Ten years in the future, will children be asking Santa for a brand new copy of the Cat in the Hat, or will they prefer to swipe through the pages on their parent’s tablet? For decades, the traditional method of ink on paper has been the only method, but quite suddenly the advancement of personal computers, smart phones, and tablets, have propelled the industry in a new direction. Restricting the world of publishing to one genre is impossible, with the various arms touching upon textbooks, paperbacks, magazines and journals, and of course, the ever-present newspaper. The later has received critical attention, as its decline saw many workers faced with a jobless future. But will digital publishing continue to grow, or will print remain the preferred method?
The decline of the newspaper is something widely reported on since the early 2000s’, as Internet and cable television services received a spike. Contributing to the sharp decline was the loss of ad revenue, as free online sources became increasingly available. In 2013, two business school professors, Robert Seamans and Feng Zhu, released a study examining the monetary effect of Craigslist against local newspapers. Seamans is an assistant professor of management and organizations at the NYU Stern School of Business, and was once appointed to the White House council of economic advisors. Zhu is a professor of business and digital innovations at Harvard. They have both written extensively on innovation and competitive strategy within the high-tech field. Together, they came to the conclusion that between the years 2000 to 2007, Craigslist alone took away five billion dollars in classified-ad revenue. Larger periodicals, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, were left out of the analysis, to keep the focus on a local level. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Seamans states, “The main thing we were interested in studying here was how a disruption to one side of the newspaper business would affect a newspaper’s entire portfolio strategy going forward” (par 5). Newspapers had to raise subscription and newsstand prices, and drop advertising costs, as a means to compete. However, Siemans does not see this as a means to an end for the newspaper business, but as a way for it to evolve to something new. In the Forbes article, Siemans goes on to say, “I wouldn’t say Craigslist is killing newspapers. We hear a lot about how the newspaper industry is dying or maybe a dinosaur. My coauthor and I definitely don’t think that’s the case” (par 8). Although this study is comprehensive, it is now several years old, and there have been no follow up to see if digital subscriptions to any of the newspapers have had a financial impact since the end of the study, in 2007. Siemans believes the newspaper will live on; evolving just like it did after the introduction of the radio and television.
Which brings us to the current stage of evolution for print—the digital age. In contrast to the more upbeat possibility of the physical periodical living on, Jain Karan, the founder of MagFirst and the creative director of Foundr Magazine, believes fully in the advancement of digital publications replacing print. When interviewed by The Future of Everything, Karan had this to say about publishing, “Traditional print publishing is slowly finding itself turning obsolete with the rise of digital book publishing. Soon, printed books will attain the status of collector’s items for the visually interactive race that we are turning into” (par 4). Karan has everything to gain and nothing to lose with the loss of print publications and the advancement of the digital age, which would make his statement subjective. Under his various companies and ventures he has helped launch over thirty digital magazines and over two hundred issues. In addition, Karan works on all aspects of design and strategy for online publications, including branding and strategy. For him, it is easy to make such claims with no evidence to back it up, as he is constantly working in an environment where digital publications are on the rise. In the article itself he did not provide any numerical evidence to back up his argument, and his statement appears to be purely anecdotal, despite him being a big player in the publishing field.
It might surprise Jain Karan to find out that science may not be on his side, and there is growing evidence to suggest that physical publications will not be fading to obscurity when faced against today’s digital technology. In a study headed by Anne Mangen, whose research delves into the impact of material and technical interfaces on reading for the advancement of education, along with two other researches at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, Norway, a random sample of seventy-two tenth graders were evenly divided and provided with two texts. One group read the texts on paper and the other read them as a PDF. Mangen stated in the paper’s conclusion, “Main findings show that students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally. Implications of these findings for policymaking and test development are discussed” (International Journal of Education Research). To help understand why paper prevailed over the PDF, it is theorized that several factors contributed, including the negative effects of a computers backlight, and that the children found it easier to navigate a physical text. The time it took the children to read and comprehend the material was also significantly shorter on paper verse digital, and Mangen and her team theorize that having multi-sensory access to the material was part of the student’s ease; being able to see and feel the thickness and physical dimension. As a result, she has urged educational boards to not be so quick to adapt computers over physical counterparts. Although the test was conducted only a few years ago, in 2012, and published in 2013, new technology could be available now that was not available five years ago, that might influence Mangen’s study, and her belief that physical material is superior for learning. For instance, using computer screens without blue light, which causes eyestrain, might have a significant effect on the students. Also, the comprehensiveness of her test can be argued, since she only tested tenth graders, and a relatively small demographic of seventy two students. It’s possible that students from other countries or age brackets could change the outcome. The result of her study could influence academic publishers to continue using paper textbooks over digital, and students preferring paperback rather than their counterparts.
