Navigating the Digital Landscape: The Society of New Communications Research's Senior Fellow Danny O. Snow on the Impact of New Digital Formats and Technologies on Publishing
By Melissa Ward
As the recession trudges on, you may have noticed that the bookstore you pass every morning on your way to work has hung the dreaded “Going Out of Business” sign in the front window. Even larger book-selling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, have reported declining sales, despite their large inventories, events and in-store cafés. Sales are moving online, and e-books and e-readers are growing increasingly popular. What does this mean for the future of traditional book publishers and the print books they produce?
To answer this question, Book Business Extra spoke with Danny O. Snow, senior fellow of The Society for New Communications Research—a nonprofit think tank dedicated to the advanced study of the latest developments in new media and communications—to talk about the impact that new technologies are having on the publishing industry. Snow also will present a related session “Book Publishing in 2009's Digital Landscape,” at this year's Publishing Business Conference & Expo, March 23-25, in New York City.
Book Business Extra: What are some of the first steps smaller and mid-size publishers can take who haven't yet invested heavily in new technologies?
Danny O. Snow: First, recognize that online book-selling is the wave of the future, even if you are still printing and distributing books the traditional way. Consumers are buying more and more books online, while “brick-and-mortar” bookstores struggle. This trend is virtually certain to accelerate in a time of economic crisis and high fuel prices. Why should consumers drive to bookstores when they can browse online from the comfort of their homes or offices—saving time, money and natural resources?
If you are sending PDF files to your printer, you’re already in the e-book business, whether you know it or not. Send the same PDF files to Google [Book Search], and your content can soon start generating revenues in digital form. Find a DAD [digital asset distributor] and your PDFs can be rapidly re-formatted for electronic publication on a variety of platforms with a minimum of investment or technical hassle, wringing more revenue from the work already completed getting the print edition published. Don’t fall prey to the illusion that e-books will erode sales of printed books; that isn’t going to happen for another decade or two.
[Lastly], unless you’re fortunate enough to publish nothing but brisk sellers, look very carefully at print-on-demand [POD] as a way to keep your backlist in print, and revive out-of-print titles. POD also affords publishers a better way to “incubate” new books and test their actual public appeal before the publisher invests more heavily in bulk printing, trade distribution and promotion.
Extra: If a publisher only has the time and resources to invest in one or two new areas, which ones should it take advantage of?
Snow: POD … . [Also look into] methods for selling books beyond conventional publishing trade channels (bookstores and libraries) that are more closely related to the subject matter. For example, a travel guide may sell more briskly at a travel agency than a bookstore. Books are now sold almost everywhere: in supermarkets, truck stops, doctors’ offices, etc. A landmark study by the Book Industry Study Group in 2005, titled “Under the Radar,” documents that these “non-traditional” outlets now represent an annual market of at least $11.5 billion. Savvy publishers will increasingly move more books through specialty and niche marketing channels.
Extra: Which technology or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on the publishing industry this year?
Snow: Watch for widespread bookstore closures in 2009, with a greater share of book sales moving online, especially through non-traditional outlets. Technologies that promote e-commerce for publishers will flourish as a result.
Extra: What do you think the Google Book Search settlement will mean for publishers and authors?
Snow: Out-of-print and backlist titles will return with a vengeance, capturing a greater share of total book sales. And this revival may not just be online, but also in print because it seems likely that Google will be smart enough to find a way to make millions of older books available in print as POD books in addition to their digital counterparts.
Extra: In your opinion, how will the future of e-books impact the future of print books?
Snow: The importance of e-books is growing. But as predicted in “The Myth of the Paperless Office” (Harper and Sellen, MIT Press, 2001), it’s unlikely that e-books will supplant tree books anytime soon. Instead, watch for a gradual migration from print to digital formats, most likely on open-platform, multi-purpose devices rather than dedicated e-book readers. POD is the bridge technology in the interim, combining many of the benefits of digital distribution with the comfort and economy of print for readers. Everyday people still prefer “real” books, and according to a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, titled “Reading on the Rise,” the audience for “literary” material is growing rather than shrinking, with 112 million readers in the United States alone. These factors suggest that foresighted publishers will position themselves for increasing digital distribution in the future, while finding better ways to reach readers in print in today’s market.