Tuesday, June 16, 2015
The Magical Content Tree
Things were somewhat better in other, more technologically advanced parts of the world. The Chinese invented paper shortly before 200 BC, and by 200 AD lots of Buddhist texts were being mass produced using wood block printing. This know-how slowly diffused west, reaching Moslem Spain a few centuries later. By 1400 AD the art of paper-making made it all they way to the most backward of European provinces—Germany.
But then came a surprise: a German craftsman by the name of Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type: the ability to compose printed pages using reusable letters cast from lead. His legacy is still with us: the people who compose text for printing are still called “typesetters,” because once upon a time they physically set type, and the gaps between lines of text are still referred to as “leading,” because they used to be produced by inserting thin strips of lead. This innovation reduced the cost of producing books by orders of magnitude, making it possible for people of modest means to acquire a library. Gutenberg's breakthrough is one of the most important bits of disruptive technology to come around, along with the steam engine and the nuclear bomb.
But an even bigger disruptive transformation occurred with the advent of the internet, which entirely decoupled the act of reproducing a work from the act of producing it in the first place. In effect, by investing in computing hardware and by paying for an internet connection, everybody gets access to a printing press. Once the equipment has been paid for, the incremental cost of producing another copy of something is zero. The overall cost is, of course, higher than ever; there is a good reason why Microsoft made fantastic fortunes with their mediocre, buggy products, or why Apple Computer is the public company with the highest market capitalization.
If you look at cost versus utility, many families now spend hundreds of dollars a month on smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, e-book readers, internet services, cellular phone services and so on. Were they to spend an equivalent amount on paper books and periodicals, they would amass a fantastically huge library in no time. Some people also pay for content—they purchase e-books, subscribe to premium services and so on—but most of the “content” they “consume” is free, paid for by advertising, or by promises of future revenue or increased market share, or by some other intangible, or—the most important category of all—by nothing at all.
If an equivalent arrangement prevailed during the age of scribes toiling in scriptoria, most of the money would be allocated to the makers of ink and quill pens, and parchment would have to be free, with the scribes featuring as unpaid labor. During the age of moveable type such an arrangement would mean that only the press-makers would be paid well, with the typesetters and the pressmen working as slaves. But, odd though such an arrangements would have been, they would not have precluded the authors of the works so produced from earning something from their mental exertions, because the fruits of their labor would still be bound, in some tangible, immediate sense, to their physical embodiments, and because there would still be a stock-in-trade involved: a book, a column of newsprint or a section in a periodical.
But now, once an author clicks “post” or “send,” the work instantly enters the public domain as an ephemeral string of binary digits: anybody can republish it or circulate it free of charge. There are a few methods available for avoiding this scenario, but they all have severe limitations. Let's enumerate them:
1. Sell advertising. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate banner ads into a web site. On a reasonably popular web site, such as this one, this produces a few hundred dollars a month. Earnings seem to be in the neighborhood of $1 per 1000 impressions (ads shown) but results vary. But this scheme is rather limited, because a web site that publishes works by a single author can never be as popular as a web site that combines the works of multiple authors without paying them. For instance, I may get 10,000 reads on an article I write on this site, but when it gets re-published free of charge on any number of other, more popular sites, it gets read 30,000-50,000 times on each one, and the ad revenue (if any) goes to them, not to me.
2. Sell self-published books. The new technology has made this a relatively easy proposition, and a popular blog provides a good marketing venue for self-published books. But there is a problem here as well: many people are used to finding things they want to read without having to pay for them. Out of a thousand web site visitors, perhaps a single one will order a paper book.
3. Sign up with a publisher. This has a few advantages over self-publishing, especially for people who don't have experience with self-publishing, but the publisher gets to keep 90% of the revenue. In general, this makes sense only for extremely popular authors. I have tried this before, and I doubt that I will try it again. I just started Club Orlov Press, which uses a new model that leverages print-on-demand in a way that allows the author to keep 80% of the net royalties. Time will tell whether or not this is a breakthrough.
