For the past few years, there has been a rallying cry around the advent of the ebook: print is dead. Since 2015 however there has been a decline in ebook sales, and whilst some are predicting a return to steady growth, one has to question if this is possible whilst they continue to maintain the same format. Currently the big five are taking relatively few risks, and independent publishers have been spearheading a print revival which with the increase in print book sales has paid off. For consumers that are continually choosing both, the roles of the digital and the physical have changed.
Whilst the book industry is focusing on the colouring in fad to boost their sales, the magazine industry is increasingly taking risks to innovate their approach to print. At the same time as The Bookseller showed a 3% decrease in e-book sales in 2016, the magazine industry saw a 12.5% digital drop, with well-known brands such as BBC Good Food, National Geographic and Cosmo taking the biggest hit. In comparison, independent print magazines are growing. At QVED 2014, Jeremy Leslie of MagCulture addressed the issue directly when being asked about the death of print, retorting to a questioner “How can print be dead with such an abundance of independent titles flourishing day to day?”
The industry does indeed seem to be flourishing: the founding of new titles such as the aptly named Print Isn’t Dead and growth of existing independents such as Little White Lies and Oh Comely all seem to be positive signs.
But why are these independent magazines seeing a boom, and can the print book industry follow suit?
Some publishers already are, with part of the attraction being premium content and production value. These two key components can be seen in the popular UK independent Nobrow Press, who expanded to open a New York office in 2013. Their highly illustrated books continue to gain popularity for having an emphasis on design and illustration whilst remaining affordable. These editions are a stand out in an age where the internet does throwaway information for free and at high speed.
This in itself may kill some kinds of print. Ruth Jamieson, author of Print is Dead, Long Live Print, stipulated last year that digital media has cleared the way for a new, much more interesting, much more exciting print to spring up. In 2014, this decision to carefully curate high-quality content also paid off for independent New York magazine PAPER, who had to print an extra 35,000 copies of their September 2014 issue to keep up with the demand for the latest issue featuring Kim Kardashian.
In the words of I-D editor Colin Crummy, “Kim Kardashian’s bum may have broken the internet in November 2014, but it was a magazine cover that helped her do it.”
Despite this, some still seem to think that despite current high sales, print is simply enjoying a brief rebirth and as such the future for it is not so bright. Print hasn’t changed enough to compete with the behemoth of the e-book. Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House, stated the same year in the Creative UK report that our creative industries are at the centre of a digital transformation of our economy; predicting that ebooks would become a total of 35% of the market share in two years. Whilst this has not happened, some remain hopeful that they will return to growth, but this is not happening as quickly as expected. It may be that what becomes interesting is behaviour towards the print and digital changing so that the two are sitting together; and how as an industry, publishing continues to allow new innovation for both.
It’s time to change the nature of the conversation around print. Ebooks are a new medium, not the death of the traditional. Instead of asking if print is dead, we should be questioning what we can do with it next.
Percie Edgeler is a MA Publishing student at Kingston University, and a graduate of the BA Illustration course at Camberwell College of Arts where she gained first hand experience in producing different types of print. She is particularly interested in independent publishing, and how this sector will influence the future of print books.