Why print will never go away…

In a presentation, I made a statement that has been questioned rather repeatedly – print will never go away; there will always be demand for some of it.

I am a gadget freak.

My backpack is stocked with a MacBook Air, a retina display iPad, power adaptors of every device, pins, cables, headphones, back-up batteries… My trouser pockets always house 2 iPhone 5s and my travel kit has an iPod 160GB. You get the picture, I am serious about tech! I also put it to use.

I am currently reading my favourites Brahm Stoker’s “Dracula”, and Hiranmay Karlekar’s “End game in Afghanistan – for whom the dice rolls”. And they are both on my iPad. I have a few more I want to read, also lined up, also on my iPad. I have recently finished a reading on the Kindle App on the iPad. I am sure you get the drift…

And yet I believe the world of print will never lose its place.

While I read Dracula on my iPad, I would love to possess an original edition in print. Some may argue, the original would be a collector’s item anyway. Here is one that isn’t a collector’s item just yet. I recently went to a home furnishing store in Meher Chand Market, New Delhi. It was an average sized store selling mainly pillow cases, lamp shades etc. While I waited to for the shoppers accompanying me to finish browsing, I sat on a sofa that looked really inviting. In front of where I sat was a table and on it were curious looking books. At first I thought these were  random books kept for weary shoppers to distract themselves or perhaps, for browsing when one had stopped for breath. Most of the copies were shrink wrapped, a single one was open. I picked it up and started browsing. The book was nothing like I had seen before.

It was an intriguing travelogue of an Indian tourist destination. The book looked less like a reference product and more like a ‘travel companion’. The book had an earthy and ‘well travelled’ look. Its cover had an ancient map spreading across the front and back. A deliberately torn printed paper formed a loose wrap-around from the front to the back cover. The back cover housed a rubber band that doubled as a bookmark. The inner side of the back cover had a pocket to hold documents. The book was printed on hand made paper with eco-friendly inks. It had multiple colours on the inner pages, all aligned with the central theme of the book. I know, I know, it was love at first sight… I eagerly looked at the publisher’s name, read about the series and was ready to buy all the books in the series. I believe there are 4. Here comes the punchline –

Each book is priced at Rs. 1000.00

And I didn’t think twice for paying for all 4. The store however had only 1 destination; it had sold out all the others! I purchased the one that was available. I noted the website listed and as soon as I got back to my office, I was ready to order. It was available online at just one store. I wanted to see if I could get a better price at Flipkart and strangely it wasn’t listed!

There are some powerful lessons to be learned from this:

  1. It is time to move the product to where the seller is ready to buy it. I would never have imagined a travelogue to be in a furnishing store, but nevertheless, this is where it was sold out!
  2. It’s not important that the book is at the most visited online bookstore; niche bookstores were equally good at stocking and selling.
  3. Books are like other products that need to move up the value chain. Collectors pay top dollars for them but products can be made collectible without waiting a 100 years for people to woo them.
  4. Books can be lifestyle statements. I have drawn inspiration from many products and many marketing success stories. My favorite remains the difference between
    1. Rs. 100 watch that tells time accurately, is waterproof in a swimming pool, scratch proof, whose strap will last long and most importantly, it looks ‘functional’ on the wrist.
    2. A Breitling watch that does all the above but costs about 3500 times the price of the previous watch.
    3. Ask yourself this question, why would anyone pay Rs 350,000 for functionality that an instrument costing Rs. 100 delivers equally well? In the answer lies the answer to another question: Why should books be different?

SAGE has done a series which somewhat falls in the Breitling watch category. This is a print-only product that only select libraries can afford. High net individuals would also want it. It’s the question of owning something that is unique. Its called the “Legends in Marketing” and features the complete work of 8 legendary academics in the discipline of marketing.

The average price of each set (mostly 8 volumes) is around Rs 35,000.

