Until the digital age, content was scarce. It wasn’t scarce because people didn’t create it; it was scarce because it required an investment to distribute it. That’s no longer true. Anybody with an Internet connection can make anything they write (or snap or video or sing) available to anybody else with an Internet connection. For just about free. That’s just one reason — among many — why the amount of content choices available to everybody has mushroomed in the past 15 years.
When the supply of something goes up faster than demand, the price of the something drops. Or, put another way, money flows to scarcity. And content is anything but scarce. That, in a nutshell, is the inexorable problem publishers face. And every day it gets worse. More backlist and out of print and public domain and orphan books get digitized and made available. More bloggers blog. More commercial operations put content online to satisfy their own stakeholders. More videos are uploaded to YouTube and more documents are uploaded to Scribd. All of it is processed and made discoverable by Google and other search engines. And the cumulative effect of all this content being created as something other than new publications for sale is cutting into the market for content that is being created with the expectation of sale.
I understand the basic argument that Mike Shatzkin makes here (and others often elsewhere), but I have one fundamental doubt (hope?) about it:
Yes, there’s plenty of supply out there. But is the supply of really good stuff actually much much larger? Certainly not in the proportion that supply in general is.
Let’s assume for a minute that No, the supply of really good writing has not expanded immensely. (An arguable point, I know, but go with it for a moment.) If that’s the case, is there still a way that the best writing can be charged for profitably, whatever the medium — or will the robust supply of not-quite-as-good writing (or far-from-as-good writing) provide enough value for its low cost that no one will chip in extra for high value? And if there are readers willing to pay for good stuff (I certainly am), is there a business/publishing model that can, as it were, indulge them?
That’s the discussion that gets left out when people look at supply as monolithic. Think food. There’s LOTS of food available in the U.S., much of it very cheap compared to historical norms, because supply is great. But people still pay for especially good meals and even pretty good meals. Can we expect no equivalent regarding books and articles?