But even if a new study were to be conducted, science might have already found an answer as to why print is an easier format for the human brain to navigate. In a paper written by Ferris Jabr—a previous staff editor and now contributor for Scientific American, as well as the The New Yorker, and many additional science based anthologies—for Scientific American, the case is made that the human mind correlates to paper material on a subconscious level. The article begins by explaining how our brains use object recognition to distinguish one letter from another. Jabr states, “ … the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them” (par 8), and then he goes on to explain, “Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape” (par 10). The human brain sees a book as something comparable to a trail or a path to navigate, and the physicality of a book represents more of a topographical landscape when compared to a digital screen. Two scientific studies are relied upon for evidence of this phenomenon. The first, titled, Incidental memory for location of information in text, was a paper written in 1971 by the award winning educational psychologist Ernst Z. Rothkopf. It studied subjects being able to recall substantial aspects of a written composition to its place holding within the material. Fifty-three students were used for the experiment, and the result showed that when asked to recall a particular word or phrase, they often remembered where in the text it appeared. The second study, Construction of cognitive maps improve e-book reading and navigation, was conducted in 2013 by three scientists for the Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering, in Taiwan. Their study used an e-book reading system with an interactive toolbar and visible pages, compared to one without. The results showed that the participants with the visual cue-map performed better with reading, navigating, and reviewing the material. According to Jabr, as a result of trials such as these, the Kindle uses what is called E-ink, which is made to look as close to the chemical composition of ink as possible, and iBooks have a feature that mimics the turning of a page. An interface made by Jaejeung Kim of KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence in South Korea shows each individual page read on the left side and the unread pages on the right side. The reader can also flip through multiple pages or chapters with a swipe of their finger, or curl the paper to represent one hand reading. All of this technology is made to mimic the physical look and feel of paper material. Jabr’s article, written in 2013, has shown us why and how the brain prefers physical material, and it has also explained what the digital world is doing to compete.
Ferris Jabr is not the only professional writing about this “visual-terrain” reading experience. Maryanne Wolf, the director of the center for reading and language research at Tufts University, has written over a hundred and fifty scientific publications, including several novels, dealing with the cognitive effects of reading on the human brain. She has taken it one step further by discussing how the human brain learns to read. She addresses what we might see with the introduction of digital devices, especially with young generations who are learning to read on both mediums. In a video interview with tvo Parents, an online recourse educating parents so that they can help teach their children, Wolf addresses that reading is not a natural phenomenon in the human brain. Unlike vision and language, which come innately to children, reading rewrites the circuitry of our minds, by connecting those various aspects that were intended for other purposes. She does not give any supporting evidence to validate this claim in the interview, but it’s suggested that her novel, Proust and Squid: The Story and Science of the reading Brain, delves further into the topic. After discussing how reading for children relies upon visual cues in one of its stages—the ability to remember pages and lines when read to, and knowing when a page is skipped—she is asked how the digital age will affect the reading mind. She gives a two-pronged answer, first by stating that no one knows quite yet, and that both herself and fellow researchers are currently studying the emerging generations. That answer shows academic credibility, by not answering a question that is not yet fully investigated, and lends further credence to the rest of her work. Secondly, she goes on to explain, “The circuit of the brain changes, is completely malleable, because there is no genetic programing. It’s going to be influenced by what the child reads, how they read, what purpose—and the medium matters” (tvo Parents). To that extent, future generations could have a completely different approach to reading, and be able to comprehend the material on a subconscious level, much differently that we do now. If learning from a predominantly digital medium instead of physical, the visual landscape created when reading, might be completely rewritten. The parts of our comprehension relied upon now when learning to read may not be the same used by future generations, and to that extent, school based learning could sway away from paperback textbooks, preferring a digital counterpart. This hypothesis relies on educated speculated, since we have not yet seen anything to suggest the human brain is rewiring itself to learn new ways to navigate a digital landscape. As Wolf suggests in the interview, “None of us know what changes are going to happen” (8:00 min).
There is a lot we can speculate by reading Maryanne Wolf’s work. Learning how the human mind comprehends reading is crucial when determining what the future may hold for publishing. But what is going on now, and how can that help forecast the future? Kristen McLean is the executive director of new business at NPD Book, a company specializing in analyzing data over a wide spectrum of brands and markets, for the purpose of organizing the current and future position of the industries. NPD is among one of the largest market research companies in the world, interviewing over twelve million consumers a year and monitoring purchase information from over a hundred and sixty five thousand stores. In 2017, NPD acquired Nielsen’s U.S. book monitoring services, which effectively monitors all U.S. book sales. McLean has over twenty years of experience in the publishing world, and her clients have included Scholastic, Harper Collins, Random House, and Disney. McLean reported for Publishers Weekly after the 2017 London Book Fair, stating that there is no one-or-the-other when it comes to print verse digital. Going further, she asserts, “First and foremost, people still love print books. This is especially true of children, parents, teenagers, and millennials overall. Millennials are also much more likely than baby boomers to favor print magazines and subscribe to newspapers” (par 4). Offering some real numbers to illustrate where the market is heading now, e-book sales were down 27% in 2016 from their peak in 2013. These numbers are based on NPD Book’s analysis, and are used to help track past sales and future trends. It’s speculates that some of the decrease can be attributed to short-form media that can be so easily attained from smart phones, making it difficult for e-books to compete. Despite that, digital is still receiving some encouraging numbers, primarily in fiction, where it represents fifty percent of romance novel sales. To that end, it’s important to look at each and every genre being sold, to understand that the future could look different for each and every aspect of publishing.
