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E-readers & Tablets : Defeating the Digital Myth

May 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
The battle against perception can be frustrating, not to mention a losing proposition. Once an idea takes root in the American psyche, it can often take years to dissuade the masses from buying into a misguided notion. After all, it’s been thousands of years and, despite empirical data (not to mention outer space photography), we still can’t convince everyone that the earth is not flat.

OK, so maybe that’s an extreme example, but you get the point. Christopher Columbus did not discover America (which is why it’s named after Amerigo Vespucci). Marie Antoinette never used the phrase “let them eat cake” (it was written by Rousseau when the future ruler was just 10 years old). George Washington’s false teeth were not made of wood (they were found to be comprised of ivory, gold, lead, human and animal teeth). Eww!

For those naysayers out there who blame the media for everything, a little grist for the mill (both compliments of newspaper hacks in the Windy City): Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t kick over a lantern that started The Great Chicago Fire in 1871. And, a little boy never uttered the phrase “Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” to Joe Jackson after his grand jury testimony resulting from the 1919 World Series fix scandal. Both were fabrications by writers trying to add personality to what should have been mundane, yet honest and accurate, accounts of what actually happened. 

Digital Misconception

Fast forward 90-odd years, and we’re met with the largely popular, yet baseless and unfounded, perception that digital is taking the place of the printed word. Sure, 50 years from now—when electronic communication has almost completely pushed ink on paper to the edge of extinction—pundits may read this and laugh at the author’s short-sighted viewpoint. But, for the here and now, Kindles, Nooks, iPads, tablets and other various electronic devices have not fired off a kill shot to the heart of print.

“Print is still the cornerstone of the magazine business,” states Dr. Samir Husni, a.k.a. Mr. Magazine and the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. He is professor and Hederman lecturer at the School of Journalism, not to mention a popular speaker, media consultant and researcher for the magazine media and publishing industry. Dr. Husni is also the president and CEO of Magazine Consulting & Research, a firm specializing in new magazine launches, repositioning of established magazines, and packaging publications for better sales and presentations.

“Even those publishers who are expanding and going in to digital work, it’s still based on print and, with few exceptions, no one is divorcing print to focus on digital,” he adds. 

Magazines that banish the print edition generally sign their own death warrant, Dr. Husni notes, and none are thriving as online-only editions. He cited some B2B and niche IT publications that don’t rely on newsstand visibility. And, for those who drop the print edition, it’s a matter of not having a sustainable advertising revenue model.

Magazine publishers are still trying to find their way with a revenue model on the digital side. Too many of the heavy hitters—Time Inc., Condé Nast—are providing all access (digital and print) to subscribers. Dr. Husni points out that Amazon doesn’t send a print version of the book you purchase for the Kindle, and Apple doesn’t mail you a CD when you purchase songs off iTunes.

“(Digital) is a business that’s three or four years old as compared to (print) that’s been around for 200 years,” he says. “To me, the printed magazine is the best laptop ever invented. It doesn’t overheat. The copy is clear, you don’t need a screen and it’s cheap. If I get mad at the magazine, I throw it across the room. If I get mad at my iPad and throw it across the room, it’s going to cost me $700.”

As publishers look to cultivate readership online and in print, Dr. Husni believes it’s important to create an experience that is unique to its medium, not to mention relevant, sufficient and necessary. With the meat of readership aged 25-65 relying on both media, he feels it’s important for publishers to study and learn what it is that they want. “But, to give me the same experience everywhere is not going to work,” he points out.

The Ovid Bell Press, a short-run publication and catalog printer based in Fulton, MO, produces about 400 different publications of varying frequency. According to John Bell, CEO, the company did witness a reduction in print volume during 2011, but the impact has been “less than dramatic.” 

One of the avenues Ovid Bell Press is using to supplement income is via its OMag digital edition offering. For just $3 per page, publishers can feature video, audio, flash animation and links, with three years of hosting (no minimum page counts). In February, Ovid Bell Press digitized more than 3,700 customer pages.

