(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.