Its true the printed textbook as we know it and printed reference products (such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, thesaurus etc) are on their way out. They are being replaced by online products that are more intuitive, easy to handle and available on demand. This is merely an evolutionary phase in the life of these products. Before the printed product existed the learned taught students using different media. In the digital age too, media is going through another evolutionary phase. And that is the point we tend to miss.

SAGE has recently published 4 volumes of a 7 volume set detailing the 1857 war of independence/mutiny. It’s called “Mutiny at the Margins“. I will surely be reading this on my iPad but the (physical) books have to be seen to be believed! It is truly a set that will make any bookshelf proud. I know this one won’t leave mine in a hurry.

The world of print has its own charm and value in the hands of the possessor. I refrain from using the word ‘user’. It is very possible the possessor may never be the user.

How many of us remember owning The Complete Works of Shakespeare?  How many remember actually reading it.

When Encyclopedia Britannica announced the end of the their print product, why did they sell out their stocks in a matter of days? Humans by nature want to be different. I believe we will want the convenience of an iPad but the emotional fulfilment of a physical book.

And that is where the story of print enters a new and exciting phase. I wonder if the Heidelberg will evolve too or will we see the resurrection of hand-made books. By no means is the debate at an end and yet when I see advancements in the digital space, I wonder when the print vs digital debate really began. That I am sure is food for thought for another day. For now, its time to let go writing this blog and read Jonathan Harker’s journal.

About Vivek Mehra

I am currently the MD & CEO of SAGE Publications India. But I wear many hats that make me the person I am. Between the (public) professional life and the very deep and private recesses of my brain lies a universe of thoughts, actions and beliefs. These have been shaped by events, people and perhaps Karma. It's this universe I seek to put in words. When everything else failed me professionally, it was the power of my words that not just resurrected a career but brought back life to life. It is with these words that I continue to make a difference with those whose karma connects mine. Sometimes it's direct and most times it's not. But the essence of who I am never changes and I remain a person searching for himself. Update: In 2014 I published my first book on Kindle. It was written in 1999 and it never saw the light of day. Reader input welcome... http://tinyurl.com/7shadesofgrey
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1 Response to Why print will never go away…

  1. Amit Kumar says:

    It was interesting to go through your neatly presented thought on this ongoing debate over the future of print vs. digital books. I especially liked the profiling of book buyers as users and possessors, which I believe partly answers the question that why would anyone pay Rs. 350,000 for functionality that an instrument (a watch in this case), costing Rs.100, delivers equally well. As a part of the publishing industry, this mystery keeps hovering inside me and I am forced to make an effort to look into the future of my trade.
    A recently published article suggested that the initial e-book explosion is now starting to look like an aberration. The technology’s early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one. It further presents a very common observation, which we can’t ignore, is that the shift from e-readers to tablets may also be dampening e-book purchases. Sales of e-readers plunged 36% in 2012, according to estimates from IHS iSuppli, while tablet sales exploded. When forced to compete with the easy pleasures of games, videos and Facebook on devices like the iPad and the Kindle Fire, e-books lose a lot of their allure.
    We can extend the above case to India, where few publishers did come out with (and few are still coming) various study apps, with a dream to convert the mobile phones into knowledge devices, and lately they realised their mistake. An average college student (the primary target of any textbook publishers) would save his Smartphone’s battery for gaming rather than taking a Physics or History tests on it. At least in India, studying and for that matter even reading (for pleasure) is a serious act and I am sure that it’d take few decades for us to make a switch-over.
    Moving to textbooks, the story seems more or less similar but the outcome seems more logical and practical. In favour of printed textbooks another article suggests that, even though today’s students were lured to sophisticated technology, they still prefer the flexibility of a printed book. It is important for publishers to remember that college students don’t just read their books; they literally consume books through highlighting, underlining, dog-earing pages, and note-taking. Additionally, when studying, students often use multiple resources simultaneously: textbooks, notebooks, professors’ handouts, and may be their personal laptops. Creating a digital experience that can support this immersive kind of study raises the bar far beyond presenting words on a screen.


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