An interesting blog post from Charlie Stross published a few days ago:. A lot of things resonated with me:
- the need and challenge to foster talent over multiple years if not decades, vs. all other pressures
- the opportunity cost between reading and various forms of (new) media ~ the ‘attention economy’
- Amazon’s picking on an industry in distress
From everything that I’ve learned these last few years about publishing, as well as the evolution of industries and markets in general, all of this rings true and is really completely natural to happen over a longer period of time. Publishing has been around for a long time, we are talking centuries, and it’s surprising that the end-product has pretty much been unchanged. Production and distribution have changed, but the positioning (for lack of a better term) hasn’t. Books remain a collection of pages that require us to sit down and read them for a significant amount of time. There has been a shift of positioning in the sense of authority-based products to entertainment-based ones and a mix of both, but that’s it.
Since books are an intellectual product, it’s unusual to say the least. Take physical products like shoes or walking sticks (terrible examples, sorry), these you would expect to remain pretty much the same over time. We continue to have feet and people continue to have to lean on walking sticks in similar ways. But books are consumed by people that have changed significantly.
Gender equality of the workforce and decreased social welfare has caused a shorter time-span for concentrated consumption. New media has changed the choices in consumption to shorter, more passive, or more interactive. In other words, we can read tweets, watch/listen to content, and play/modify content. It shouldn’t be ignored that the Internet has also given rise to the easy creation of content, which, for me at least, represents a significant opportunity cost to consuming it.
If all of that weren’t enough, when a player like Amazon shows up and wants to optimize the whole process, it creates incredible pressure on the traditional model with a lot of quality-related overhead. But as much strategic thinking has suggested over the last half a century, a lack of change, a commoditization of products and services creates opportunities for disruption.
In a fair world without back-room political-business deals, the only answer is to change the game. Many publishers are doing this, by focussing on added values like data-mining to create knowledge-supported decision-making tools. Others, but not many, go into cross-media production (think books-movies-games). The sad truth is, as Charlie Stross points out, is that there will always be a market for books and thus the services around it, but that demand is inelastic with little chance of growth. I know that there is more value to be had for a doctor to have an AI supporting his brain than to read a book and I do believe that we can safely evolve from books in the professional support arena. Is it better to watch ‘Of Mice and Men’ or ‘1984’ as a movie than read a book? Is it better to play DEVICE 6 than read a book? Those are the questions that we are faced with and may decide the direction of the industry in the near future.
As a producer, I have great fears about jumping into writing full-time, except that I have to keep reminding myself that it’s just a medium that allows for endless products. A writer can just as much envision a book, as (s)he can a movie, let alone an invention or a company. Writing coherent stories is one thing, the possibilities that come out of it are endless. I love publishing, I love books, and I will continue to do my best to produce my first and see what’s next. But just like everything I described above is part of a great journey, so is my or anyone else’s writing. Sorry to finish on that philosophical note, but that’s where I’m at at this time of night.