraid of change, slow to learn alternative technologies, unconcerned about security.
5. Have badly laid-out online versions which don't put the reader first: cluttered with irrelevant material, hard to search and navigate.

Changes are inevitable, {7} with some seeing the future in tablet applications. {35}

Books: Publisher's Perspective

The number of US book titles almost doubled between 2002 and 2010, with hefty increases in fiction, biography, poetry & drama and science. {8} {9} Nonetheless, book publishers are not prospering, for a combination of reasons:

1. Most titles make a loss, often not recouping the author's advance. {10} Some 98% are indeed noncommercial. {28}
2. Amazon has forced steep book price discounts on the market and threatened retailers: the US has only one major bookseller left: Barnes and Noble. {11} {32}
3. Amazon's Kindle has increased competition from ebooks. {12}

Declining profits have forced publishers to concentrate on what will sell in bulk: textbooks, celebrity memoirs, self-help, cooking and gardening books. Thoughtful fiction, together with poetry and art books, accounts for only 3.3% of the market. {13} The average first novel, attractively written and favorably reviewed in leading newspapers, will sell only a few thousand copies over its shelf life. {14} Ditto for computer books. {11} Publishers can afford to carry only a few new names on their lists, and generally focus on that small percentage of writers who pay their salaries. {16}

Equally bleak was the academic publishing scene, even before digital started making inroads. A 1997 review of sales by the prestigious Cambridge University Press found: {15}

Of 18,000 titles offered, more than 8,000 sold less than 500 copies a year, and 3,500 sold less than 10. On average, 1,500 new titles appeared each year but the average title sold 32 copies a year. CUP turned to PoD publishing for slower-moving titles. Academic books often need to be subsidized by grants and/or by their authors, a subject of anguished debate on academic sites and blogs. {17}

Books: Author's Perspective

Books are the product of a long historical process, and the finished product relies on many specialist skills and services. The work has to be researched and written, proofed, typeset, a cover designed, printed, reviewed, warehoused, distributed and sold through booksellers throughout the country or abroad. Costs pile up, and what's left over for authors can be very modest — 10% of retail price at best. Contracts are becoming more onerous to writers even as their share of the proceeds decreases. Books are tailored to particular markets, and are therefore restricted to safe themes and obvious treatments. Manuscripts must be delivered on time, year in and year out, and writers make themselves available for tours, chat-shows, book-signings and the like. Problems with copyright and libel are becoming exclusively the author's responsibility, as agreements allow the publisher to sidestep these issues. {13}

Many writers earn far more from reviewing, teaching, adjudicating competitions, giving talks, running workshops, and/or appearing on radio than from royalties on their publications. {19} Twenty odd years ago, some 70,000 new books were published each year in Britain, of which 6,000 were novels. Twenty percent of the novels had some claim to literary respectability. {20} There were big-earners, multimillionaires even, but only 300 full-time novelists made over £8,000 p.a., with another 300 supplementing income from journalism, and another 900 supplementing income from some other literary activity. Figures from other countries were equally depressing (e.g. 1250, 750 and 1750 respectively for the States), {18} and these will not have improved recently.

Rebecca Brandywyne spoke for many when she remarked: 'the hard reality is that the vast majority of authors cannot earn even a comfortable — much less a luxurious — living from their writing careers, and, unless they have access to other sources of funding (such as a working spouse, investments and dividends, or an inheritance), are frequently compelled to take other jobs as their primary means of financial support.' She provided a worked example: a mass-market paperback book of 25,000 copies printed, an average return rate of 50%, an average $6.50 cover price, and an average 6% royalty rate. Royalties would amount to $4,875, less agent fees of $731.25, leaving the author a before-tax profit of $4,143.75. {21}

Many authors turn to self publishing, which the Internet has facilitated through websites and various applications: MS Word, InDesign, Acrobat and web page compilers. Instead of selling their copyright, which the publishers may or may not use as they see fit, authors retain copyright and undertake the publishing themselves, selling through Amazon {23} or their own websites. Considerable flair and marketing skills are required for this approach, however, and though 'long tail' publishers can survive by selling a dozen copies a year of work by 100,000 authors, the individual authors clearly cannot. The professional writer may largely disappear. {24}

Print Prospects

Three trends are emerging:

1. Growth of ebooks, now 13% of the US fiction market and expected to rise rapidly from its current few percent in Europe, China and Brazil. {34}

2. Improving Print on Demand technology: even today a high street printer can turn out a professional-looking document from a file submitted by hand or over the Internet. {25}

3. Increasing book piracy (as other forms of media piracy): many popular works are already available through Bit Torrent and other sources. {26} {27} Booksellers and publishers are seriously threatened, and though their rights are protected by severe penalties, prosecution may only strengthen suspicions that middlemen are furthering their own interests more than those of the artists, performers and authors they purport to serve. Readers in future may well accept a lower standard of proofing and typesetting to see the lion's share of sales go to authors, such as still survive.


