Gutenberg and his Bible… The Little Red Book from Mao Zedong… The Guinness Book of Records setting the bestseller record for a copyrighted series of publications… discussing the future of printing using the (gulp) internet. Is the heyday of printing now a footnote of history?
Less paper can add up to more content, if we learn to print only what people want, when they want it. The danger with this argument is that it lends itself to the digital competitors, who might reasonably argue that even less paper equates to even more value. How can printing on paper compete with the instantly updated, interactive and seemingly endless resources of a digitally connected world? It can, in the same way that cinema has persisted despite the arrival of video, and radio has survived the arrival of television.
What is good about the printed word? It can be used without a power supply or technology. It can distributed universally. There is no up-front cost for a special device to read the material with, or to connect to a digital network to obtain it. Because there is no device, there are no costs or risks associated with having a device. Printed material is very transportable in limited amounts. The ‘interface’ for printed content is both well known and well liked by users. Printed material is harder to copy, which is good for the owner of the content, but not necessarily for the user. On the other hand, the printed word has its disadvantages as well. Once printed, there is no way to update the content, an impediment for either correcting errors, issuing new versions or presenting topical information. The communication is one-way only; you can read, but cannot respond. In large volumes, printed material is heavy and bulky. The marginal costs of raw materials and of distribution will be higher for printed material than for digital material. The options for formatting, structuring, and browsing through material are limited; there are no hyperlinks and no search functions.
The future for printing depends on finding compelling business propositions that maximises the advantages of the printed medium and are unaffected by its weaknesses. Reducing wastage will greatly reduce the costs for printing, but selling printed words and pictures has the same fundamental cost disadvantages as selling music on CDs or movies on DVDs. A pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap strategy may slow the decline of sales in printing, but cannot reverse the trend towards digital transmission of content. Using the analysis of generic strategies developed by business thinker Michael Porter, printing will be the loser in a competition based on cost. This leaves the printing business model two options: differentiation or focus on a few select markets.
Focusing on a few select and specialized markets may be viable for small print-oriented businesses, and there are many possible and imaginative uses for printing, but adding a lot of niche markets together is not the same as dominating one big market. There will be room for novelties, like printed albums that capture all the photos of a child as it grows up, personalized gifts, and souvenirs of historical events. However, we should assume that the total time and total expenditure on leisure, entertainment, education and information gathering is not going to change overall, just as people made time for increasing their internet use by reducing the time they spend watching television, which in turn has seen advertising budgets move from one medium to the other. New applications of print technology, devised to entertain and amuse small groups with one-off publications may garner some interest, but they are not likely to generate sizable business models. It is inevitable that much of the content that used to be supplied in printed form will be supplied digitally in future, because it has a cost advantage, and also has some differentiation advantages in terms of the ability to support two-way interaction and to provide rapid and frequent updates of content. For printed material to really thrive in an evolving economy, and to hold on to a significant share of the existing entertainment and knowledge markets, it will have to play to its strengths and support new products that are suitably differentiated and will generate consistent and large-volume demand.
One of the most obvious advantages of printed books is that they make good gifts. They are tangible. They look good on shelves. You can feel the quality of the paper with your fingers. People will keep giving books as gifts simply because it permits them to give something physical, in contrast to the gift of downloaded content. The hardcover, high quality and gift-oriented end of the book market will be relatively protected from the threat of digital incursion. The kind of personalization made possible by printing individual copies for individual customers is a natural complement to this kind of product. Whether offering children’s stories that feature the name of the child, anthologies of love poetry especially selected for the reader, a copy of a classic text with customized footnotes, or printed to suit the reader’s tastes in terms of page size, typeface and style, there are many possibilities. The same kind of bespoke changes could just as easily be delivered digitally, but will be much more attractive and meaningful when delivered within a beautifully bound and printed book. Though this sector of the market can embrace new opportunities presented by micro-publishing and tailoring of its content, its fundamental strategy is defensive in nature; it is about augmenting an established product and maintaining sales in the face of a new competitive entrant.
