Print: It’s Not Dead Yet

Christie Brinkley promoting her upcoming release TIMELESS BEAUTY at BookExpo America

On Friday I attended the 15th annual BookExpo America (for my cable friends: it’s like NCTA, but with books.) In a world where authors are the rock stars, attendees (booksellers and librarians) stand in long lines for autographed copies…even when the author isn’t Christie Brinkley (who was promoting her upcoming book Timeless Beauty and looked fabulous, BTW.) We keep hearing that digital media is killing the printed word, but I believe reports of print’s demise are grossly exaggerated. Print and digital will continue to evolve but will co-exist, just as video maimed — rather than killed — the radio star, and streaming video won’t completely annihilate cable TV.

In 2010's prescient Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart describes a not-so-distant future where printed books are dusty, musty relics of a bygone era used only by hopelessly uncool old people. Trying to avoid becoming a hopelessly uncool old person myself, I made the switch from mostly physical books to mostly e-books when I got an iPad Mini. I do most of my reading on the train commuting to work. I can take an entire library with me effortlessly on my Mini, or lug around a heavy print book that takes up half of the space in my bag.

In general I’m happy with the digital reading experience, although I just read I Am Malala (I give it 5 stars!) and kept wishing there was a glossary of the Pashtun terms that I didn’t understand. Guess what? There was a glossary, but it was at the end so I didn’t see it until I had finished the book. It would have been smart to put the glossary up front or, better yet, to hyperlink the words to their definitions.

Despite the convenience of digital books I’ve tried to keep printed books as my kids’ primary reading source for a number of reasons. They get enough screen time playing games and watching videos so it’s good to give their brains a break. And I want them to have an appreciation for the value of books, which is more difficult when a “book” is just a digital file. When Jack’s Sports Illustrated Kids arrives it’s also available on the iPad. But he likes to flip through the print magazine, read and re-read it, and tear out posters. I gave Natalie a copy of Animal Tales magazine and she loved it, tearing out pictures of cute animals that now adorn her bedroom walls. You can’t do that with digital. All of the middle schoolers in my town will be getting a Chromebook next year (high school students already have them) so it will be interesting to see how Jack’s relationship with printed books changes.

According to GeekWire, “Paper is back…’real’ books are on the rebound.” Paper book sales increased 2.4% last year, selling better than they have since ebooks took off in 2010. “The paper tome apparently hit rock bottom in 2012, but has since rallied in categories from children’s books to adult non-fiction, and formats from trade paperback to hardcover.” My client Hachette Book Group announced that in 2014 digital sales (ebooks and downloadable audio) represented 30% of net sales, compared to 33% in 2013. It may not seem like it when you see all the Kindles and iPads, but print is up and digital is down.

While Amazon has taken a wrecking ball to brick-and-mortar bookstores, there are signs of life there, too. As reported in the Publisher’s Weekly Show Daily, the number of independent bookstores has actually GROWN for the sixth year in a row. There are people who really want to go into a bookstore and browse rather than ordering their books with their toilet paper and TV shows. The shuttering of Borders in 2011 and the continuing closings of Barnes & Noble locations have left a real void for indies to fill.

What about newspapers? I’ve been reading The New York Times on the app on my Mini. I love the cleanliness factor: no dirty fingers from newsprint! The only catch is that I have to remember to open it up while I’m still in my Wifi-connected house. Once I do so it downloads immediately (a marked improvement over the last year or so.) The digital version can also be a richer experience. One day I was reading the food section on the Times app, sitting next to my father who was reading the print edition. In a piece about sandwiches he saw a couple of still photographs; I got interactive sandwiches that jumped apart to reveal images and additional information about the individual ingredients. As far as I can figure out, there are only two reasons we still get the print version: my husband likes the crossword puzzle (let’s be honest, Honey…we’re talking Monday and Tuesday…Wednesday, tops) and the plastic wrappers it comes in make great poop bags for dog walking. I don’t think those are user benefits The New York Times Company can bank on.

The Times is poised to hit 1 million digital subscribers this summer. Half of its digital readers now come from mobile. The average daily print circulation is 625,951; Sunday circ is about 1.3 million. It’s truly the best of times and the worst of times at the Times. Falling profits have meant the layoffs of many valuable long-term employees. But I have faith that the brand will adapt and survive. The Times was one of three news sources recommended by the instructor of a Social Media class I took recently, who is barely in her twenties; the other two being Mashable and Digiday. Her point was that to be an effective social media manager you need to know everything that’s going on in the world, and a general news source like the Times is the best way to keep up on a wide range of topics. Her assumption is that you’ll be consuming that content digitally, of course.

Nothing beats digital for immediacy. You can’t stay current by reading day-old news, or two week-old news in the case of The New York Times Book Review. It drives me crazy that they can’t figure out a way to print that thing closer to its distribution date. We hear about what movie was #1 at the weekend box office on Monday, but the bestseller lists are two weeks old by the time they arrive at our doorstep.

So put me firmly in the camp of preferring digital to print newspapers. When it comes to magazines, however, I still appreciate both formats. I love New York magazine and was saddened when it reduced its publication schedule from weekly to bi-monthly. I haven’t made the switch to digital partly because I don’t have Internet access during my commute. So until we get Wifi on NJ Transit, I’m stuck. I know New York magazine’s website has a lot of good digital content but I never seem to have the time to check it out. When I’m at work I’m working (crazy, I know) and when I’m at home I’m parenting; if I have any time to relax I watch TV the old fashioned way — on a TV. Plus, we need print magazines to occupy us at doctor’s offices and nail salons!

Print is cool again, and media brands known for their video or digital content are jumping on the bandwagon. Cable’s ID (Investigation Discovery) Network is distributing a series of true-crime special reports starting this summer. You can get the first issue, Women Who Kill, for $9.99 at a newsstand near you. Even tech website CNET went back to the future and launched a print magazine last November.

It all boils down to a matter of personal preference. Whether it’s on the printed page or on a digital device, keep reading. And thank you for reading Issue #2 of Thinking Out Laub.