Determining a print book’s expiration date…mandatory or optional? Well Encyclopedia Britannica teaches us that it may be mandatory.
Agree or disagree, new technologies challenge publisher’s print run estimates. What seemed economically feasible ten years ago, could now result in dismal sales or depreciating inventory. I discovered this first hand when a class assignment required me to produce two title budgets: one for the academic market, the other for trade. Even though the words “danger, danger Will Robinson” reverberated in my head, I kept increasing the titles’ print run.
Why? To ensure each title’s gross margin covered their overhead expenses. Remember every publisher wants their titles to break even. They want them to at least generate enough sales to cover their production costs. And yet, while I reached my target gross margin, my estimates were too ambitious. What went wrong?
Recall that “danger” mantra echoing a few sentences back? Let’s just say ignoring it was a bad idea. My professor’s cardinal rule was “you can print, but you can’t unprint.” If a title doesn’t completely sell its first print run, publishers are forced to shelve it. Moreover, they pay for storing it until customers decide to purchase. Adding injury to insult, the title’s market value may weaken over time, which in turn weakens its sales value. Excessive inventory results when publishers over estimate titles’ print runs. It’s more understandable then why Britannica’s Chief Editors and stockholders felt it was best to eliminate print runs entirely.
Removing them from the equation can lessen the publisher’s burden. This isn’t to say that publishers will not have to consider expenses derived from their e-books. No, I’m saying that emerging technologies like Apple’s iPad are challenging the publishing industry’s norms. Ten years ago, Britannica may have seen weak print runs as an indication to reduce their estimates. Today however, when Wikipedia and the iPad can provide similar services, print publishers must take dramatic steps to remain relevant. I don’t think it gets any more progressive than a publisher ending its print run after 244 years.
Personally, I don’t know whether this is a misstep for Britannica. Truthfully, the Kindle, Nook and iPad’s influence is not dissipating, but growing. Britannica’s decision teaches us that we can’t expect readers to rely solely on print, not when they’ve tasted the sweet nectar of digital.
An EPublisher Confesses
- Encyclopaedia Britannica nukes print edition, goes digital-only (go.theregister.com)
- Digital wins: Encyclopaedia Brittanica ends print run – Firstpost (firstpost.com)
- Britannica Vs. Wikipedia (nupurc.wordpress.com)
- A Look at Encyclopedia Britannica As It Exits Print (forbes.com)