Odd as it sounds, let’s perhaps avoid making this print vs digital conversation. Though the transition to digital methods of creation, transformation, distribution and consumption of media is not at all a red herring, it is also not always the best lens through which to look at the changes in producer and consumer behavior. For one, the digital transformation of publishing is now already twenty-five years old, commencing with the publication of Aldus Pagemaker in 1985; for another, we’ll be selling analog reproductions of our created and licensed intellectual property for decades to come.
So, to arrive at a conception of what added value publishers can offer, I’d instead like to look at changes in the shape of the marketplace. Historically, the market for books has been effectively single-sided: few producers, many consumers. The “fewness” of the producers was partially ordained by society (low literacy, few leisure hours, endemic racism and sexism), and partially by industry strategy (remember that “copyright” began as a privately-enforced cartel run by printers who were sick of competing against one another to drive prices down). The “manyness” of the consumers was in spite of society (since lack of literacy and time would hurt book sales) and producers, frankly, weren’t in much of a position to act to increase the size of the marketplace since the tools for producing and distributing media other than books were not more advanced than the tools for producing books themselves, so any increase in demand for books was as a result of the book itself (up until at least the late 18th century, when newspapers, pamphlets etc. developed broader and speedier distribution…).
The Industrial Revolution dramatically increased the “manyness” of the consumers as the cost of producing media declined relative to income. Although initially it did little more than that, in its latter stages, it permitted such efficiencies that leisure hours increased and the sophistication of the technology required better-educated persons, meaning far greater literacy and less intolerance.
Initially, at least, the Industrial Revolution did nothing to increase the number of producers. Its technology favored the production of few things, many, many, many times. So while its latter stages permitted and necessitated greater literacy and social tolerance which would in theory cause more production of culture as well as more consumption of culture, the scope for the increase in production was stymied by the very steep returns to scale. It also is worth bearing in mind that while consumers benefited enormously, the benefits lay more in the area of price (orders of magnitude lower) than choice (only somewhat greater).
Here I introduce the digital transition only to say this—the power of scale becomes less significant because the marginal cost of reproduction is zero, lower than even the additional cost of printing the 10 million-and-one-th copy of a massmarket paperback. It’s zero for everybody.
So, suddenly, all the growth in consumption our society has enabled is now also available to the production side. What was once a one-sided marketplace now becomes a two-sided marketplace. And tomorrow, I’ll discuss what that entails…