Thursday, April 15, 2010

The (Physical) Book Forever After

Mention you bought an actual CD these days and the response might equally be "where?" or "have you heard of iTunes?" Yet, after more than ten years of both legitimate and illegitimate access to down loadable music, the humble CD together, with its environmentally challenged jewel case continues to represent over 75% of music sold. As The Economist reports, consumers in Britain purchased 113mm physical albums last year versus 16mm digital ones. Music publishers, rather than ignoring the format to concentrate on digital, have been broadening the price points and formats using the CD as the core offering to include additional content, collector's editions and even t-shirts. No one would argue that downloaded music hasn't had a material impact but, given the resiliency of the CD format, one might also argue that a form of stasis has evolved: CDs won't disappear - at least nowhere near as rapidly - as seemed inevitable only a short while ago.

Forecasting the demise of the paper book is to some as straightforward as it was to those who forecasted the demise of the CD. Yet reality will be more complicated. While music publishers were slow to react and took more than their fair share of missteps, change and adapt they did and, as a result, they've begun to exert a little direct influence on a market that was in free fall. The physical CD isn't 'back', but the format may now be a managed item in a portfolio of options available for music purchasers. As a result, the CD may have a long life yet.

Many believe the physical book will disappear within in the next ten years yet the example of the music CD suggests the future of the book may be more nuanced. The availability of electronic versions of trade content will approach 100% in less than ten years: In my view, five years for all but the smallest publishers is more likely. Despite the availability however, electronic content is likely to represent only one of a number of ways consumers will engage with book content. Whether that percentage is 25% or 50% matters less than how publishers will manage the process. Book publishers can (and are) avoiding many of the mistakes that music publishers made when they were effectively out of control. Book publishers can 'skip ahead' to the point where they proactively manage the further development of print - as music publishers are now doing with the CD - and, in doing so, publishers will buy time as they adapt to the changes in their business brought about by the migration to electronic content. Rather than disappear, the lowly print book may retain a position of wide distribution (not universal) and become the focal point of a facilitated interaction with numerous content acquisition options for consumers. Maybe the book has stronger legs than suggested.

1 comment:

Devaki said...

I still use music CDs, because the kind of music I enjoy--Indian classical--is not available in downloadable format.