James Varblow

The Future of Print

In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, allowing information to be distributed faster than ever before. In the years following, printed texts spread across the western world like wildfire, as did ideas, literacy, and reform. Print-based publishing quickly became the primary method of sharing written knowledge – a role it held for centuries. 

In recent years, the dominance of print has been challenged by the advent of the digital media market. Through the internet, information can now spread instantaneously. This has created a paradigm shift in the way that we consume information. The convenience of these innovations is hard to say no to, and year by year, more people are choosing digital content. This is reflected by a recent survey which found that 58% of US adults prefer getting their news from digital devices. By comparison, only 5% of respondents preferred print publications. This trend is especially evident in younger generations, with 83% of respondents under 30 preferring digital devices.

These changing values can be seen across the market. Print’s share of global revenue is decreasing. Magazine revenue is trending down in Western Europe. While book sales are still dominated by print, digital has become a mainstream alternative. As of 2022, ebooks made up 18% of all books sold. At the same time, audio media is on the rise, with audiobooks and podcasts carving out their own niche in the market. 

As digital media grows increasingly important, publishers are left to wonder what role print will play in the future. 

Why is Print Trending Downwards?

The publishing market is largely moving away from print for several reasons. Convenience is a major factor. Digital media can be easily consumed in a lot of places where print would be inconvenient. Instead of carrying a newspaper around, a commuter can easily pull up an article on their phone. Audio content is also more convenient in many situations. You can’t read while driving, but you can listen to a podcast. 

Another factor is distraction. In a world of pop-up ads, video reels, and instant messaging, it can be hard to hold a reader’s attention. In a recent survey, 77 percent of respondents said they enjoyed reading, but had trouble finishing whole books. This corresponds with a growing feeling of stress and busyness. Stress has been linked tohigher levels of impulsivity. Thanks to these factors, it can be easier to consume content on a digital platform where you can scroll through dozens of topics, compared to the time commitment that most forms of print require. This lines up with a study done in the UK which found that online readers spent an average of 30 seconds reading news articles, compared to 40 minutes for print readers

Outside of consumer demand, there are many factors that make digital attractive to publishers.  Producing digital content saves a lot of time and materials, compared to print. Edits and updates are much easier on a digital platform. While mistakes made on print can necessitate costly reprints, digital content can be updated in a matter of minutes. With digital content, physical location is less of a concern, and shipping is irrelevant. This concern is especially poignant, thanks to the increasing variable costs of printing

Lastly, there is the matter of ad revenue. The decline in print readership, paired with the growth of competing markets has led to a decreased demand for ad spaces in print, and a sharp decline in ad revenue.  Print’s dwindling ad revenue puts pressure on publishers to shift towards digital, or to explore alternative revenue streams.  

The Upside of Print

While it doesn't have the chokehold it once did, print still plays a major role in the publishing market. In 2022, print still accounted for 48% of magazine sales in the US. Book sales are significantly weighted towards print, with 4 physical copies sold for every 1 ebook in 2022. Print sales are also more valuable from a revenue perspective. In the UK, newspaper publishers reported that a print reader is worth £89 of yearly revenue, compared to £15 for digital readers

This revenue disparity is one of print’s biggest strengths. It can be explained in a few ways. To start, the existence of a tangible copy which the reader holds in their hands justifies a higher price to the reader. A print copy can be read without access to the internet, it causes less eye strain, and readers are free to keep or share their copies as they please. In fact, 66% of readers surveyed reported that printed books provide a better reading experience. This trend is true with younger generations as well. Research from the American Press Institute found that 44% of 18-34 year-old subscribers find print easier to read. Among these young print payers, 69% say that they are not likely to switch to digital.  