Fifty percent of any market is a big stake, and we can see actual sales numbers compared under various markets, thanks to a website named Author Earnings. The site is hosted by several independent authors, who gather data with the idea of getting the real numbers on a variety of publishing platforms. The most notable founding author is Hugh Howey, who’s self published novel, WOOL, shot to best seller status as an e-book. Despite winning numerous awards, and being arguably the most well known independent author, he has worked to help give insight for other authors and publishers. In their report, US trade publishing by the numbers, based on Digital Book World’s 2017, shows that print dominated the 2016 market compared to e-books. Close to eight hundred million trade paperbacks were sold, to just over two million trade e-books. For Howey, who has made his fame primarily as an e-book author, to release this information reluctantly lends credence that he is releasing the most accurate information available. But in contrast to the previous numbers, when broken down to genre, trade e-books sold forty-nine percent of adult fiction, which is basically half of the market. So why is there such a large discrepancy from total sales to adult fiction? We can see that coming primarily from three other markets: Juvenile non-fiction, which e-book only claimed six percent; juvenile fiction, at twelve percent; and adult non-fiction, which is at twenty four percent. Much of the contribution to adult non-fiction paperbacks is attributed to the growth of adult coloring books, which have gained in popularity. Howey and his team of authors indicate that while these numbers are substantial, they do not include independent authors, and those numbers are rarely released to the public or relied upon by publishing experts, who have the power to sway the industry. The report states, “To truly understand our market, we need a complete picture of US consumer book buying behavior” (Author earnings). According to their information, total sales remain with a preference toward print, but when it comes to adult fiction, the numbers start to change. Once independent authors are included, along with Amazon imprints (Amazon has it’s own publishing company, not listed with traditional publishing houses), the number jumps to a whopping seventy percent of US sales for e-books, compared to forty nine percent for trade only. While these findings are impressive, they do receive much criticism. Some of it is garnered from the site’s contributors being independent authors, which could make them biased. Additionally, Amazon is not so quick to release all of their numbers, so there is speculation that his sales numbers may not be a hundred percent accurate with the independent titles.
But even with the more widely available statistic of trade adult fiction being nearly divided, we see that both mediums will continue to grow. Technology will continue to progress both industries, much like how print-on-demand is now how many books are printed prior to shipping. Publishers Weekly touched upon some of the emerging technologies after the 2017 BookExpo, when several experts met to discuss the future of publishing. One of the panelists, David M. Ewalt, who is also a contributing editor to Forbes Magazine and a prolific tech writer, spoke about the use virtual and augmented reality in the future of publishing. He jokes that these technologies “will destroy books completely” (Publishers Weekly). Using an informal tone throughout the article might make his analysis sound less academic, but it connects to the audience by lightening the mood, and makes it easier to understand some of these emerging sciences that might otherwise be confusing. Although the technologies that Ewalt discusses are still in their infancies, he sees devices such as the Oculus Rift and the New York Times 360 video journalism as ways to offer writers and publishers whole new means to tell stories and distribute their products. Such platforms like Altspace VR, which is a virtual world, where people from all walks of life can meet up in real time, in the form of a digital aviator, can be instrumental for meeting whole new audiences. An author could give a book reading in augmented reality to an audience ten thousand miles away, and publishers could construct virtual bookstores, where the online currency is indeed real. Although some of the tech Ewalt mentions is currently up and running, much of what he suggests is based on speculation, with no concrete evidence to back up his suggestions. As these technologies are still being developed, it will be interesting to see what shape they take, and how the public perceives them.
The future of publishing will take many forms. There is nothing to suggest that paperbacks will be disappearing any time soon, with all of the evidence pointing to the contrary, and e-readers are here to stay. With the decline of print journalism, and the rise of its digital counterpoint, we can hope to see new jobs created. The future of academic textbooks also remains unclear, with scientific studies remaining positive for paper material, yet digital translations remaining significantly cheaper. But an uncertain future is not such a bad thing, not for consumers, who get to enjoy a wide spectrum of innovations that will continue to emerge as publishing is brought into the next stage of its existence … or maybe we’ll just continue to read print.
Note from the author
As you might have guessed, this article was in fact a paper I wrote for an English class. Yes, I am going to school at the time this article is being published, and I intend to continuing going to school, in one form or another, until the day I die. Why stop with a degree?
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