Just have a guess - how may professional conversations do you think I've had about cannibalism since I joined the publishing industry in 1993?
Can't give you an exact number, but the answer is much more than zero. Not that publishers are prone to having a barbecue with someone from Marketing roasting on a spit - the conversations I am recalling are a risk of introducing electronic as well as print formats. "Cannibalism" is shorthand for this concern: "What if start publishing electronic formats as well as print, and the only outcome is that people switch from one format to the other, giving us no additional sales, but the additional costs of making two formats?"
A number of factors mean this is not simple to sort out. The market might include:
- Customers who will only buy one format and would certainly have bought print if that was all there. Any sale of an electronic format is at the expense of a print one
- Customers who buy both formats (when I worked at OUP during the late nineties, we were pleased to find a good number of customers wanting both the printed Oxford Textbook, and the CD-ROM. One was for searching, the other was for long reads, and for having impressive spines on the Consultant's shelf)
- Customers who will only buy the publication in electronic format (and buy a rival publication if yours is only available in print). Publishers tend to feel they are protected from this at least a bit by the "Content is King" argument - i.e. competition is perhaps more likely to be about who has the best textbook, or best story, rather than format being the key feature. Some other factors may apply, though: in some markets (e.g. business reports) the customer needs the information NOW and will settle for a second-best product if that is all that is available within the deadline.
To further confuse the picture, electronic formats can easily be made into products that have no direct print equivalent. For example, what was once a printed book can be amalgamated with other content into a bookshelf or library, or it can be disaggregated into smaller pieces of content to be sold individually.
The differences don't stop at Production, either - if you have electronic formats, new sales channels and marketing oportunitiesbecome available - for example it becomes much cheaper to offer a free sample or trial subscription. You can try to sell via affilliates. Electronic formats are cheap to store and distribute and so it may be practical to keep a "long tail" of publications in electronic format beyond the point where it would be uneconomic to keep stock in a warehouse. Also to distribute them to markets where it would be uneconomic to ship paper products.
Want more reasons to be confused? - add the prospects of piracy (arguably easier when he digitally-pirated copy is the same quality as the original, rather than a grotty photocopy), and the debate about whether piracy is a dead loss, or whether Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy (for all but those products where the "obscurity" problem has already been solved; and for whom the pirates are now parasites only).
Hey, cannibals and pirates all in one post! Basically, we're never going to sort this out by a priori reasoning. There are too many unknowns for that - it's about as likely as me working in a Beautiful Princess into this post, so we can rescue her from the pirates and cannibals and then live happily ever after.
Oh, all right then, just for you, I'll finish this post in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure book...
The track leads up to the sheer cliffs, and with the pirates and cannibals closing in, you and the Beautiful Princess draw your swords and stand back to back determined to sell your content dearly.
"You'll never eat me alive!" she shouts at the cannibals
"And I'm not going to be Jolly Rogered!!" you challenge the pirates.
[One moment - aren't Beautiful Princesses meant to be grateful and supportive and not to flare their nostrils sarcastically? ...]
- Do you assume that the cannibals are not a significant threat? To see data from O'Reilly (computer book publisher) see Does Digital Cannibalize Print? Not Yet.
- Do you think that the pirates only want to impose progressive taxation? See Tim O'Reilly's thoughts on the matter.
- Do you think the existing model of copyright is breaking down? See Content, Cory Doctorow's essays on the subject (informed in part by his experiences of routinely publishing a free electronic version of his science fiction novels).
- Do you grab the Princess's hand and jump into the sea (this being what you do in stories like this when at the top of a sheer cliff, just as you climb into the ventilation shafts of a Secret Base)? Go to X
- Or do you want to fight the lot of them? Go to Y