Digital material would seem to have the advantage when it comes to tailoring the content to suit the reader, because the reader can go online and be selective in what content they get. For example, HP’s Tabbloid allows readers to aggregate their preferred RSS feeds and format them into a printable magazine. The final stage, printing the content, is more of an option than a necessity. However, not all tailoring needs to be done by the reader. Sometimes it can be done for them. Tailoring may be even more important when trying to communicate common messages to a broad cross-section of people, not all of whom will be keen on technology or will chose to read digital content, but where the end same end result can be supported by different specifics to suit different individual tastes. A good example would be campaign materials from political candidates. Politicians are currently not that sophisticated at keeping a track of individual voters and why they vote the way they do, but the frontrunners are making rapid improvements. Instead of candidates tailoring their message to the reflect the issues that seem most important from a poll of people living in an area, what if they tailored the messages to the topics that each individual voter cared most about? A campaign mailshot could highlight the politician’s views on the policies that most interested the individual voter, and could list endorsements from people that the voter most admired. Where the campaign team lacks all the information specific to the individual, the next best guess can be inserted, based on polling and what is known about the voter’s age, job, and any political and social affiliations.
Because internet use is dominated by the model of users ‘pulling’ the content they like from a endless supply of resources, whether paid for or free, it is tempting to try to think of how printing can emulate this approach. However, printing has the disadvantage in terms of both cost and the natural mode for interaction with the recipient, who will tend to be using a digital and connected device of some description. There are many organizations that might want to push content to the user, and would prefer to supply it in a tangible format delivered direct to their home. Vanity publication may represent a growing proportion of print services, as demonstrated by the surge of interest in self-published books and in novelty items like this limited-run newspaper which was given as a gift to friends of its makers. However, the demand for vanity publications will ultimately be limited because the writer’s enthusiasm is unlikely to be matched by that from readers.
Of much greater advantage to printing is the possibility of ‘pushing’ content that might be of interest to the user but where the cost is paid for by the organization wanting to send them promotions and advertising. There are organizations that possess and will want to push content that may be of genuine interest to the recipient, even if the recipients would never think to ask for it. By joining forces, aggregating material, personalizing content and taking on some of the aspects of today’s traditional mass media, they could both cut their costs and offer differentiated content that would be hard to compete with. Consider three currently disparate models: (1) free local newspapers, which are paid for by local adverts, (2) supermarkets, credit card companies and other businesses which regularly gather data about customers, knows where they live, and which may want to push bespoke discount offers to them based on their purchasing habits, and (3) government agencies, transport bodies, and other public services that would like to give information relevant to the specific recipient, depending on such things as whether they hold a driving license, claim welfare benefits, are taxpayers or have children at a particular school. Personalized content could be pulled together to create a local weekly journal without any of the sponsor organizations needing to share any data. Costs would be covered by the commercial organization using the journal for their paid messages. These costs would be lowered because of the economies of scale that come from pooling their efforts with other organizations. Local and personalized content can be padded out by syndicating national and international news. The result would be a news bulletin that tells you about big events in the national news, tells about crime suffered in your neighborhood and investment in your children’s school, includes coupons relevant to the products you buy from the supermarket, and reminds you to submit your tax return. Consider also the benefits to advertisers. A classified advert to sell a used car would only go to those households where somebody has a driver’s license, and the local pizza delivery franchise can send a coupon enticing a known customer to order their favorite pizza. The complexities involved in managing multiple content providers can be ironed out, probably using a mixture of the techniques that local newspapers currently use to sell advertising space and that direct marketing businesses use to manage cost relative to the scale of a promotion. If they are, there is the potential for a genuinely new and attractive print product, made possible by the digital age but uniquely designed for the print medium.
Print will go into inevitable decline if it tries to be a paper-based version of the internet, and will be pushed back into defensible but small niches. A more aggressive approach to finding new products would yield better results. New products should utilize the data available to personalize content, whilst exploiting the advantages of a medium that is still universal in a way that digital media is not yet and may never be. These advantages will be most cheaply delivered to big organizations that want to connect to a very wide cross-section of people in a personal and tangible way. They may be promoting a commercial enterprise or trying to support a community. With intelligent use of print technology, they may find seamless, cost-effective and attractive ways of doing both.