Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Is Print Dead? I'm Afraid to Look Anymore

I’m scared.

I’m not afraid to admit it.

Why am I scared?

Because of the coming death of my industry, namely print publishing.

You all know me as a science fiction and horror writer, with a dose of fantasy and western thrown in. But, before I became known for fiction, I was first a print journalist.

I’ve seen a lot of things in the industry in my 30 years covering the news, including the looming death knell of newspapers. They've only begun to listen but it seems like it's too late for them to catch up with the 21st century. Too bad for so many of my former colleagues who stayed the course, while those who jumped ship and changed professions now look like Mensa whizzes.

The owners -- namely the big publishers and the syndicates like L.A. Times, Knight-Ridder, Tribune, McClatchey -- all felt that the Internet was a passing fad and they failed to embrace it. Sort of like when IBM dismissed the personal computer as a fad and then struggled (and failed) to play catch up when the PC took over the typewriter/processor industry.

When I was with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, we belatedly took a flyer with the Internet, in the form of me posting high school football scores online, while the newsroom posted a few top stories online. Of course, those were only meant to tease readers into buying a newspaper.

In the past decade, newspapers have been bleeding red ink. Periodicals that were founded more than a century ago have faded away like the Clipper ship and Pan-Am. Others, like the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Enquirer, struggle to hang on. Most newspapers have drastically cut staff much like my old employer, the Star-Telegram, did back in 2008.

Cut to the present. The publishing industry is treading the same pathway that newspapers did, right toward the same cliff.

The North American Big Six -- Hachette, McMillan, Penguin, Random House,  HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster -- still cling to an old business model, missing the obvious signs. One big sign is that three of those Big Six aren’t really North American, though they used to be. Hachette is French, HarperCollins is under News Corp’s umbrella and German conglomerate Bertelsmann bought Random House in 1998.

You see, it’s common among big business to cling tighter to models that proved successful in the past, but are not quite so successful in the present. This leaves the companies open to takeovers. However, international ownership hasn’t made much improvement.

Despite all the ebooks being sold on Kindle and Nook, the Big Six seem to shun online publishing. If they sign an author, they go for ebook rights as well. Then, they’ll undercut the ebook price or shelve the ebook edition. Many times, they won't even consider signing an author whose work has mainly been online. 

You can’t blame them too much, though. They are profit-driven corporations and a 35 percent cut from each sale of a $20-25 book is more appealing than a similar percentage from a $2.99 ebook like Hunters.

It’s a shame because we know both mediums can co-exist. There will always be people who want to have a paperback in their hands at the beach or on the plane. There will be people who have libraries in their homes that need books to fill the shelves. But, there will also be many more, especially in the up-and-coming generations, who will fully embrace the online world (they're the ones who go straight to the computers in the library while we older adults browse the aisles).

You would think that profit-driven companies (and their stockholders) would see the money to be made. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to change. Admittedly, I didn’t get into Internet journalism seriously until October 2009. Even my fiction didn’t make it to the digital world until 2007 when I signed up for Writing.com. Hell, my PC is from 2005 and my cell phone begins with the letters T-R-A-C. 

But, even I have long recognized the future.  So have others. Until then, though, the little guys will scarf up all the profits and get first dibs on the hottest new writers.

I don’t know if the Big Six will ever change. As C.J. mentioned yesterday, Simon & Schuster signed that print-only deal with John Locke, so maybe someone finally installed a skylight in that thick glass ceiling. On the other hand, big corporations keep forward thinkers on notoriously short leashes, waiting for them to fail so they can say "I told you so."

Will they finally see the future and embrace like Amazon and Barnes & Noble or will they ignore it like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster did with NetFlix and Redbox?

I’m tired of being scared about my industry, so I’ll hope for the best and hope they don't continue to fail me.


  1. Great post. The industry will go on, just probably not as it has been. I like that it's been shaken up.

  2. Hello, Wicked Writers. How is everyone these days. It's been too long, I know. Glad to see you all are doing well. I miss you all, of course.
    Greg, how is everything? I fear that generation will stick stubbornly to their guns. If so, it will be a sad day. Hopefully, this will be one of those trends that gets reversed at long last. Although I read most of my books off of my Kindle and get much of my news from the 'net, it would be terribly sad if those options were lost completely.
    You guys take care, okay?


  3. Hey Jimmy. Nice to hear from you. Yes, it would be a shame. Ironic, too, since most of us are likely to be mainly published online.