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Publishers walking back on commitment to digital

Some publishers have begun backtracking on their commitments to digital, writes Ellen Duffer in a recent article at Forbes.com. At the Cheltenham Literature Festival (October 7-16 in Cheltenham, England), Penguin General Books managing director Joanna Prior said the company has started looking more critically at its investments in electronic publishing.

"There was a definite moment when we all went shooting out after the shiny app thing and spent money on that and invested probably unwisely in products that we thought could in some way enhance the book," she said. "We somehow lost confidence in the power of the word on the page, which was a bad moment."

Duffer notes that other articles have been touting the death of digital since last fall, when it became clear that e-book sales had fallen earlier in 2015. According to a September 22, 2015 article in the New York Times, there is a constant tug of war in publishing between print and digital, with the champions of each side relishing in the declining sales of the other.

A string of months in the recent past showing that e-book sales are suddenly in what seems like consistent decline. This would be great news for the paper industry in its bid to retain relevance in the future, and to investors looking for a return in that future. It would be bad for startups relying on e-books, however.

What is interesting, and may signal the more critical long-term trend, writes Duffer, is a major publisher’s decision to focus on print despite the now surprising increase popularity of digital replacements for paper products such as books on Amazon. A few days before the Cheltenham festival, One Click Retail announced that, based on its research, Amazon had seen a 73% increase in e-book sales in September 2016 over August 2016. There is still risk and conflict that generally will favor the print industry, slightly. But it will not stop electronic text reading from becoming more common and popular in the future.

It’s likely that Prior wasn’t talking about e-books, the digital versions of print equivalents, notes Duffer; “Her reference to apps makes it seem like the casualty will be the supplementary products like apps and interactive websites that offer bonus material to passionate readers. This is important to note—while people may be reading books digitally (regardless of whether they’re doing so more or less often than they did a couple of years ago), they may not be engaging digitally outside of the original content.” This means paper publishing may carry more “weight” in some regard.

Both the recent downfall of e-text popularity (regardless of the current anomaly at Amazon) and the risk and volatility in the market in general should provide paper production sales managers some key information they need to have the next generation of businesses continue paper text use instead of going digitally exclusive—a trend that may have gone too far and with little logic.

As Prior’s comments indicate, writes Duffer, publishers “are likely shifting back to print-centrism, having seen many expensive projects fail to produce positive returns. The strategic attempts to balance print and digital products will continue to evolve over the coming year, however, if Amazon sees more monthly digital gains.”


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