Voice of the Industry
A Visit from a Chinese Publishing Delegation, and a Thought about “the Human Factor” Behind the Numbers
By Patrick Henry
Published: May 11, 2011
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to brief a group of visiting Chinese publishers and printers on the state of the industry as experienced by their counterparts in the U.S. Our discussion highlighted the similarities that link China’s and America’s publishing sectors amidst profound market shifts in both countries. It also illuminated a few notable differences that distinguish our industry’s attitude toward change from theirs.
The visitors—a group of about two dozen—are in New York City for three weeks on an educational mission organized by the M.S. in Publishing Program at Pace University’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. While in New York, they’ll hear from and visit metro area printers, publishers, and other industry representatives in an effort to learn how professionals here are adapting to publishing’s new realities. (They’ll also make the most of whatever time the crowded agenda leaves them to be tourists. While I was setting up for my talk, our hosts from Pace were being queried for directions to Macy’s—a short walk from Pace’s midtown campus on Fifth Avenue.)
The delegates are executives and managers of the Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG) of Nanjing, a large, vertically integrated operation that publishes, prints, and distributes 23 periodicals and 6,000 book titles annually. Claiming a sales volume of $12.6 billion, PPMG also has published 2,000 titles through copyright arrangements with publishers in more than 20 foreign countries including Warner, Random House, and Simon & Schuster in the U.S.
In 2006, PPMG, Pace, and Nanjing University formed the Sino American Publishing Research Center, a cooperation for information exchange between U.S. and Chinese publishing professionals. Under its auspices, groups like the current one come to Pace for research and study, while Pace sends its personnel on similar trips to China.
Yesterday’s focus was on the general state of the U.S. printing industry and the survival strategies that American firms have used to ride out the economic buffeting they’ve endured since the industry’s “great recession” of 2008-2009. With the help of data from Printing Industries of America and WhatTheyThink’s Economics and Research Center—and with the indispensable assistance of our wonderful translator, Pace’s Yunjie Duan—we reviewed trends that are reshaping the industry in terms of value of shipments, number of establishments, and employment.
We didn’t try to disguise the fact that the U.S. printing industry has contracted and will go on contracting until capacity, technology, and demand have rebalanced in ways that bring stability back to print markets. Our main point was that the ongoing shakeup is survivable and that survivability can be underwritten with the right mix of conventional and digital production processes, ancillary services, and good old-fashioned customer care.
It’s hard to gauge the reactions of an audience whose language one can’t understand. But, my impression throughout was that the PPMG delegates were highly sympathetic to—or at least keenly aware of—what their opposite numbers in the U.S. have been going through.
They agreed, for example, with our assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of various print markets. Remarks about the need for process automation and digital production control brought nods and exclamations of what I took to be assent. So did statements about the continuing value of conventional offset in plants that also operate digital printing equipment. (The group seems very well informed about digital presses, and they showed particular interest in the economies of scale achievable with high-capacity inkjet platforms now available from HP, Kodak, and others.)
In Q&A, the first subject to come up was Lightning Source, the on-demand book printer whose digital production capability, business model, and POD book market dominance PPMG would very much like to mirror in China. Here I was joined by Pace publishing lecturers Manuela Soares and Andrea Baron, who explained that the essence of Lightning Source’s success lies in its powerful ties to Ingram Book Company, Amazon, and many other leaders of the U.S. book trade—a network of relationships that won’t be easy to duplicate in China or anywhere else.
Having done my best to sketch the challenges confronting U.S. printers, I put the what-keeps-you-awake-at-night question to the delegates from PPMG.
In the forefront of their concerns is the e-book and its implications for the kinds of traditional publishing around which their company is built. Like American publishers, they are still searching for a formula that will enable them to profit from e-publishing without eating into the hard-copy side of their business. They also are trying to assess the likely ecological impact of the transition from paper-based to paperless publishing—a question complicated, they said yesterday, by a lack of consensus on the issue by the various government agencies that are empowered to regulate the transition in China.
How differently eco-related stories typically unfold in the U.S., where markets create the situation first and the government steps in with controls second (if ever). But another question about e-books disclosed an even wider gap between the PPMG delegates’ outlook on e-publishing and the type of thinking that prevails here.
One of them asked, “What happens to the people?” What will happen, as the translation gradually made clear, to workers and other stakeholders on the print side in a market that starts to favor e-books over the traditionally manufactured kind? More broadly, what happens to members of the industry whom market shifts and technological change inevitably leave behind?
It’s a question that hasn’t come up in any domestic debate or symposium that I’ve attended on the digital future of publishing. My answer to PPMG was that the displacement of large numbers of people by the rise of e-books probably is a long way off, and, given the enduring appeal of the printed word, may never happen at all.
But, I couldn’t help reflecting that earlier in my presentation, when I was rather glibly rattling off statistics about the loss of tens of thousands of print industry jobs since 1999, it should have been clear to everybody in the room that the question really hadn’t occurred to me, either.
I’m grateful to the PPMG delegates for refocusing my attention on the human factor, and I wish them all the best during their stay in New York. Here’s a salute, likewise, to everyone at Pace whose vision of international cooperation among industry professionals has made it possible for them to be here.