4. Sell premium services. Once popular scheme is to provide a free teaser, but make people subscribe or pay per view to read the entire piece. This isn't necessarily a bad scheme, but it can't be the only scheme, because of a catch-22 problem: one doesn't become popular by publishing teasers, and if one isn't already popular, few people will want to pay to read the rest. I intend to do some experiments and see if I can make it work.
5. Run fundraisers. This, it turns out, is a viable option, but it only works in extreme situations. This is not a viable way of producing a steady income, or for getting paid for one's work. In my case, a few million readers translate into a few hundred donors. I expect that I will only resort to this technique exactly once.
And that, my friends, is the situation. I've discussed it at length with many people over the years, and there just isn't much to add. My friend Will came up with a good explanation for the shift that has occurred as print went digital and the work of writers became relabeled with the generic word “content.” He said that in the new scheme of things “content” is expected to grow on a mythical “Magical Content Tree.” “Content” just happens, and the internet, using “wisdom of the crowds,” will automatically sort good “content” from bad. Good “content” floats to the top while bad “content” sediments out, and all will be well.
But there seem to be a few problems with this plan. Again, let's enumerate.
1. The ratio of good, worthwhile writers to readers is perhaps a million to one. I believe that this is about the right order of magnitude for topics of general interest; it may be as low as one to a dozen in some very specialized domains, but these are special cases. The difference between writing and reading is about the same as between flying a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A-380, and sitting in an isle seat munching on tiny pretzels.
2. Nor is the average pretzel-muncher able to tell a competent Boeing 777 or Airbus A-380 pilot, who will get her there safely, from an incompetent or a mentally deranged one, who will fly the plane into a mountain. The ratio of good, worthwhile authors to readers who are capable of passing qualified judgement on their works is perhaps a hundred thousand to one.
3. The people who are supposed to pass judgement, allowing good writing to float to the top and bad writing to sink to the bottom, do not usefully sort themselves by their ability to do so in any manner. Instead, a completely different phenomenon prevails: those who are the most active, and the most vociferous, are usually the least clued in.
4. The venues offered by social media, where “links” and “posts” can be sorted by using “likes” or “up-votes,” are conducive to a general dumbing-down: worthwhile, original material that requires more effort to understand will not do as well as something dumb but transparent. For example, yesterday I looked at a linguistics blog, and there were two posts. One tried to explain why Russian is closer to Bulgarian than Ukrainian is due to the greater influence on Russian of Church Slavonic. The other claimed that all the Russian words that start with “ukr-” are of Ukrainian origin. The former is interesting but requires special knowledge to evaluate, while the latter is preposterous but, for the utterly ignorant, provocative. Guess which one was the most up-voted and the most discussed?
5. If discussions on social media are to play some sort of role in determining whether “content” is good or bad, then, I am sorry, but that's not going to work at all. You see, social media is a poor substitute for normal, healthy human contact, and a symptom of a generalized social sickness: people are alienated, and technology funnels them into these venues in search of something—anything at all—resembling human interaction, so that they can continue to feel that they exist. The people who float to the top in this environment are the sickest: the most alienated, the most insecure, the most adrift. And the people most capable of appreciating good, original work are the least likely to want to participate. People sometimes tell me that, most surprisingly, the comments sections on this blog are actually worth reading. My secret? The “delete” button gets no rest—and neither do I. My apologies to all the trolls, the passive-aggressives, the abusive, the crypto-fascists, crypto-racists and crypto-bigots, the alienated, the lonely, the depressed, the suicidal... But they do not provide good “content.” They are not writers, and they may not even be readers: some of them clearly only read the title of an article, and then see it fit to comment about it. Since many of my titles are puns or plays on words, their comments are sometimes hilariously wrong-headed.
But this is the new lay of the land; we can't change it, and we can't ignore it. And so, instead, I will be trying a few experiments. There is already Club Orlov Press, with a pipeline that looks healthy, which will take already worthwhile “content,” improve it as much as possible, and make it available in book form, with most of the revenues going to the author. I also plan to do some experiments with paid premium content and with featuring visiting authors. I can't promise that any of this will work as well as I think it should. But I can promise that I won't be running any more fundraisers.