We are on the cusp of a new paradigm in the information industry. That’s what we are. We aren’t book designers, publishers, authors, newspaper or magazine (or even e-zine) journalists, TV anchors, advertising professionals, or artists, or entertainers. We are information producers and providers. What’s changing fast is the delivery system and the choices of our consumers.

crwodsourcingThis book: Crowdsourcing appeared last August, so I hope I’m not too late to the party. (Ironically, produced on paper first.) This video is a nice overview. I like how he uses photography as an example of a paradigm shift. It’s something we designers are very familiar with and can easily understand. The book cover itself was a case study for his thesis. A contest was held and designers submitted cover designs on which the “public” (people who pay attention to such things) voted. Like American Idol, but um, not. Many of us professional designers just hate design contests, because it reduces us to the level of say, the yodeling, tap dancing farmer hoping to win a spot on the aforementioned TV show and possibly see a profit from our speculative efforts. It’s not really a fair thing to ask of a “professional” is it? And yet, we seem to be willing to do it—the risk is worth the possible reward. But that’s a whole other rant story. I mention this book mainly to illustrate the following example.

Back to the paradigm. Think about the photography example. Technology, and delivery systems changed the way photos were made, sold, and delivered. Abundance of producers using these new technologies to create and make photos available changed the pricing of them. The result was photographers had to change the way they marketed and sold their wares and services or face extinction.
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Something happened when I first got in to the graphics design field back in the mid ’70s. It was something almost as big as Gutenberg’s movable type. (Yeah I know the Chinese invented it eons earlier, but they didn’t market it very well did they?) When I first started, we did paste-ups. We purchased galleys of the text usually in long paper strips. These were typeset by typographers, the type was produced on a machine that used hot lead poured into molds of the letters as an operator typed. Then there were photo typesetters that made type headlines on photopaper. Paste up artists cut the galleys up and pasted them into the layouts on boards called mechanicals. A bit later there was new technology, a compositon machine that could set type in columns in a layout of sorts and even drop in line drawings. That was exciting, but we still had to paste up the pages in mechanical, cut amberlith overlays for knockouts, and keyline the colorbreaks. Graphic arts was still a handicraft and things moved a lot slower. Then in 1986 (a year or two earlier for the earliest adopters) the Macintosh and Aldus Pagemaker arrived on the scene. And everything changed. That was the beginning of a paradigm shift.

It took a little while longer for the changes to be felt in a widespread way. But it did change things for better and for worse. If you were a typesetter and you didn’t adapt. You were out of a job. After we began doing layout on computers for a while we continued to do paste ups.  We did our design on the Macs and sent our Pagemaker files (via a floppy disk sent in a car) to the “service bureau.” These were the typographers who saw change coming and survived by buying new equipment (Linotronic machines) to output our files on paper or film.

As a designer, I found the changes exciting. I learned fast and mastered the software. I found I could make more money the more I learned about the technical aspects. The downside was that now we were expected to be typesetters, too. Because we had computers that did so much more of the job we had to do more and do it faster. Head counts at design studios and ad agencies (and publishers too I suspect) went down. Eventually “service bureaus” also went out of business because we learned we could send the files directly to printers who could process them to either film or with the newer “computer to plate” machines directly to plate and print. Another blip on the way to change.

Early in the 1990s, enter the internet in widespread commercial use. Suddenly we could send files all around the world. And we did. I could work from my home in Colorado with a publisher in Las Vegas, an author wherever, an editor wherever else, and a printer in China. Printers that didn’t adapt lost business, some are gone. But all of these were small incremental changes in the way we produced one kind of information delivery system—ink on paper. With the advent of broadband, DSL, cable internet, and wifi sending bigger files became easier and and faster. People using the internet really reached a critical mass, they became comfortable reading online. Fast forward to today. Kids especially like reading onscreen; textbooks are being replaced by laptops.

Suddenly people are getting their news, and entertainment from not just newspapers, magazines, TV, and movies, but from the internet. Books delivered as PDFs, e-books, audiobooks—and not just through the internet to computers, but to e-readers, iPods, and cell phones too. But these changes too have been incremental, though you could argue they seemed to come faster than ever before. Why then are things so bad in the publishing, newspaper, and magazine businesses?

I don’t have any special knowledge, but just sharing my opinion based on all the information coming at us daily. Truly the bad news on the economy has become a tsunami for many industries not just print media.  It’s a perfect storm of bad economic news that accelerated trends that in better times would have meant the kinds of changes we already saw in the production of print media. If it weren’t for the bad news on housing, job losses and losses in consumer spending the bad news coming from print producers wouldn’t seem so bad, because it would be coming at a slower rate.

In reaction to the changing habits of consumers and advertisers choosing other delivery systems, and those just not purchasing at all, print publishers have been trying to save the ship, rather than throwing everything they have into the next big thing. This is a typical human reaction to change, you do what you can to preserve the current paradigm. But now I don’t think that’s enough. For temporary media, that is products with a short shelf life like newspapers and magazines the facts are it just doesn’t make economic sense anymore. The costs of producing the product, the time frame required, and logistics simply do not compete. You can’t even make the energy argument, as print products require tremendous amounts of energy as compared to electronic delivery.

Yes, I agree. Holding a newspaper or magazine is generally a better reading experience if you have a leisurely amount of time. But eventually the economics will win out. Print media for these kinds of products will not be able to cut enough costs to make this equation work much longer. These kinds of print media will have to go all electronic, I believe. Maybe not now, but in the near future.

But what of books? Well the trends have seemed to me to be very similar in the reactions of the publishers, and I mainly mean the big NY firms, but it also applies across the board. Right now things are not good. Publishers are laying off people much as in other industries, trying to cut costs. Print runs maybe be down for many, though up until this year many more titles were being published. (More self-published books than ever make up part of those numbers though.)

However I have seen the production values of books going down. Cheaper papers, bindings, foils, inks etc. to make the unit costs of the books more manageable. But also books are getting to market faster, with less time spent in editing (if any). And books are getting shorter (in general). Fewer pages costs less. Maybe they are skimping on the design as well, going through fewer design samples, fewer revisions. This too cuts costs, and quality. Not every publisher is letting quality slide, but every publisher is watching costs very, very closely—they have to.

Photography has changed almost completely to digital. But there are still some art photographers who produce art pieces using the old film and darkroom methods. Those photographs become more expensive as supplies for them are rarer now. This is true of many other art reproduction methods, stone lithography, etching, woodcutting, and even letterpress, were once used as regular production printing processes. Today those are all art, or one-off processes. They are used to make expensive high quality print pieces that are cherished and gain in value as they age.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately: What is the future of book design? If the garden variety book is going down in value, then the future is in high quality books. If print books are to survive we have to make books that purchasers will want to keep forever. That would be a tough sell, right now. But in the future the economy will improve, not everyone and their brother will be “publishing the next great novel” and those that can get through these tough years will be positioned to create those fine books, keepsakes.

I don’t want to see the end of print either. I’m looking forward to the future of fine books!