A commentator I respect, Joe Wikert, published a piece last week headlined “How Print Is Killing Publishers” that at first struck me as completely wrongheaded and backwards. But what we have here is failure to communicate.
“Print is a publisher’s silent killer” because publishers are relying on print “even at the expense of digital transformation and growth,” Wikert wrote for Book Business magazine. “The crazy part is we all know it’s a big problem and yet very few publishers are taking evasive action.”
Publishers’ biggest problem, Wikert claimed, is when their brands are “directly associated with print” – that is, “when consumers hear your brand name [and] all they can think of is a print product” and see “no association with digital whatsoever.”
“Joe, were you flash frozen in 2008?” I said to myself. “That’s the kind of bass-ackward thinking that decided ‘The Daily Beast’ was a stronger brand name than ‘Newsweek’ simply because Newsweek was in print.”
I thought of publishing brands like The Atlantic and The Christian Science Monitor that are thriving on the web without having to disown their century-plus print legacies. And I recalled the web-savvy colleague who said, “Having a print publication can do wonders for a web site’s brand image.”
It was hard to think of any U.S. magazine publishers that are not trying to become less dependent on products that have to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service or the newsstand system. The only notable exceptions are digital-native brands like Allrecipes.com, Politico, and the new Newsweekthat decided to build cache by putting some ink on paper. (How’s that for not worrying about being “directly associated with print”?)
I was wrong
Then I realized the fundamental error in Wikert’s thinking – and that I was making the same mistake: Any generalization about “publishers” is bound to be wrong, especially when it centers on the vague word “digital.”
Taken out of context, the word “publisher” means so many different things to different people that it ceases to have meaning. When newspaper people say “publishing,” they mean newspaper publishing. To magazine people, “publishing” means mostly magazine publishing. And for folks in the book industry, “publishing” means, believe it or not, book publishing.
There is no such thing as “the” publishing industry, only publishing industries.
“Digital transformation” is a chameleon term in the publishing industries. It can be about web sites, digital editions, apps, e-newsletters, or shiny new object of the week.
For book publishers, digital transformation refers to the once-seismic, now-glacial shift to e-books. Or people buying printed books from e-stores instead of bookstore. Or even the growing reliance on digital presses to reduce inventory costs via “print on demand.”
Wikert’s company, Olive Software, creates XML editions of publications for many leading newspapers (and other organizations). Perhaps he is genuinely frustrated by clients who cling to outmoded ways and the once-a-day publishing cycle. Perhaps print — or, rather, the failure to embrace other media — really is killing some of those publishers.
A galaxy away
If so, the publishing industry Wikert experiences is a galaxy away from the one in which I toil during the day (and write about at night). Not many magazines can say they have figured out the “digital transformation,” but most have moved beyond print-versus-digital thinking and are working to ensure their brands are relevant in multiple media. (Because, God knows, no one medium can bring in enough scratch to keep the lights on.)
Wikert might be horrified to know that some publishers in my industry consider Olive-type editions to be “print” because they are often outgrowths of printed products — sharing the same content, advertisers, ratebase, and P&L. For those publishers, “print” has come to mean “paginated content” that doesn’t necessarily involve dead trees, while “digital” means such un-paginated content as web sites and e-newsletters.
There is no single “digital transformation” in any of the publishing industries. E-books dominate romance fiction but have hardly touched the world of art books on coffee tables. The web has wiped out much of the weekly newsmagazine business, but glossy fashion titles seem as healthy as ever.
Regardless which publishing industry you’re in, shibboleths (whether “print is dead” or “print rules”) and simplistic solutions will end in disaster. Sorry, folks, there are no one-size-fits-all answers in this business.