Despite the way e-books dominated the publishing conversation over the past year, it was obvious from the moment one set foot on the volume-packed BEA show floor that the printed book is still very much at the center of the publishing industry. Taking a line from Mark Twain, Powell’s Books head buyer Gerry Donaghy led a panel discussion Wednesday morning on the notion that the printed book is dead. Joining him on the panel, which was titled “The Report of My Death Was Exaggerated: The Printed Book,”were John Boris, executive v-p of Lonely Planet; Tyrrell Mahoney, national accounts manager for Chronicle; and long-time industry player Robert Miller, currently the group publisher for Workman, all selected for their companies’ dedication to producing quality physical books that defy digitalization.
Donaghy began by tackling the “common wisdom” that, in the age of the internet, travel books must be suffering. Boris admitted that Lonely Planet, like the rest of the travel guide market, has suffered a double-digit decline in sales, percentage-wise, but that the category is “far from dead.” To offset that decline, Boris and company are “reinventing” their print guides to meet consumer expectations goosed by the rich media experience of the Web. As such, they’re now spending more on their print product than ever, adding more color and detailed mapping, while at the same time increasing their digital presence: Lonely Planet’s apps have been downloaded some 9.2 million times. For them, digital “reaches a whole different audience,” who can then be led to the print side (through, among other techniques, in-app links to points of purchase.
Mahoney’s take was similar, viewing the digital product line as a complement, not a replacement, for the physical book. Chronicle’s commitment, she said, is to create “distinctive” books that “really surprise when seen, touched, picked up.” Like many other publishers, Chronicle’s fastest sales growth is in children’s books, which the panelists see as relatively digital-proof: “Parents want to buy their kids physical books,” said Miller, pointing out the unique pleasure of sharing a book with one’s child. “Parents want to give them as gifts, hand them down.”
Cookbooks are another category seemingly vulnerable to the endless supply of Web content, as food and recipe blogs continue to multiply. Mahoney reports that “everyone’s experiencing great sales” in cookbooks. It’s not an automatic slam-dunk, however; more money goes into cookbook production now than even a few years ago.
Another challenge, Boris noted, is continuing to invest in the print product without passing those costs on to retailers and consumers. Lonely Planet’s new line “is much more expensive to produce,” but “we consider pricing very carefully.” A digital product can cannibalize print sales if the price difference is too great, making price parity a necessary goal (trade paperbacks and e-books are essentially the same price). Parity also matters when releasing updated versions of printed work; Miller reported that the new, color version of Workman’s bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die will have the same $19.95 price as the original, black-and-white version.
Publishers have even seen success with print books based on already-existing Web content. Boris said he couldn’t imagine why someone would want to buy the book version of a free Web site—and then he ended up reordering Workman’s Bad Cat by the thousands. Miller deadpanned that “there’s no replacement for a physical deranged cat.” Miller also had one of Workman’s Potato Chip Science on hand which is sold in a potato chip bag: “It doesn’t download easily.
Mahoney also reported exponential growth in sales of their Moleskine journals, another counter-intuitive increase in an age of increasingly sophisticated smartphones and tablet computers. If you’re a traveler, Mahoney said, “you still need your notebook.” (When another panelist asked how the moles feel about this, Mahoney said that they’re thrilled: “They’ve been given the green light to breed like crazy!”)
There’s also the simple fact of the book as a conversation starter, a memento, and a discovery: “I have such a desire to physically grab this book,” Boris said, indicating one of the Chronicle titles Mahoney brought to the table. People put travel guides on the shelf, he points out, as a badge of honor and a conversation piece. Miller contends that the discovery experience in a physical bookstore is what drives their sales, something that’s impossible to recreate with a search engine: “These books are here because you wouldn’t have thought of them,” he said. “These are the titles you don’t know that you want.”
Besides, Boris added, no one leans over your shoulder and says, “I need to check out the icon on that app!”