Print industry struggles as online media takes over

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Vietnam's printing industry is on the decline as online media and mobile phone services are changing how people read, experts say.

According to the Vietnam Printing Association, the number of print companies in the country has surged six times over the past ten years to more than 3,000, thanks to eased regulations on the publishing business. Ho Chi Minh City alone accounts for one third of the figure.

The industry's revenue grew around 15 percent or more every year during the past decade, that is, until the last two years.

Chairman of the Printing Association, Nguyen Van Dong, said the domestic printing industry began to contract when high inflation hit the economy in 2008. Then came the global recession, which put 70 percent of local print companies out of business most of the time.

But Dong said what worried him the most was the losing battle that print companies were fighting against online media.

"Reading books and newspapers online is an irreversible trend of the future," he said.

In 2002, the printing industry set a target of printing six books per capita in 2010. But right now Vietnamese read less than three books per capita per year, and two are textbooks.

Meanwhile the capacity of the industry keeps growing as many companies have continued to invest in new facilities, thinking a couple of contracts with newspapers are enough to keep them running.

But current publication sales can only keep printing companies operating at 50 percent of their design capacity.

"The number of book copies and circulation at many newspapers and magazines in Vietnam slid 20- 30 percent in the first six months last year," Dong said, noting that even large newspapers had to face declines in circulation.

Books were the hardest hit, with only textbooks able to maintain stable sales figures, he said.

Comic books, for instance, now sold around 10,000-20,000 copies per issue while publishers used to report sales of up to a hundred thousand copies several years ago, he said.

Sales of fiction and science books were even worse, Dong said. "Some titles print only a few hundred to a thousand copies, but they still can't manage to sell them all."

"Everything can be read on the Internet now. Traditional reference books like dictionaries are disappearing on book lists at local publishers."

Even phone books were no longer printed in large quantities, he said.

While publishers elsewhere in the world have adapted to the new trend by selling digital copies of books and magazines on the Internet, it could take a long time before Vietnamese companies do the same thing.

Cheaper pirated print books are sold around the country. Besides, most of the books available online are unofficial versions typed and created by local fans and they can be downloaded free of charge at forums and blogs.

Readers are also switching to free online news as local newspapers nowadays regularly update their websites, where they also post the content of their print editions just hours after they are published.

Analysts said the most viable approach for printing companies to take now was to move away from publishing and towards the packaging segment.

Packages and labels actually accounted for 65 percent of total print products last year. The prospects are also bright as many producers plan to improve their products by changing packages, analysts said.

It means the future of the printing industry will have to depend on how well the manufacturing industry can perform, they said.

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