February 27, 2011

∴ The Death of Publishing

I've been thinking about the so-called death of publishing lately, as I transition my reading to iPhone, iPad, and Audible. How electronic media, beginning with television and greatly accelerating with the advent of the internet, will be the end of traditional mass publishing. Book sellers, magazines and newspapers have suffered in the internet era, offering proof. But is publishing really dying? Who are the real victims of modern publishing?

I used to take a subscription to the local paper: the Nashua Telegraph, the Manchester Union Leader, the Washington Post. The writing was good-to-great, the information mildly stale, my feeling of being informed intact. Then I discovered Google Reader and RSS feeds. It turned out the Post publishes all of their content not only to their web site, but serialized through RSS. A few clicks and all of their stories appeared in an orderly list, broken down by category, on a single web page updated by-the-minute. I read the paper less, and eventually canceled the subscription. Newspapers, blogs, journals, updated by-the-minute, sprinkled with ads; I subscribe to just under seventy RSS feeds now and that's my daily news intake. I found that I could even subscribe to RSS feeds through a Facebook account, further consolidating my information feed.

The Post hasn't lost its need for journalists and editors, though. They increasingly are paid to publish their work in forms other than print. The "newspaper" draws income from advertising on its web site, and could add interstitial ads to their RSS feeds. The New York Times is already erecting a sliding-scale pay wall which, when activated, will require a payment from readers who make more than occasional use of their content. Rupert Murdoch recently launched The Daily, an iPad-only daily "newspaper." At 99-cents per week it's cheap, though the once-a-day update begs the question why anyone would pay for stale, short-form reporting. The app needs a rapid-update component.

But are pay walls and subscriptions necessary? Subscriptions have largely gone to defray the cost of distribution; it's advertising that has paid for production. Well-placed, tasteful ads aren't intrusive and have made Google a very successful business, for example.

Small-town newspapers need to re-discover their value, which doesn't lie in buying and publishing an Associated Press feed. That news can be found anywhere, free. As more national and international reporting goes online, none of those outlets are covering the local community. Local newspapers should take a note from the larger dailies and publish a relevant, often-updated online journal of the local community. Save the press expenses and give readers a place to find local news, with well-placed local advertising paying the bill.

Book Sellers
We used to peruse the aisles of a terrific used book store in Manassas, Virginia. They bought AND sold used paperbacks (and the occasional hard cover). We enjoyed years of reading through them. We used to visit the nearby Barnes & Noble, too. Then I discovered Audible audio books and the iPad Kindle app. I can listen on my iPhone to what I don't read on my iPad. The Kindle device offers a lower-priced, arguably better reading experience than the iPad. Any music player can double as an audio book player. We don't visit the book stores much, anymore.

Authors don't need book stores when they can publish to electronic format, though. Publishing houses still need editors, but they don't need to pay the bill for printing, binding or shipping. As with newspapers, they still need to market their wares, so the sales department still has a job.

Magazines will be the last to fall for me. I can already read the monthly edition of Wired on my iPad, and other print titles are appearing. Prices are higher for their electronic versions, but will decrease as advertising increasingly appears alongside editorial content. Or offer a higher-priced subscription without the advertising. Consider how much is saved by serving content without paper, press, and retailer. Publishers complaining about Apple's 30%-share of App Store subscription fees are crying crocodile tears.

The real victims of the electronic publishing trend are the people who do physical publishing and distribution of paper. Not the editors, journalists, authors, columnists; the losers here are the pressmen. The men and women who build, sell, operate and repair the presses, the distribution network, the newsstand. There's no electronic equivalent of those jobs.

Online publications need editors and writers. Authors need not care if their work appears in paper or bits to earn a living, but the people who create printed media do. Print publishing is a dying profession. Eventually the trade and the equipment will be like that of the cooper. Remember them?