Print in 2020: Musing about projections

Yesterday, someone at LISNews and one of the thoughtful people at It’s All Good read a British Library press release a little too quickly (easy enough to do, particularly if you’re dealing with post-ALA stuff).

Here’s the It’s All Good post. The gist: the press release projects that 10% of UK research monographs will be print-only in 2020, with the remainder being e-only or print and electronic.

The unsupportable projection is that only 10% of published material would be print-only. While that might be true, that’s not what they said. I noted the distinction at LISNews and at It’s All Good.

And then thought a little about what might or might not happen, looking at U.S./worldwide publishing and making up some plausible numbers.

Note that these are all hypothetical numbers and are not claimed to be projections!

Consider the following hypotheticals:

  • Trade books (an amorphous category but what most of us usually buy at bookstores and borrow at libraries): Let’s assume that 100,000 titles will be published this year, that the average trade book is 150 pages long, that the number of titles will grow at 1% a year, and that in 2020 a full 80% of trade books will be print only. In other words, in public library/bookstore terms, “most books will still be print only.” NOT A PREDICTION!
  • Other books (reference, research monographs, etc.): Let’s say 50,000 titles in 2005, averaging 200 pages, growing at 2% a year, and that 20% will be print only in 2020. (I think these are all relatively fair projections, noting that many more reference and scholarly monographs are becoming available in both print and electronic form, and that these books are generally longer.)
  • Refereed scholarly journals: Let’s say 30,000 such journals in 2005, averaging 1,000 pages per journal per year, growing at 5% annually–and, I believe a plausible projection, that only 10% (mostly humanities) will be print-only in 2020. Heck, I’d go with a 5% projection.
  • Magazines and other periodicals: Let’s say 200,000 such periodicals in 2005, again averaging 1,000 pages per periodical per year, growing at 2% annually. Since full-text aggregators are now making many popular magazines available in e-form, although the bulk of circulation continues to be print (and, I believe, will still be print), let’s say that 25% will be print-only in 2020.

Add those all up–and while all of the growth factors and current page and title numbers are made up, they’re all within plausible realms based on what I understand about the publishing industry–and you get this situation in 2020: 25% of all publishing (where “all” excludes newspapers and the like, an unfortunate exclusion) would be print-only–but most “regular” books would still be print-only.

Change those assumptions just a little bit and see what happens:

  • Let’s consider words rather than pages. An educated estimate is that the average trade-book page is around 300 words, the average specialty-book page around 400 words, the average refereed journal page around 700 words, the average magazine page around 600 words. If anything, those estimates are probably on the high side for trade books and on the low side for the others.
  • Let’s assume different growth rates: 6% annual growth for refereed “journal equivalents,” many of them just overlays on article databases, and only 1% for other periodicals.
  • And let’s assume that 95% of refereed journals are available in some electronic form by 2020 (probably a good assumption) and that 80% of other magazines have most or all of their content in some e-form as well as print.

That yields an overall print-only percentage of 18%. While still leaving most copies of most magazines and most trade books as print publications.

OK, I’ll end this overlength musing–noting that in this case I wouldn’t find the 18% estimate at all unlikely. Nor would it in any way signal “the death of print.”

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