Monday, February 28, 2005

The Internet and Blogs Won't Destroy Print Publishing

As a subscriber to About.com's freelance writing email newsletter I receive information every week on various aspects of writing. The February 15th email included an article by Clay Shirky, which was originally published on his site on October 3, 2002, entitled Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing. A Google search to find the site where the article was first published came up with several hundred results. The article was obviously widely circulated and discussed on the web. A related article by Tom Coates, which cited the Shirky article and was published a year later on September 3, 2003 on Coates' PLASTICBAG.ORG blog also showed up frequently in the results. Coates' article was entitled (Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything... (September 03, 2003) said essentially the same thing as Shirky's article but included a long list of links on the topic at the end.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term creative destruction to describe the tendency of a market economy to eliminate old, inefficient industries in order to make way for newer and more efficient ones. In this way resources are continuously redirected to their most efficient uses. Both Shirky and Coates describe the havoc in the publishing industry as a result of blogs and the internet. Shirky tends to take the position that since blogs give free access to publishing they have opened publishing to the masses and, with everyone a publisher, there will no longer be a market for the sale of published works. He does admit that print books have advantages over screen text and will survive for the near future but he sees no financial future for web publishing. Coates is a little more cautious in that he admits that it is difficult to predict just where electronic publishing will lead but he also concludes that for the vast majority of web publishers the joy of seeing their work in print will be their only reward.

While I agree with Shirky and Coates that the internet and blogs have both opened up publishing to amateurs on a massive scale and that most of these people will not make any money with their publishing, I disagree with Shirky's when he states By removing both costs and the barriers, weblogs have drained publishing of its financial value.... True, my out of pocket monetary expenses for publishing this blog are zero as Blogger.Com provides the site and publishing tools I need at no cost to me and the Google Ad-Sense program offers the opportunity for me to possibly make a few cents off the ads they run at the top of the screen. But production of the content takes considerable time, effort and thought on my part. I justify this because part of the time I spend is what I would spend anyway on preparing for the classes for which I am being compensated. The extra time, over and above what is absolutely required for class preparation, I justify by the fact that it is a learning experience in a new technology which may provide future employment opportunities.

Blogs will not destroy the value of the written word. I also doubt that anyone will ever be able to make a living, let alone get rich, from publishing their thoughts on a blog. This is due to the fact that I, like Shirky, do not see anyway to charge a fee to readers of a blog's content. But I do believe that blogs will be a vehicle for people to make money (and some to even get rich) and that blogs will also increase the demand for quality writers.

Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph and later the invention of motion pictures did not result in the destruction of the markets for live concerts and live theatrical productions. Not only did people continue to attend concerts and theatrical performances but the demand for musicians, composers, actors and playwrights increased as these new technologies reduced costs and increased demand for more content. Furthermore, the advent of radio and television, both of which provided music and entertainment to the public for free, did not, as was widely feared in the 1950s, lead to the demise of theaters and reduction in record sales. In fact radio and TV INCREASED demand for records and in theater movies as people heard the music on the radio and ran out to buy the record or, after becoming accustomed to TV entertainment wanted to see pictures on the big screen as well.

When Xerox introduced plain paper photocopiers in the 1960s it was widely feared that the magazine industry would be destroyed as people photocopied and distributed articles rather than purchasing individual copies of the magazine. Critics at the time pointed out that the same fears had been voiced about the introduction of public libraries which would lend books for free and the introduction of paperback books which cost a fraction of what the hardcover originals cost. In all these cases the falling prices led to a greater demand for content rather than the disappearance of the industry. An example may put this in perspective. In George Washington's day it was possible for a wealthy person to purchase AND READ in one year every book printed in the English language. Recently I ran across a news article on the internet that mentioned that provide reviews of books have to rely on freelance reviewers for much of the work because their full time reviewers can only read about 10,000 books per year. Large companies with large staffs of full time readers cannot keep up with the volume of books published but have to hire additional part-time help to get the job done.

Here is my take on this. The vast majority of blogs will not make money and their content will remain amateurish and read by very few people. Blogs will, however, make money by offering free content that induces readers to pay for additional fee based content whether this be internet content with sites restricted to paying customers, electronic media such as downloadable e-books, video, music, etc., or traditional print books, CDs or DVDs. Here I am not referring to the practice, criticized by purists as being unethical, of disguising a product promotion as an impartial news item. Rather, it is the bundling of different media to cross sell the products. CDs create name recognition for recording stars. This, in turn, generates demand for live performances which are then used to further boost CD sales. Book signings by authors have long been a part of the marketing plans of publishers. But with the new technologies that are driving physical production costs ever lower anyone can get into the act. EXCEPT they have to have content for which people are willing to pay.

At St. Baisal's Cathedral (now a museum) on Red Square in Moscow a couple of years ago I listened to a group performing traditional Russian religious music in one of the rooms. They may have been hired by the museum to help entertain the visitors or may have just been given free exposure. In addition to their performance they were also selling CDs with their music. Today they would probably have a web site to further promote themselves. In the U.S. many churches host struggling performers of religious music. Concerts are often free (sometimes an offering is taken) but CDs and audio cassettes are available for sale on the way out along with paper on which to sign up for email newsletters about the group. While it is doubtful that any of these groups will achieve super star status, many are able to make a decent living this way.

It is the same with books. There will always be a market for printed books, magazines and newspapers with mass appeal. People will pay for these. But there will also be new niche markets for all sorts of special interests for which it was not financially possible to satisfy before. The internet has been a godsend to genealogy enthusiasts. In the past many people spent hours researching their ancestors as a hobby. They then typed up their notes, made copies for a few family members and donated a copy to the local library or historical society which placed it on the shelf to be forgotten. Almost all of these books are of limited interest and most badly written. But some are well written and of interest to others. But those interested are scattered and mostly unidentifiable. But these people can be reached via webpages and blogs. Once the author has their attention the book can be pitched. The free content on the blog can be used to not only entice distant relations and other interested parties to visit and thus see the book advertised, but the content can also be used to demonstrate the author's credibility in the field and writing skills. Electronic delivery (an e-book) in this case is not only inexpensive but not as likely to be illegally copied and distributed to friends since the audience is widely scattered and not know many others interested in the topic

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