At the same time, recall and comprehension are generally better with printed content. Research done by the University of Valencia found that reading print is 6 to 8 times more effective for learning when compared to digital

This is likely because printed text is more engaging for readers. We mentioned earlier that an increase of distractions is making many feel they don’t have the time to sit down with a piece of printed media, but this is a double-edged sword. Research done in the UK has shown that when magazine publishers switch to digital only, their reader engagement drops dramatically. A British magazine, the New Musical Express, found that their digital readers averaged 3 minutes of engagement per month, compared to 30 minutes per week for print readers. While a piece of print is unlikely to pull a reader’s attention elsewhere, mobile devices are filled with competing media sites, each designed to pull readers in with past-paced, distracting content. If a reader spends significant time in a magazine every week, they are more likely to feel that they are getting something valuable out of the content, which suggests that they would be willing to pay more. 

The higher value of print books compared to digital is enhanced by the array of quality options that publishers can choose between. Printing allows publishers to create higher end goods by using quality materials such as paper and bindings. This gives publishers the ability to enhance their brand reputation, charge premium prices, and dip into the market of luxury products.

The book market in particular has proven to be remarkably resilient in spite of the advent of ebooks and audiobooks. Books require a large time commitment, and so the benefits of print are more tangible than they might be for newspapers, magazines, or journals. Screen glare is a much bigger concern when you consider reading an entire book versus a single article.  Distractions might be welcome when catching up on the news, but they are much more inconvenient when you’ve set aside hours to read. 

While digital alternatives are carving out a share of the revenue, printed books still make up the majority of the market. In 2023, an estimated 78% of global revenue was through print sales, and predictions suggest that these levels will hold for years to come

Where Does This Leave Us?

The publishing industry Is evolving, with print’s influence decreasing, while digital increases.  Market trends suggest that print revenue will continue to decline for newspapers, magazines, and journals, while holding steady for books. Despite this decline, print still fills an important sector of the market, and should not be overlooked. As we’ve seen, there is a base of consumers who favor print and are willing to pay for the service, a fact that is likely to hold true for years to come. 

How this information should be applied will certainly vary between publishers, depending on the market niche they wish to target. Some publishers, like Wolters Kluwer, have found success by transitioning to primarily digital products. Other publishers anticipate a continued shift towards digital, but still emphasize the importance of print as a means of distribution.   At a 2023 publishers summit, Mediahuis’ COO Paul Verwilt explained that while print’s importance is declining, it is still valued by a portion of their consumers. Thus, print is still an important piece of their business model.  

Trends Towards Success

With these market trends in mind, the future of print begins to take shape. In the long run, it may be best for some publishers to move to a digital only strategy, but for many others, print will remain an important stream of revenue. For these publishers, there are many strategies available to effectively secure and maintain a foothold in the print market. 

For many publishers, the way forward may be to explore marketing print as a premium product. As we’ve seen, there is a loyal base of print consumers willing to pay extra for the experience of print media. In this business model, the importance of quality and aesthetics is heightened, in order to provide a product that sets the brand apart. Already, some magazine publishers are exploring this strategy, opting to raise prices and selling quality materials to the customers who think the publication is worth it. 

Social media engagement is also growing increasingly important as a way to reach younger audiences. This can be exemplified by the BookTok trend, which has been making waves in the publishing industry. A recent survey found that 59% of young readers agreed that book influencers on social media had “helped them discover a passion for reading”. The influence of these content creators has huge implications on how the next generation’s media consumption habits will develop. If a brand is able to put itself on the right side of these trends, it will be a step up compared to its competitors as it looks to the future. 

Another strategy worth exploring is the bundling of print and digital content. Since there are pros and cons to both print and digital, some consumers are willing to pay for both the convenience of digital and the tactile experience of print. This can lead to benefits such as improved customer retention and brand perception. We recently wrote a separate blog post, for those who would like to explore the subject further. 

Lastly, diversity seems to be the best option for many publishers. There are customer bases who prefer print, digital, or some mix of the two. Offering a variety of options allows consumers to choose what works best for them. Book publishers in particular would do well to embrace print, digital, and audio, as differing preferences are expected to remain well into the future. 

In Summary

While digital publishing is expanding its share of the market, print is still a major source of revenue, and projects to remain so at least in the medium term. There are numerous strategies being explored to navigate this changing market, but in general, offering both print and digital options allows the most customers to be reached, while promoting reader engagement and brand perception. By balancing the strengths of both media, publishers can have the best of both worlds.

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