“For several years, we’ve encouraged customers to go online and take advantage of our multi-pronged attack,” Bell relates. “We became involved because we have substantially greater buying power than our individual customers. We’re able to offer them a low-cost avenue to the digital world.”

While neither Bell nor his publisher clients are turning a blind eye to the inroads made by digital, many of those publishers remain bullish on print. Bell hasn’t been privy to anecdotal info about publishers that are thriving outside the print arena.

Bell feels his firm is in an advantageous position as a short-run server; he feels the mass circulation publications are more susceptible to digital erosion. And, with many customers already availing themselves of the OMag digital edition—a service that includes a full suite of analytics reports, including click info that’s of great value to advertisers—the digital realm doesn’t pose a disruptive threat for Ovid Bell Press.

“Our clear focus is on print,” Bell notes. “We feel it’s important that our customers have a multifaceted approach, and that’s why we invested time and effort into the OMag program. 

“Our sales for our fiscal year, which will end (in April), grew in excess of 8 percent. Profitability isn’t where I’d like it to be, though; pricing pressure in all facets of the industry are really unbearable. But, we truly see a really strong future at Ovid Bell Press.”

One printer in America’s heartland, Ripon Printers—named after the Wisconsin city it calls home—has witnessed a reduction in run lengths for its magazine and catalog products. Mike Thorson, prepress manager at Ripon, doesn’t necessarily believe this trend is a byproduct of the digital revolution.

“A few customers who tried to go 100 percent digital have since returned to print, though admittedly with smaller circulations,” Thorson notes. “Yet, once you get beyond the obvious candidates like those in the technology sector, digital share isn’t all that high. In fact, several authorities say achieving 15 percent digital circulation is a good goal for a magazine.

“In the catalog sector, there is no doubt that print still drives sales,” he adds, pointing out that variables such as the trend toward multichannel communications are also helping to erode print runs.

Ripon Printers offers a suite of digital editions for its magazine and catalog clients, and is in the process of developing mobile applications. Other digital services include e-mail campaigns, personalized URLs and on-demand print alternatives.

Thorson believes the mantra that print and digital can be effectively integrated into a cross-media strategy, with customer preferences driving publishers’ decisions.

“Publishers are still struggling to adequately monetize many of their digital programs,” he says. “This might improve as time goes on, but it’s difficult to match print advertising dollars with what many describe as ‘digital dimes.’ ”

The most dramatic influence on print demand is in the book arena, although both print and digital book versions have experienced stellar year-over-year growth courtesy of what is viewed as an improving economy, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP). 

The Trade space net revenue grew 27 percent in January 2012 compared to January 2011, with Children’s/Young Adult physical format hardcover and paperback registering increases of 68.9 percent and 61.9 percent, respectively. On the digital side, a 475 percent increase was realized; largely a factor of more available options
in the marketplace for devices aimed at those demographics.

On the Adult side, mass-market paperbacks took the greatest hit, a 22.5 percent decrease, while e-books jumped nearly 50 percent to $99.5 million, according to the AAP snapshot report. Overall, Trade grew 27.1 percent on sales of $503.5 million this past January, further evidence of multi-platform growth.

“The growth of e-readers in the trade world has caused some publishers to realize that some amount of print sales is now occurring as e-books, which has caused them to dial back the print runs,” notes Peter Tobin, vice president of North Chelmsford, MA-based Courier Corp. “Publishers would tell you that the most common use for an e-reader is reading fiction. Consequently, works of fiction have seen printing runs drop at a greater rate than nonfiction titles because there’s been more migration to e-readers. 

“It has had an impact in the education market, where there’s been a lot of talk about textbooks moving to an electronic format,” Tobin adds. “The reality continues to be that the vast majority of textbooks continue to be in print. They coexist with an electronic component, but the printed textbook is still—hands down—the majority of demand. It certainly is evolving and changing, but not at the same pace as with trade fiction.” PI


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