A terrible dystopian future has begun … the people have commenced to burn their books into raging bonfires. Only this time, the acrid smell of smoldering plastic fills the air, as the angry crowd throws their Kindles and e-readers into the dancing flames, happy to erase their libraries of demonizing fiction…. Although this scenario is clearly fictional, if some censored future generation decides to destroy their literature, they’re going to have to do a lot more than burn paper pages. The future of publishing will not be limited to either paper or digital formats alone, but will rely on a hybrid of both. The debate as to which method will be victorious is tired, and believing that there will be only one approach is simplistic. We see today, in the futuristic world that we live in now, that publishing methods rely on a variety of platforms, which are both dictated and sometimes conflicted by consumers, publishers, and authors. Having all available avenues at our disposal will see publishing continue to grow on a hybrid of innovations.
When Amazon released its first e-reader on November 19, 2007, some people began forecasting the death of the print book, while others believed the Kindle would not be successful at all. The first Kindle edition sold for four hundred dollars, and almost six hours after it went up for sale, it completely sold out (Engadget). The argument that print publishing was on the verge of extinction had become compelling, yet the debate as to whether or not digital publishing would be accepted continued to be contested. But as each year has passed, we’ve seen that despite the discussions, digital imprints have earned a place in our society. In 2011, Amazon announced that for the first time ever, e-books were outselling paperbacks, at a hundred and fifteen Kindle e-books sold per one hundred paperbacks (PC World). The sales and numbers have fluctuated, lending the argument that one method might eventually prevail over the other. Authors, agents, and publishers have had differing perspectives on what would be the best method to sell their works in the future.
For many authors, having the ability to sell their compositions on a mixed medium of platforms is the best solution. They embrace the digital revolution, but also rely on the benefits of traditional publishing, and believe the two can coexist peacefully. They sell their works digitally and independently on Amazon, as well as signing a paperback deal with a publishing house. Best selling author, Hugh Howey, whose first novel, WOOL, has sold in the millions, was one of the first authors to coin the term “hybrid author.” On top of that, he was among the first authors to be allowed by a publishing house to retain his book’s e-book rights while signing on with a major trade publisher to sell the paperback edition. His thoughts in a 2013 interview with Publishing Perspectives about the future of publishing, entangles both print and digital methods. “They [e-books] should not be seen as competition to print and other formats. Giving away an e-book with every sale of a hardback would do wonders for the hardback market” (par 1). Just days after his statement, Amazon announced their Matchbook program, which offers bundling the e-book edition of a novel with the paperback at a reduced rate or for free. The prospect of being a hybrid author is alluring to even the most seasoned writer, as the royalties from Kindle e-book sales are high, and without a middleman, the author can retain all of the compensation and make their own choices about marketing (Kindle Direct Publishing). To make it even more appealing, Amazon allows for e-books to be added to their library free of charge to the author or publisher, and has integrated an easy to use platform for integrating the work onto their system.
Despite the appeal an author might have toward a hybrid contract, many publishers are not willing to sign them on, as the loss of e-book revenue is not worth their effort. As a result, a large number of independent titles are coming out as e-book only, lending a much larger library available to readers in digital format. Howey states, “Publishers seem to be circling the wagons and backing away from print-only deals. They have enough books to take all the rights. For that, I don’t think they want to set much precedent with the print-only deals” (par 17). Howey’s first book, WOOL, was already a best seller before he was able to compromise a hybrid contract, which was unheard of at the time. For a publisher, taking on an already selling e-book and marketing it as a paperback reduces their workload, but also lowers their bottom line. To that end, I concede that despite it being a profitable exchange for both the author and publisher, it is a difficult option to obtain. But with the rise of independent authors selling compelling e-books, the number of hybrid contracts will persist as the face of traditional publishing continues to shift.
One of the biggest challenges for an author who might consider adapting to a hybrid contract, is getting the information needed to make such a decision. The general public is often not presented with a comprehensive look into the sales and numbers of e-books vs. print, or how specific subgenres are fairing within the larger genre fields. What the public is given is what the trade publishers are allowing them to see. With Howey’s success in first digital publishing and then hybrid publishing, he and several other authors have developed a website to try and report the most accurate sales numbers across all avenues of the trade. Their site, Author Earnings, complies data from all retailers and avenues, to try and dispel misinformation about the paperback vs. digital argument. Data released in 2016 by traditional publishers, and offered to the public, showed a large increase of paperback book sales compared to their digital counterparts. According to the publisher’s numbers, almost eight hundred million paperbacks sold compared to just over two hundred million e-books (par 3). Yet, when individual genres are studied, the sales of adult fiction are nearly divided, with e-books taking close to forty nine percent (par 6). What Howey’s site revealed, is that the report did not include independent authors, Amazon Imprints, or print on-demand books sold on Amazon. The publisher’s numbers had been compiled from traditionally published sources only. When all sales were compiled, a dramatic rise in digital imprints was evident. In the case of adult fiction, over three hundred and twenty five million e-books were sold, compared to just over a hundred and forty million paperbacks (par 33). Despite these numbers, there are many instances where print still prevails over digital. In the cases of juvenile non-fiction, juvenile fiction, and adult non-fiction, the numbers are dominant toward paper. Although I concede that print is ahead in these avenues of sales, it is not enough to show that digital publishing is by any means struggling. And while the reasons behind the difference in sales can be debated, such as the typical lower price point of independent works, largely in the adult fiction category, the number of total sales cannot be debated. The future of book publishing will continue to see a trend of both digital and print based material.
