Print vs. Digital

Print vs. Digital

So, I have this crazy notion that paper will be sidelined for digital within the next five years. I tend to shock people by saying that “paper will be dead within five years”. Once that grabs the attention, I like to add that that is “dead” with an asterisk. What is the asterisk? By “dead” I mean that print books, magazines, comics, etc. will become much more of a niche market. I see print as slowly drifting to the edge of demand like the LP has within the music industry. I make the case that the pace of this change will soon increase to the point that five years will seem very reasonable and that change will be quicker for things like magazines and comics.

Here’s how I see the evolution of print media taking shape. As the cost of e-readers (be it your Kindle or your iPad or even in some cases just your phone) continues to drop, people will increasingly consume that content in a digital way. I see that trend only growing over time for a host of convenience reasons. Knowing that there isn’t all that big a margin on print books, the existing print market will begin to face increasing challenges meeting production costs. Hardbacks average roughly a 12% gross profit margin with 5% being the average net profit (reference askville). Controlling print costs and mass-producing each title generate a portion of this profit. Essentially, the more you print, the cheaper it costs to print each individual book. As digital usage rises, the numbers of each title printed will go down slowly raising the cost to produce each individual book. As that book becomes more costly to produce, either the price will rise for the consumer or the profit margin will shrink for the producer. As the cost rises, it will eventually become a market that caters to the individual who is willing to pay more to have it in the traditional form of paper further speeding the overall trend toward digital consumption. Over time, print will cease to be the standard and, instead, become a market that caters to those who are willing to go out of their way for the comfort of a printed book. I speculate that this will take five years.

The date of Thursday, May 19th 2011 was the first sign that my point, which I’ve been talked about and advocated over on for well over a year and a half, was beginning to take hold. That was the day that announced that e-books had taken the lead outselling print books. Let the games begin!

From storage costs to shipping costs to the need for brink and mortar stores to (in some cases) sell those books, there are so many expenses that will ultimately play into the evolution of print media. I feel that media that caters to smaller audiences will see the change first. Those would be areas like comics, magazines and newspapers. We’re already seeing this trend take shape as sales drop and digital consumption increases taking advantage of new ways to deliver enhanced content with each new publication.

This week on the show, Ginny Tonic and I discuss the topic and share some additional thoughts. Does she call crazy? Do we love or lament the possible coming change? What are the positives or negatives of all this? Tune in Wednesday and hear more!

5 Responsesto “Print vs. Digital”

  1. Joe says:

    Definitely a dilemma for me. As someone who reads a fair amount, I was torn with the idea of switching to digital. In the end fate intervened and I was given a Kindle as a gift. While I miss the tactile aspect of reading a book, I do like that I don’t have a stack of already read books on my floor collecting dust. Which I also found to be a bit of a waste (not to mention the shear loss of trees for those printers who still print on regular paper). So, Kindle is my new way of reading…for books. NOT comic books. I still can’t get away from the experience of reading a comic book in my hand and not on a screen. I don’t see myself switching anytime soon.

  2. Bryan Deemer says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I’ve been loving comics on my iPad for more than a year now.

    Two months ago I got a Kindle and I’ve been reading more than I have for a while. It’s so easy and fun. I have a large to-read stack of books that I wish I had in digital format. I’d be more likely to read them sooner rather than later.

    There’s no doubt that digital is here to stay. Print will end up being all about fancy, special-edition hard covers and things like that.

    If you don’t have a Kindle, buy one. You’ll love it.

  3. Cary Kelley says:

    I think you’re spot on with this, and it’s been pretty much a no-brainer for folks on the inside of any printing business for a while now. Those of us actually doing the printing and selling saw it happening, despite the naysayers and the hopefuls. But then they said Cds would never kill LPs as well.

  4. Stet says:

    A few points to consider before becoming too giddy over e-books:

    You can’t sell an e-book.

    You can’t buy a used e-book.

    You can’t donate or give away an e-book you bought.

    Your kids & grandkids will not inherit your collection of digital comics or library of e-books. It dies with you.

    Those with less wealth will not receive the handed down and discarded e-books of those with more wealth.

    All you get when you “buy” an e-book is a license. A personal, non-transferable license (from an entity that may or may not exist in a decade or two).

    • Cary Kelley says:


      Yes, you can sell an ebook, folks buy them all the time. split hairs about “license” all you want, but if you’re paying for it, you’ve bought it, and someone sold it for all intents and purposes. Now if you’re talking about re-selling…then yeah that’s a bit different, but unless you’re a used book dealer does that matter? I can’t recall the last book I sold to anyone.

      Who needs to buy used ebooks when they’re so readily available online? Yeah yeah I know, piracy and all, but get real. My friends lend me books they have purchased all the time and vice versa. It’s no different than buying the newest John Grisham and loaning it to my mom when I’m done with it.

      Donations and less wealthy wise…refer back to my mention of nearly everything being freely available online.

      As for inheritance, if I want to gift books to my kids and grandkids, I’ll buy them hardbacks, or let em raid my library. Chuck’s not saying print is dead completely, he’s saying it’ll become niche, and by and large that process of conversion has already begun to happen.

      Folks can naysay all they want, and that’s natural, but like the man says, you can’t stop the signal. It’s coming regardless.


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