1. Why is the publishing industry in general so gloomy about prospects? Are they justified in this?
2. What are the reasons for the decline in traditional newspaper sales, and what could be done to reverse the trend?
3. Why are book publishers focusing on more restricted market segments?
4. What can authors do towards making themselves more marketable?

Sources and Further Reading

1. 100 Leading Media Companies by Bradley Johnson. Adage. September 2010.
2. Newspaper Death Watch. Articles on US newspapers and journalism.
3. The Times to Charge for Frequent Access to Its Web Site by Richard Pérez-Peña. NYT. January 2010.
4. iPad Newspapers: Ripe For Innovation by Richard MacManus. Read Write Web. August 2010.
5. Google's Chief Economist: The iPad Is Not Going To Save Newspapers by Tasneem Raja. Business Insider. January 2010.
6. Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing by Bill Wyman. Splice Today. August 2009.
7. How to Save Media: Newspapers and magazines won't vanish, but they must change by Jason Pontin. Technology Review. May 2009.
8. The death of books has been greatly exaggerated by Lloyd Shepherd. The Guardian. August 2011. An alternative view, probably over-optimistic, but identifying the main threats.
9. New Book Titles and Editions 2001-2010. Bowkers. 2011. Detailed table.
10. The Future of Book Publishing by Thad McIlroy. The Future of Publishing. c 2008. A detailed picture before serious attack from ebooks.
11. Programming Book Profits by John Resig. eJohn. January 2008. Real sales figures from a writer of computing books.
12. Print reading continues decline as e-books soar by Matthew Flamm. Crain's New York. December 2010.
13. The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. Para Publishing. 224.
14. Scribblers for Bread by George Greenfield. Norton. 1989.
15. Cambridge University Press Redefines Out of Print. Azurn. 2008.
16. The Untouchables: How You Fit Into the Publishing Caste System by Nina L. Diamond. Independent Publisher. Undated.
17. University Presses, Libraries, Monographs and Ultimate yellow brick roads? by Colin Steel. Yale Library. February 2007.
18. Practical Publishing by Colin John Holcombe. Ocaso Press. 2010.
19. The Poetry Business by Peter Finch. 1994.
20. A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980's by D.J. Taylor. 1989.
21. Advances and Royalties: How Authors are Paid by Rebecca Brandywine. Brandywine. July 2004.
22. Book Cost Analysis — Cost of Physical Book Publishing. IReader Review. May 2009.
23. How do I sell ebooks on amazon.com? Askville. May 2009.
24. Are books dead, and can authors survive? by Ewan Morrison. The Guardian. August 2011.
25. POD Printers: Lightning Source vs. Textstream 69 by Hudson. Hubpages. November 2010.
26. The Death of Publishers. Adrian Hon blog. July 2007.
27. Your time is up, publishers. Book piracy is about to arrive on a massive scale by Adrian Hon. The Telegraph. October 2010.
28. The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Hyperion. 2006. p. 76.
29. Can Books-A-Million Manage Its Way Out of Bad Economics? by Igor Novgorodsev. SeekingAlpha. May 2011. Book retail woes.
30. Institute for the Future of Books. Think-tank investigating the move of intellectual discourse to networked screens. News and articles.
31. The Idiot Culture by Carl Bernstein. CarlBernstein.Com. June 1992.
32. Judge OKs Borders Liquidation by Joseph Checkler. WSJ. July 2011. Liquidation of most of Borders Group Inc.'s remaining 399 bookstores.
34. The Global eBook Market: Current Conditions & Future Projections by Ruediger Wischenbart. O'Reilly Media. October 2011.
35. Are Apps the future of Publishing? by Alex Knapp. Forbes. April 2012.

36. The Academic's Guide to Self-Publishing. Open Education Database. April 2013. Current picture and resources.