But the publishing field is not limited to fiction and non-fiction alone, or to an author’s preferences toward publishing contracts. The field is wide and expansive, and no avenue has felt so much of an impact as journalism. The decline of the newsroom and the printing press has been largely reported as digitalization sunk its roots into nearly every American household. In 2013, two business school professors, Robert Seamans and Feng Zhu, released a study titled, Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets: The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers, examining the monetary effect that Craigslist had on localized newspapers between the years 2000 to 2007. 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 Craigslist alone took away five billion dollars in classified-ad revenue (par 1). But does that mean that the newspaper is going to die when faced with emerging technologies? Addressing that question during a TEDx Talk, Tom Rosensteil, who is the founder of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and co-founder and vice chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, stated, “I believe that what has disrupted us will now begin to save us. The audience will determine the future of news” (TEDx Talks, 0:53). During his talk, he stated similarly to Sieman’s and Zhu’s research paper, that ad revenue decreased 75% between 2000 and 2012, largely because of Craigslist, and that reporters working in physical newsrooms had decreased 30%. Despite these discouraging numbers, he believes we’re entering a new age of enlightenment in journalism, akin to the invention of the printing press, or to broadcasting.
No other avenue of publishing has seen such a varied degree of platforms, from the news on paper and digital screens, to audio, and to visual. Journalism now stretches its roots to all corners of the Internet. Rosensteil goes on to state, “Technology is bringing new audiences to news, that probably would not have consumed news in older formats” (9:35). He demonstrates this by explaining that the average age of a print newspaper reader is fifty-four, while the average age of a newspaper reader on a mobile device is thirty seven; and the average age of a reader using only a mobile device is thirty three. The majority of people reading a newspaper once a week, which he claims is half the population aged eighteen to forty, read it digitally.
With the argument that print newspapers are in decline, I asked two local reporters, John T. Ward, and John Burton, their thoughts on the future of journalistic publishing and the news at large. Ward started Red Bank Green in 2006, a hyper-local, Internet only, news source. Previously, Ward worked for The Asbury Park Press, The Star Ledger, and free-lanced for magazines. Burton is the senior reporter of the Two River Times, where he has worked for over fifteen years. Ward told me, “When it comes to delivering news, print remains only in places where [digital] hasn’t yet claimed the majority of consumers, but it will happen, as devices and bandwidth prices decline and younger consumers crowd out older ones. Print will likely never be eliminated entirely, but it will survive as a boutique offering” (November 11, 2017). Burton has similar feelings, despite that he works for a print based paper. He stated, “… the newspaper and magazine industry continues to be in a state of flux as it has been for about a decade. What’s at hand is that audiences are continuing to move toward digital, especially younger readers, who’ve come of age using maybe only the digital platform for their information and entertainment” (November 22, 2017). But on a more promising note for print publications, Burton believes that newspapers in small suburban and urban areas have not only been doing well but thriving, since they serve the needs of the immediate population. He uses the work of the Hartford Courant following the Sandy Hook shooting, five years ago, as an example of excellent journalism and photography following the wake of the tragedy, and how that specific local paper served the needs of the community by delivering information that was relevant to them. The one thing that Burton, Ward, and Rosensteil all agree on, is that journalism will not disappear altogether, despite the changes we’ve seen with the advancement of digital means. For Rosensteil, the news of the future is based solely on how and when the reader wants to read it, whenever the reader wants to read it, and on any and all platforms available.
With the advancement of the tablet and touch screens, people again began reading long formats of print journalism, whereas before, in the fifteen years of internet use prior, the population had a large decline in long format reading, which hurt the newspaper industry significantly. The average time spent on any one webpage was approximately thirty seconds. Now, with the population again interested in long formats of reading, many news sources are again beginning to thrive. To illustrate this, Rosensteil explains that at the time of his speech, which was in 2013, there were currently four hundred and fifty newspapers that charged for digital subscriptions. Three years prior, none of them did. On top of that, newspaper subscriptions rose five percent from 2012 to 2013, which was the most significant rise in over ten years. Three billion dollars of revenue in 2013 came from digital means, which were sources not available when the newspaper began its physical decline. Burton adds to the discussion, by explaining that many newspapers have adapted micro-payments, charging readers pay per article. While there is no doubting that newspaper publishing took a hard hit, and many lost their jobs because of it, the face of journalism has continued to evolve, and it stays now in a hybrid of many platforms.
