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(Credit, Oil, IT, and) Paper Ain't Free, So Don't Waste It.

By - January 30, 2009

Book Open-9 (Second in an ongoing series, part one here)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of “print” lately. I’m not alone. Everywhere I look, another story declares newspapers and magazines dead or dying. I disagree that the essence of what print has stood for will die (in short, storytelling), but I do agree that the structures around that storytelling are ending a lifecycle. And that ain’t all that’s ending.

Besides coded communication (ie, words, grammar, language), print has been fueled on one big premise: Waste paper. Somewhere in the late 18th or 19th century paper became so cheap that entire economic systems could be built that presumed it was actually beneficial to use more of it than was needed. Paper was a revelation – there’s probably a great story to be written comparing the cultural and economic impact of paper to that of the web (it’s probably been written, and I missed it).

Take the book publishing industry, for example. As a recent Time piece on publishing put it:

Publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. “They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back,” says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW.

In a world where there was no alternative to paper-based communications, it made sense to waste paper. We all know that world has changed completely – instead of wasting paper, we now waste processors, pixels, and (to a certain extent) bandwidth to communicate with each other.

The Time piece does a good job of explaining how this shift has impacted book publishing, and has a very Wired-like take on the results: in essence, book publishers will emerge as packagers of high-value print products that have been validated by the web’s frothy jungle of collective intelligence:

Not that Old Publishing will disappear–for now, at least, it’s certainly the best way for authors to get the money and status they need to survive–but it will live on in a radically altered, symbiotic form as the small, pointy peak of a mighty pyramid. If readers want to pay for the old-school premium package, they can get their literature the old-fashioned way: carefully selected and edited, and presented in a bespoke, art-directed paper package. But below that there will be a vast continuum of other options: quickie print-on-demand editions and electronic editions for digital devices, with a corresponding hierarchy of professional and amateur editorial selectiveness. (Unpaid amateur editors have already hit the world of fan fiction, where they’re called beta readers.) The wide bottom of the pyramid will consist of a vast loamy layer of free, unedited, Web-only fiction, rated and ranked YouTube-style by the anonymous reading masses.

I think Time is onto something here. I recall when Wired first came out. We shouted our Digital Revolution credo from the rooftops, and were often greeted with a smirk from reporters covering our new magazine: “If you are so digital, why did you make a paper magazine?!”

Our answer was always the same: If you’re going to create something using paper, you have to justify it. The era of print as the presumptive delivery vehicle for information was over. From now on, if you’re going to consign something to paper, you can’t presume to waste it. In fact, you have to do the opposite: You have to add value to it to the point of it becoming an object people want to literally touch (hence, our approach to design).

Entire economic models have been built on the premise of free paper. Expensive printing presses, expensive distribution, expensive union reporters, hell, even paper is expensive once the advertising that made it seem like a marginal cost has migrated to digital. Those models are dying. But the narratives paper once supported aren’t dying. They’re exploding in variety, and accelerating in speed.

Hence the thesis behind FM: this new digital world of publishing needs media companies that act much as book publishers did back when paper was cheap and authors began writing novels to exploit this new reality. The best of the web’s “authors” are indeed “crowd-sourced” – their ability to create and nurture significant communities sets them apart and makes them valuable. On the web, an “author” might be someone like Heather Armstrong at Dooce, but it also might be a platform or application like Mixx or Graffitti, or a “band” like Boing Boing or Silicon Alley Insider. As readers, we vote with our attention to and engagement with a site. In short, traditional print-based models of publishing may be dying, but publishing, as a business, has never been more vibrant.

It might suck to be a book publisher or a newspaper company right about now, but that’s the reality of creative destruction and the cycle of business and culture. And it seems entirely clear that what is happening to the publishing industry is also happening to its industrial-era cousins – banking, energy, transportation, even the PC industry – all of them based on wasting something that once seemed a plentiful commodity – credit, oil, capitalized IT budgets.

There’s a theme in there somewhere, and I hope to keep teasing it out. But it’s Friday, and it’s 5 pm. Enough for now.

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6 thoughts on “(Credit, Oil, IT, and) Paper Ain't Free, So Don't Waste It.

  1. JG says:

    Hence the thesis behind FM: this new digital world of publishing needs media companies that act much as book publishers did back when paper was cheap and authors began writing novels to exploit this new reality.

    I’m fine with your thesis — the digital world does need digital “book” publishers.

    Where I grow weary is in the business model: ads. Because FM is also an ad network/platform, correct?

    The soul of print was storytelling, you say. I agree. And that storytelling soul does not die, just because the medium changes. I also agree. Where it dies is when you intersperse that storytelling with other stories (ads), not integral to the fabric of the original story that you are telling.

    With a book, I could walk in to the store, plop down cash, and walk out with a story. And then spend the rest of the rainy weekend enjoying the tale woven for me by the author with nothing else getting in the way. I could exchange real cash for real services (or, at least a service.. storytelling.. in the form of a good.. a book). But it was a straightforward trade that I could make, without any interference from outside “stories”.

    But now if every story is now going to be interrupted by an advertisement, then you are doing more than just being a publisher for digital storytelling. You’re intruding upon those stories in a way that did not happen with books. You’re changing the ability of those stories to shine forth, unfettered and uncomplicated by competing messages.

