The Stubbornness of Print and the Consistency of Change

The Stubbornness of Print and the Consistency of Change

By: Michael Norris

As I write this, Simba Information is preparing to move offices. For any subscriber, at any organization of any size, you know exactly what kind of headache this is causing.

We’ve been where we are in the city of Stamford, Connecticut since President Bush’s first term. Without the same generous amount of storage space in our new quarters, we have been spending a lot of time sorting through paper.

In one drawer I found handwritten notes I jotted down during a 2010 AAP meeting, during which William Lynch indicated he was running the company with the expectation Nook was going to be 50% of the business.

Three years later, Lynch is gone and just yesterday Barnes & Noble financials indicated the Nook division-which again had a double-digit revenue drop in the most recent quarter- was about 16% of its total business-and that’s if you don’t include the college segment.

2010. Those were the days, weren’t they?

I’ve also been going through Book Publishing Report back issues.  Since BPR has been published since 1975, some of these issues go way back. While doing this, I’ve realized something: computers may change, but three-ring binders stay the same. While it seems I can’t go more than half a day using any of my gadgets without one begging me to upgrade to a new operating system, the binders that have sat in Simba’s offices for years demanded nothing other than the physical space they occupied. Interoperability issues in digital are an ongoing problem-not only are there floppy disks lying around that have no drives nearby to put them in, there’s a gap in the digital archives of BPR because of one electronic system isn’t working with another.  

Fortunately, the archives gap did not affect Vol. 7, No. 47 (the November 8, 1982 issue). The second story on page one starts as such: “Major bookstore chains such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton and wholesalers such as Ingram Book Co. are beginning to move into marketing software as a complement to sales of business and computer books.”

Seldom has so much nostalgia been crammed into one sentence.

The lead on the third story: “Several major publishers are jumping on the publicity surrounding the recent arrest of maverick automaker John Z. DeLorean and plan to publish books on DeLorean’s life and career.”

On that one, I have no words.

Perhaps the most controversial story of Vol. 7, No. 47 was in the ‘BP Technology Watch’ department (possibly a great-great-grandfather to ‘The Tablet Reader’). The headline: ‘Canadian Author Plans to Write, Distribute Novel by Computer.’

It is what it sounds like.

The article stated Canadian radio playwright and photographer Burke Campbell planned to ‘compose a novel electronically on an Apple III computer and distribute it electronically to The Source, an electronic information service, and to a network of Apple computer users.’

Source Telecomputing Corporation planned to ‘set up an electronic mailbox that will allow its subscribers to post their comments on the novel on an electronic bulletin board which can be viewed by all Source subscribers.’

The second to last sentence of the piece: ‘Campbell says the novel will be a demonstration of the progress of “the electronic revolution” - a way for authors to reach their readers without the intervention of traditional publishers.’

You read that right: In 1982-a year when my leisure time was mostly Donkey Kong and my biggest worry was whether Han Solo was going to be rescued-some of the same stuff that is going on in publishing now was going on then.

There are two lessons from this look at the analog equivalent of Book Publishing Report’s baby pictures: The first is that the only thing that stays the same in this industry is change-both real and exaggerated. How many times did we think this industry was going to change the way we thought it would and it didn’t? And how many people engaged in efforts that were truly ahead of their time?

The second has to do with the value and stubbornness of print. I never would have found Vol. 7, No. 47 if it was in a digital folder-those I move with a drag-and-drop. But when it comes to things that take up space in an office, one has to open those and read it in order to assess its value. Think of the analog browsing about one-third of e-book users engage in-walking through a bookstore-before thinking to themselves: ‘this looks good. I’ll buy this.’ Now I believe the industry needs to work a lot harder combining analog discovery with the digital product, but that’s another column.

And think of the product. In spite of the digital bible-thumpers’ most bold predictions, a lot of biggest publishers are lucky to draw one dollar out of five from digital books. Some of the savviest, knowing that print will be around forever anyway, aren’t phoning in the design of print titles or denying their ability to be just as ‘magical’ as the newest tablets-if the success of J.J. Abram’s ‘S’ is any indication.

The industry is about ready to finish yet another year of challenge and change. Thirty-plus years from now, someone is going to be thumbing through BPR back issues from 2014. As a BPR subscriber and industry influencer: what do you want that person to think as they read through those old stories?

Will it be: ‘Wow. That person really understood this business and was really ahead of their time.’?

When taking a break from writing this piece and packing up, I Googled ‘Burke Campbell’ and soon came across his Twitter feed. And I sent him the following message from my own Twitter account:

“I saw you wrote a novel in 1982 on an Apple III computer w/plans 2 distribute it electronically. How did it go? I’m serious.”

I’m still waiting for a reply-but if I get one I will write about it in the January 2014 issue. Hopefully it will withstand the test of time.