Although newspapers are but one example of an educational text, it is not the only platform currently undergoing scrutiny. In recent years, classrooms have seen an influx of digital learning devices in addition to traditional print material. The BBC reported, in December of 2014, that 70% of primary and secondary schools in the UK were using tablet computers (par 1, BBC). In the US, the Energy Information Administration, an independent statistic and analytical organization comprised to gather data to be used in policy making and for public understanding, studied the growth of computers in the classroom. They found that the number of computers per square foot in educational buildings rose 71% between 1999 and 2012, and that 95% of buildings deemed for classroom instruction were using computers for learning by 2012. Publishing for educational purposes is now across both digital and print mediums, in nearly every school in the US.
With the number of computers in the classroom as high as they are, it can be implied that digital technology will soon surpass print learning material, and one day make it obsolete. However, there are arguments that imply paper-based learning to be superior, and there is evidence to back up this claim. An important study as to the student’s ability to retain information on both platforms was conducted 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, in Norway. Mangen and her researchers tested a random selection of seventy-two tenth graders, by dividing them into two groups and providing them both with identical texts that they had to read and then be tested on. Mangen states, “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). Her findings have helped influence teachers and institutions to keep print-based learning alive. Although I concede that in the face of Mangen’s study it appears that print based material is the best avenue for learning text, I do not believe that digital publishing will slow or weaken. Schools that integrate all avenues of academic publishing, both through computers and text, will present their students and teachers with the widest range of educational possibilities.
It can be said that Mangen and her team used a small sample of students, from only one area of the world, and that new technology might have arisen since her study, in 2013, that would better assimilate students to learning from digital platforms. However, science might have an answer as to why students were able to comprehend information from print sources better than digital material, and the results could display why textbooks will never disappear from the classroom, and why many people prefer print material compared to its digital counterpart. In a paper written by Ferris Jabr for Scientific American, the case is made that the human mind correlates to paper material on a subconscious level. Jabr, who is a previous staff editor and now contributor for Scientific American, as well as The New Yorker, and many additional science based anthologies, 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). Jabr’s article relied on scientific studies to correlate his claim. One study, titled, Incidental memory for location of information in text, was a paper written in 1971 by the award winning educational psychologist Ernst Z. Rothkopf. In this paper, fifty-three students were asked to remember a specific word or phrase from a text, and the results often showed that the students were able to recall the specific word by visualizing where in the text it appeared. Jabr’s article relates how the human mind sees books almost how it sees a trail or something navigational, and keeps track of text akin to a topographical landscape. Digital screens present a challenge, because our minds don’t make the same subconscious connections. But does this mean that schools will favor print based material if they are the superior for learning?
While print based texts have clear benefits for a student’s comprehension, digital innovations have adapted to maximize their cognitive impact. Tablets and reading devices have attempted to mimic physical material as closely as possible, to enhance the reader’s understanding of the material. Another scientific study that Jabr used in his article is titled, Construction of cognitive maps improve e-book reading and navigation, and was conducted in 2013 by three scientists for the Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering, in Taiwan. They found that when using a device with an interactive toolbar and visual pages compared to one without, the participants who used the device with the visual cue-map performed better with reading, navigating, and reviewing material. According to Jabr, as a result from studies such as these, Kindles use what is called E-ink, which closely resembles the chemical composition of ink, and iBooks have a feature that mimics the turning of a page. Tablets and computers will continue to evolve to benefit readers and students.
Despite digital readers attempting to resemble paper material, there is a belief that the human mind might adapt to digital devices just like it has to print based material, from an evolutionary standpoint. 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. 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. In a video interview with tvo Parents, an online resource educating parents so that they can help teach their children, she explains, “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” (8:20). 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 school based learning could sway away from paperback textbooks, preferring a digital counterpart.
Outside of which method is the best for learning, a school’s decision to bring in a hybrid of paper and digital textbooks, which could help determine the future of educational publishing, is reliant on one big factor: cost. An article written by Nicole Allen for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities discusses the financial impact of textbooks for students, and the advantages of having digital textbooks available. Allen is a member of the Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG, which is a student organization devoted to discussing and helping to solve a wide array of public interest problems. She states, “According to the College Board, the average student at a four-year public institution spends $1,200 annually on books and supplies” (par 2). Additionally, she explains that in a survey conducted by PIRG, “… seven in ten undergraduates skipped buying one or more required textbooks because the cost is too high, and three-quarters of those students believe that doing so hurt their grades” (par 3). Digital textbooks offer a more economical solution, with the average price forty to fifty percent cheaper than their print counterpart. In a 2012 report published by the Digital Textbook Playbook, which was a collaborative between the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Education, they found that going digital could save an average of six hundred dollars per student, per year (par 25). They take many variables into account, such as print costs, and go so far as to attribute the rise of digitalization to increased teacher attendance and a lower dropout rate.
The debate for which publishing method might prevail will still go on, with some people preferring one platform over the other. The advancement of digitalization has sunk its roots into every avenue of publishing, and will continue to grow deeper as long as technology is still around. Some avenues have transformed, such as journalism, while others remain unhindered, like juvenile non-fiction. But on thing is for certain; we have seen and will continue to see a wide range of platforms across the publishing landscape, leading toward a hybrid of methods, all for the advancement of society at large. We can rest assured, even as the debate goes on, the human race is not yet ready to burn their robotic books in some terrible apocalyptic revolt.
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