“Print is dead.” – Egon Spengler, “Ghostbusters”
Not yet, Egon, but those words definitely mean more in today’s publishing world than they did back in 1984. While concrete statistics vary depending on source and the increased availability of devices that can be used as e-readers over the years, one thing everyone can agree on is this: Sales of digital books are dramatically rising, and sales of printed books are not.
Before I go on, I’ll put a disclaimer out there. I’m a huge fan of print. My earliest childhood memories include spending hours at the library devouring every book I could, or flipping through comics to watch my favorite heroes do battle with the forces of evil on the printed page. As an unpublished author finishing work on a young adult trilogy, I’d very much like to see my novels on a bookstore shelf. I won’t lie, I’m heavily biased toward print, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the benefits of digital. I’m even finalizing plans on releasing an ebook anthology of short stories set in my trilogy’s fictional world. As such, this isn’t going to be a post on why one format is better than the other. To fight vehemently against digital in favor of print would be like fighting against cell phones in favor of home phones , and other people have engaged in those debates all over the internet. You may even have done the same with your friends. No, this is going to be a post about how to have our cake and eat it, too, by looking at how this formatting innovation is impacting the stores that were once the primary means of acquiring books and comics, and how a few creative choices can allow digital to thrive without killing print.
New media is exploding all over the place, and just as major studio execs have no idea how to handle the boom of webisodes and online films, book publishers still haven’t figured out what to do with ebooks. Do they charge the same price as the printed version? Do they slash the price for digital and try to recoup the cost elsewhere? So far, the trend seems to be cutting the price of a hardcover in half for the digital version, while your standard mass market books (you know, those Dragonlance novels and movie adaptations on your shelf) remain around the same price. And that’s just the major publishers. Self-publishers are bypassing the need for big publishing houses by going straight to digital format, which eliminates the need to sink the majority of their sales earnings into paying the printing costs and gives them a much larger share of the book’s profit. (A percentage is still taken out of a book’s sales by the digital distributor, of course.) Comics now are emulating the book business by moving into the digital domain, with larger publishers putting out both traditional print comics and digital copies while independent publishers are migrating almost entirely to digital.
As digital format becomes a larger part of consumer buying, what with Kindles and Nooks and iPads becoming more affordable and more versatile, what happens to the stores that sell the print books? Borders Books & Music, the nation’s second largest bookstore after Barnes & Noble, will be closing its doors forever in September, but that’s also attributed to their poor handling of online sales (and, speaking as a former Borders employee, poor leadership from the people in charge). Still, this doesn’t bode well for smaller bookstores that don’t have their own e-reader to sell and can’t compete with the discounted prices of online sellers. It isn’t very promising for comic book stores, either, many of which struggle to keep their doors open anyway and will be hit the hardest if more sales go directly to the digital distributors instead of through their shops. In the past decade, I’ve seen two favorite comic stores of mine close because they couldn’t make enough sales. It’s no wonder they’re so anxious about DC Comics’ announcement to initiate same-day digital comic releases with their print titles.
So, what’s the solution? How do we keep these stores open while allowing the digital format to grow and thrive? Selling e-readers doesn’t’ seem like a bad idea, except you’re more likely to get a better deal buying them from a dedicated electronics store or online. In an ideal compromise solution, digital copies should cost just as much as printed ones from distributors, with occasional sales on specific titles or genres, much like what Steam does to sell video games online. The problem there is that a precedent has already been set with lower costs for the more expensive books, so kicking the price back up to match the printed copy will have a nasty backlash among digital consumers. Another solution is to flip the incentives that digital distributors offer buyers. Instead of selling bonus material with the digital copy, sell it with the printed one instead. This balances the scales by giving you the convenience of a digital copy for cheap and equalizes the higher cost of the physical copy with something extra. Along the same lines, print can indulge in gimmicks that can’t be duplicated by its digital cousin, such as heat-sensitive ink.
My favorite solution to the whole digital and print problem, however, is one that’s already in play for DVD and Blu-Ray. I’m sure you’ve seen the slips of paper packaged with certain discs when you buy them, the ones with the digital copy code, right? That’s right, the solution to having both digital and print living in harmony is to tie them together as one. Buy a book or comic, get a code for the digital copy free of charge! It’s a solution that will ensure that the bigger companies continue to publish printed material for those who don’t like their books running out of batteries and allows people who do like e-books to take their physical collection anywhere their reader can go. And for the smaller companies who can only afford to go digital, they won’t have to worry about it one bit. Sales of print copies goes back up, independent publishers can still sell to their audience without breaking the bank, and consumers get the best of both worlds. It’s a win all around, as far as I’m concerned.
Look, digital books aren’t going away. But their rise doesn’t need to mean the death of print, or those places where print books are sold. It falls on the publisher’s shoulders to reconcile the two formats and present them in a way that won’t sabotage all their hard work. Failure to do so will mean the death of small stores and, eventually, will eat away at the biggest chains. And that will be a sad day indeed.
Voice your thoughts on the future of digital vs. print, and how publishers should approach both, over in the Comic Booked forums!