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Is there still room for traditional publishing in the digital age?

The digital market may be the most sustainable future for publishing but is there still room in our hearts for traditional formats?

April 2016

"With our circulations and advertising down, very substantially, the future of our print edition would inevitably be one of managing decline" said editor of the Independent, Amol Rajan in February 2016, justifying the paper's decision to pull the plug on its print editions. This move by such an established institution, which was first published as a broadsheet thirty years ago, underlines the prevalent transition from traditional print to digital that has taken place over the last ten years. In the words of Rajan, "there just aren't enough people who are prepared to pay for printed news". This follows on from the decision of Ascential (formerly Top Right Group) to retire the Emap brand, publisher of 17 magazines including Health Service Journal, Drapers and Retail Week, to instead focus on digital publications.

In today's tech-focused age, we are used to having everything, from taxis to television shows, available to us at the touch of the button. The world of print is no different, with readers able to download books, newspapers and magazines on screen with just one click. Indeed, with the substantial growth of audiobooks in recent years, a global industry currently valued at approximately US$2.8billion, many of us are clearly enjoying a book's content without having even to turn a page.

A number of companies are tapping into this digital market, selling reading as an interactive experience that is so much more than words on a page or screen. Take, for example, The Pigeon Hole, an app claiming to "transform" your reading experience. The app sells reading as a collaborative process, allowing people to read with others around the world, sharing comments in the margins and even with the author. Others are going one step further, offering 3D interactive children's books and cooking book apps with video demonstrations, forums and personalised shopping lists.

Publishers are also utilising the world of digital publication, though some more than others. Lonely Planet, for example, began producing interactive digital travel books in 2010. More recently, Cambridge University Press launched the digital publishing brand Cambridge Elements. This academic service sells itself as a "dynamic reference resource", publishing short academic papers and encouraging the use of social media and online debate alongside it.

Recent commentary has pointed towards a "slump" in eBook sales, with some suggestion that printed publications are again the popular choice as opposed to their eBook equivalents. Amazon announced just last month that it would open its second physical bookshop this summer and a study undertaken by The Bookseller Magazine shows that, in 2015, eBook sales for the five biggest publishers decreased by a collective 2.4%. What this analysis does not focus on, however, is that this is the first dip in eBook sales in the four year period covered and that the number of eBooks sold by these five publishers increased by over 20,000,000 units over the same period.

According to The Bookseller's study, in 2012 nearly 36 million eBooks were sold by these five publishers and, in 2015, this had increased to just under 48 million, with an estimated total 85.5 million e-books (including those that were self-published) sold in the UK that year alone. This figure, which does not appear to include interactive books and apps such as those discussed above, should be used instead to show just how much digital publication has grown. Amazon first launched the Kindle in 2007 and, 8 years on in 2015, eBooks represented an estimated 30% of book sales in the UK.

Digital Music

It is interesting to consider that eBooks have not replaced print to the same extent that streaming music and music downloads have taken over from the physical. In 2014, sales of digital music overtook physical sales for the first time and, in 2015, music streaming services, such as Spotify, were included in the UK's Consumer Price Inflation "basket of goods" to measure inflation. Like digital publications, companies are developing these services, with music app Pandora allowing artists to record "spontaneous audio messages" which can be sent to fans using the app. Perhaps due to cultural differences some territories have, interestingly, been quicker to engage in digital music than others, with Germany's physical sales remaining "robust" according to the IFPI.

The popularity of digital music should not, however, take away from the way digital has revolutionised the publication industry. Books and music are enjoyed in different ways; the growth of the digital music industry appears to be due to the ever-changing nature of the music charts and our desire to hear the newest "hits" before our peers. This need does not apply to the same extent to books and a more accurate comparison would be that of printed news which, as discussed above, is clearly being taken over by digital. Like eBooks, there has again been commentary that a revival in the music field of old formats such as CD, vinyl and compact cassette has taken place. A study undertaken by the IFPI, for example, shows sales figures of vinyl in the United Kingdom having increased by 60.1% in 2014 and a report by the Entertainment Retailers Association shows that CDs and/or vinyl records were available in 14,727 UK entertainment outlets in 2015. Looking at the Official UK Vinyl Albums Chart, however, the nature of such purchases appears to be, if not for nostalgic reasons, then still to purchase the "classics" as opposed to the Top 40. Streaming services should not, therefore, feel threatened.

The move from print to digital publication is something that should not only be acknowledged but embraced. Readers are now able to access and enjoy a publication's content in ways most convenient to them, and publishers appear increasingly willing to accommodate this. Printed books will always have a place in people's hearts, but that doesn't mean that there isn't also space for digital.

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Is there still room for traditional publishing in the digital age?
Paul Mitchell


Charlotte Jackson

Charlotte Jackson

Paul and Charlotte look at the future of print in the digital age.

"In today's tech-focused age, we are used to having everything...available to us at the touch of the button. The world of print is no different."