19 December 2009

Writing Advice That Overturns the World

I’m finishing off what ended up being “Writing Advice Week” at Oz and Ends with a look ahead from publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

…selling content as a publisher is a business that is going to just get harder and harder until it won’t really be much of a business anymore.

This has nothing to do with piracy or DRM [digital rights management] or Amazon’s promotional ebook pricing. It has to do with the most basic of economic laws: supply and demand.

Until the digital age, content was scarce. It wasn’t scarce because people didn’t create it; it was scarce because it required an investment to distribute it. That’s no longer true. Anybody with an Internet connection can make anything they write (or snap or video or sing) available to anybody else with an Internet connection. For just about free. That’s just one reason — among many — why the amount of content choices available to everybody has mushroomed in the past 15 years.

When the supply of something goes up faster than demand, the price of the something drops. Or, put another way, money flows to scarcity. And content is anything but scarce. . . .

What is the new scarce item that will attract the dollars if IP [intellectual property] is so common that it becomes hard to sell? The answer is the attention of people: eyeballs.
Many writers are already working in media that make most of their money by selling eyeballs: anything advertising-supported, such as most periodicals, most websites, and commercial broadcasting. Of course, some of those media aren’t really making money.

Book authors aren’t working within that model. In fact, book publishing has developed an anti-commercial ideology. That doesn’t mean publishers and authors don’t want to sell books. Of course we want to sell books. But we don’t want to sell other stuff in our books. Advertising in books? Tacky. Product placement? Even tackier! Those eyeballs are meant for us alone!

Which would still work fine as long as people with eyeballs are looking for our stuff. But it would be harder for new writers to establish themselves in the content-saturated future Shatzkin sees.

The good news is that this model would still reward writers who entertain and inform the most readers; indeed, they could be more in demand than ever. The bad news is that there would probably be a long and awkward transitional period to the new model.

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