    Non?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for your vision, broadly speaking. I agree that traditional publishing is wasteful. I do think there should be more transition. I just don’t believe ads should be the vehicle for this transition. Can it be possible for FM to be a digital publisher, but still rely on a direct party-to-party exchange of goods and services.. money exchanged for storytelling?

  2. Tom Nocera says:

    I’m betting that just above “the wide bottom of the pyramid” referenced by Time, there will be established a layer rich with opportunities for authors and discerning readers.

  3. Cory O'Brien says:

    Your point that “if you’re going to consign something to paper, you can’t presume to waste it. In fact, you have to do the opposite: You have to add value to it to the point of it becoming an object people want to literally touch” resonated with me, because I was recently having a similar discussion with someone about movies.

    My point was this: We’ve reached the point where pirating movies is a shockingly easy thing to do, and you can actually see some films for free on your home computer before you can even see them in theaters. However, I still prefer shelling out the $10 to go see a film in theaters because it’s just such a different experience from watching a movie at home, and I value that experience. Because I think others share my feelings, movie theaters are starting to realize that they’re no longer just selling a movie, they’re actually selling the entire experience. (Which is also why I think things like 3D movies and IMAX will continue to well even as more and more people stream their films from Netflix or download them from iTunes.)

    Taking this idea and applying it to printed media, I think magazines, books and newspapers need to realize that they’re not just selling their written work, they’re actually selling the entire experience of interacting with their content. Sure, you can read much of the same information you’d find in Wired on a number of different tech blogs on a daily basis, but there’s just something about a magazine or a newspaper that changes the way you interact with the information inside.

    Like you, I’m having a tough time finding a firm theme for this idea just yet, but I think the general idea is that media companies need to start thinking about the product they sell as an entire experience, rather than just as a piece of media.

  4. JG says:

    Cory: Yeah, but even in the movie theatre.. don’t you see how it’s all shifting toward hyper advertising? Is that really part of the “experience” that the world is moving toward, for the next generation?

    And when I say advertising, I don’t just mean the low-production slideshows that they do, before the scheduled movie start time, when the lights are still on. I am talking about the 2-minute “mini-movies” that play, after the theatre is dark, which advertise cola, cars, and cell phones.

    It would even be one thing, if they played those ads before the movie started. But no, those ads play after the scheduled/posted movie start time. So the movie theatre has ensured that everyone has arrived and is in their seats. Nobody wants to play the “oh, I’ll just arrive 10 minutes late and thereby skip the commercials” game, because you know that all the other schlubs are going to believe what they read and show up at what the movie theatre says is the start time — so you have to show up then, too, to get at least a semi-decent seat.

    Is my movie theatre ticket price any cheaper, because I now sit through ten minutes of mini-movie commercials? No. Theatre ticket prices continue their meteoric rise.

    Am I really the only one who has misgivings about this stuff? Does everyone else really want this much advertising in their lives, all the time, everywhere? On Google, above urinals, after the scheduled start time of movies that you’ve paid for, on the Tivo pause screen, etc.

    On a related note.. y’know how when a television show goes into syndication, often the rebroadcasting channel will cut out portions of the original program so that they can fit more commercials into the same half-hour or hour time slot? Well, a few years ago, the SciFi channel decided to show the original Star Trek series in full, without cutting anything. They hadn’t been broadcast that way in decades.

    In order to show the full 1960s hour-long program, but still keep advertisers of today satisfied, the rebroadcast had to run for 1.5 hours. Granted, the rebroadcast was also padded with a couple of three minute original cast member interviews. So it wasn’t all commercials. But those interviews added up to maybe ten minutes, of the 90 minutes, tops.

    So what this means is that in the 1960s you could fit the whole Star Trek show, plus all the advertising that you needed to keep Desilu studios and the networks happy and fat, within 60 minutes. Whereas today, even though the costs are lower (yes, you have royalties, but the show has already been produced!) you have to have 80 minutes of programming to keep everyone happy and fat. That means that there are an extra 20 MINUTES of commercials, for every hour on television, as compared to 40 years ago.

    20 minutes. Unbelievable.

    And were it only television, that would be one thing. But again, it’s also movie theatres, and urinals, and google and.. and..

  5. Chas Edwards says:

    I started my career in book publishing. I had absolutely no business experience or expertise, but I was shocked that the consignment model (with free shipping both ways), which began in the Depression to encourage bookstores to keep putting new titles on their shelves, was still in place. My superiors in the industry shrugged their shoulders, knowing book publishing was already headed toward its own demise, and told me that’s just how it was. (Hey, paper and gas were cheap!)

    It’s always a good thing when a business and its employees feel the pressure to justify itself/themselves every day.

    No one will miss the days of cheap paper. Imagine walking into a bookstore and knowing that every book on the shelves survived a bruising struggle for its own existence, and that the literary industry felt it was so damn good, they had to print it — expensive paper be damned.

  6. Ed says:

    Wonder if you are aware of Narrative Magazine (www.narrativemagazine.com) – one of my favorite new media sites that is doing something impossible for old media to do, without making old media obsolete. Narrative’s mission is to bring great literature to the world for free, and their website publishes tons of new voices all the time.

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