It has become a popular parlor trick to predict the future of the publishing industry. Friends gather at the home of some mustachioed landed gentleman, and the good host closes his eyes, rubs his temples and says, “Profits from ebook sales will represent a fifty-percent market share by 2020,” or sometimes, leaning against a shimmering black piano, the host will lower his eyes and whisper, “Print is dead.”
But for as much as we love to participate in this game, as much as we enjoy applauding with righteous indignation as heroes lament the gurgling collapse of printed books and newspapers, the future is unpredictable. We can see patterns, and we can make analogies from similar industries in the past, but the future is truly unknowable.
I have previously suggested that neither the book industry nor the newspaper industry are terminal. And now, Evan Hughes, writing for Wired.com, echoes my thoughts by illustrating some of the vast complexities of the publishing industry:
Of all the worries in the publishing world these days, the king of them is cultural irrelevance. “The fact is that people don’t read anymore,” Steve Jobs told a reporter in 2008, blurting out the secret fear of bookish people everywhere. But consider this: In one week, people who don’t read anymore bought about half a million copies of a really long book called Steve Jobs. In the past year, Vintage has sold one book from the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy for every six American adults. The Big Six publishers—Random House, Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins—all make money, and at profit margins that are likely better than they were 50 years ago.
Hughes masterfully illustrates how the interests of a variety of parties — writers, Amazon, the Big Six publishers, and readers — have become murky. New technology has altered the marketplace like a black light changes an unlit room. But to claim, as has been claimed since before Mark Twain’s day, that “print is dead” — to claim that this latest new bit of technology will destroy the others — is to make a claim inconsistent with the complexities of the present and the curious weavings of the past.
But maybe it makes sense for publishers and authors to whip together a fear frenzie about print’s impending doom? Much the way North Korean leaders have kept their starving nation in perpetual late-stage preparations for global war, maybe a constant terror stream about the future of print will keep otherwise borderline book-buyers safely in the cradling arms of writers and publishers?
So I say, why not? I say: Long live “print is dead!” It may be all that is keeping print alive.