Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Much is Good Content Worth?

How do you feel about paying for content, i.e. music, video, and especially the written word? There are a lot of people out there who want to know your answer to this question. I work in publishing, and I write this blog, so I see two sides of this issue.
My whole livelihood depends on the fact that in book publishing, there has traditionally been an expectation that the available content has to be chosen, edited, printed, marketed, and distributed. When you buy a book, you expect that what you read inside it will meet at least some minimum level of grammar, spelling, readability (in the sense that words are used well and you can understand what the author is talking about), legibility (in the design and quality of the printing), and for want of a better term, interestingness, meaning it's a good story, or gives good information about a topic. Most people probably don't think about it explicitly, but you probably assume that books that look a certain way and come from a publishing house will meet these minimum standards, whereas if you know that some person just wrote a book and had it printed up themselves, you might wonder if it's any good.
At least that is how it used to be. With books, it's been somewhat difficult, or at least expensive for just any old person to create, market and distribute a book without the support of a publisher. That is changing due to new technology that makes it much easier and cheaper to do small print runs of books that look halfway decent, and there are always a few success stories about someone who self-published a really successful book and sold thousands of copies out of the trunk of their car. But when you hear those stories, it tends to be because a major publisher heard about it, bought the rights, and is now publishing a new version of the book and marketing it in the traditional ways. I don't know any stats about the number of readers who have ever bought a self-published book but I'll bet it is incredibly small.

The more content goes digital, the more this changes. An enormous number of people want to, and do create content. Now that we have blogs and websites, we can easily share our creative work with the world at large. There are no publishers acting as gatekeepers to tell the end user which content is worth reading. There are no marketers or publicists raising the profile of certain authors. There is no art department designing how the pages look. So there are millions of pages of writing out there that may or may not be worth reading, and they probably look awful, and hardly anyone has heard about them. And no one is making any money off them, probably, which isn't a big surprise.

But then you have many other thousands or millions of pages of writing that are halfway decent, they get a little attention, and maybe are making a little money from advertising. For most, it's probably just pocket change, but some bloggers are actually able to make a living at it. So do people even need publishers any more? Can people make more money by writing and promoting their own blogs?
Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote a blog post called "Before You Write That Book," in which she tries to discourage people who might want to write a book, saying that it's difficult to get published and you probably won't make much money anyway. And that is true. But especially for people who have been blogging already, it can become very tempting.

Take this blog, for example. I've featured a few ads here and there for most of the time I've been writing it, but I've never wanted them to visually overwhelm the site. The result is that I have made a few dollars but the lifetime amount is only in the low 3 figures (which I have been keeping track of and periodically donating to charities). But what if this blog was a book? My site has been mentioned in several national publications (Business Week, New York Times, Marie Claire, The Week magazine, Bitch magazine) and on, as well as in a couple of local and international newspapers or magazines, which is more than can be said for a lot of first time book authors. And I've had a couple hundred thousand unique visitors as a result, which I still find pretty mind-boggling! What if instead of reading my blog, those people had bought "My Open Wallet: The Book," as a $10 paperback? Assuming a 10% author royalty, I'd have made $200,000 instead of $200! Of course not every unique visitor to a blog would necessarily be a book buyer, but they don't necessarily click ads either, and you can see that the scale of revenue is just totally different.

Maybe some readers would be willing to pay me $1 to read this blog. That is the exchange people have traditionally made when it comes to the written word: someone entertains or informs you in exchange for payment. And some authors probably see blogging as a dangerous precedent of writers giving away their labor for free. But now that written words are becoming more like broadcast media, it's hard to get people to pony up! So book and magazine publishers are going a little nuts trying to figure out how they're going to make money in the future-- ad revenue online is only a tiny fraction of what it is for print. And actual consumer payment for content online is almost non-existent. And a lot of people in publishing are having a hard time adjusting to this. I was just in a meeting where a sales rep referred to a bookseller who had only just now gotten access to the internet for the first time and asked "Ok, I'm on the World Wide Web, now where do I go?" And someone else, when told about publishers offering widgets for searching book content, asked "Is that a cookie?" Meanwhile, I'm hoping to get involved with a committee on digital initiatives, as I have some experience with the blogging world now, and some ideas on how book publishing can evolve. I also have a very vested interest in its doing so, as I'd like to have a job for the next 30 years. But at least if I did get laid off, I'd have more time to work on this blog... and maybe I'd figure out how to turn it into a money-making machine!


Dawn said...

I have had people mention many times that I should write a book. Two things stop me:

1- I really have no interest in a 'static' version of my site, nor in writing for deadlines

2- I believe that there is some information that should be free and inspiration to live frugally is one of them.

If I did do some offline version it would be a newsletter for those people who don't have access to a pc and the cost would cover the fees of it.

I realize this is the type of attitude that puts your job in jeopardy, and I am sorry. I truly believe that we pay for so much that there should be a counter culture to get what content we can out there for free so that people can learn and do the right thing for themselves.

Ok- Done.

Cap said...

haha, I think if traditional book publishing does get taken over by online content (fat chance of that), you can easily start making a few good pennies from your site.

But yeah, it's mainly about choices of how much you want the advertising to be present on the blog. I'm sure it's been mentioned already, but if you just change the top left adsense box to the skyscraper ones you have on the bottom left, the adsense income should increase (and removing or changing borders).

Either way, I know how it is. I'm still fairly stubborn about having adsense on my main page. I have a feeling if I pluck it there, my revenue will increase two folds (and thats quite a few burritos).

I guess making money online via contextual ad is like finding a no fee apartment in NYC, tough work, but not impossible.

It's really interesting that some people in the publishing world would have these perspective, as I always believe that online content will never really replace traditional media, in any aspect (whether TV, newspaper, magazine, books, etc.)

Sure, they'll definitely take a chunk of the pie, but traditional media is so deeply rooted, accessible (how difficult is it to turn on a TV & change to a channel? or listen to the radio?) I guess in the sense that it's so established, it becomes harder for the industries to change.

Still, I bet for a lot of online writers/bbloggers, they would still see a publishing deal as a high point in their blogging career --- no matter how established their blog/website is.

Tiredbuthappy said...

Interesting post. I don't have any answers for you. I've paid for content voluntarily online a couple times, usualy in the form of $10 Paypal donations to sites that I read regularly that were published sort of as a labor of love.

The thing is, a book and a blog are two different things. They can interact in interesting ways, but you can't just publish a book online as a blog and have it be the same. It's not read in the same way, and it's not written in the same way.

I think there will be a place for books in our culture and economy for a long time. As a writer (and as a librarian) I certainly hope you and other folks who work in publishing continue to find innovative ways to make books pay off for everyone involved. I think they'll be here for a long time, and I just hope it continues to be worthwhile to produce quality books. A world of half-baked desktop-published pap would be a scary world indeed.

Madame X said...

I actually do think it's great that it's so easy to read and write free content on the web-- as Dawn said, there is enough in life that we have to pay for, and as much as I joke about losing my job, I think commercial books and blogs are very different things and can happily coexist.
And the book is great technology-- portable, doesn't use power, can be read in varying light conditions, etc... though electronic publishing is going to dramatically change some parts of the industry, I'm not too worried about books becoming completely obsolete.

Chance said...

And it's just that some books are so sensual, reading is such a physical pleasure sometimes. The smell of fresh ink can send me into a frenzy. I can't see a screen ever sending me there. Remember digital watches? When they became common and cheap, analog watches came back in a huge way. Same thing with books I think, as constantly changing digital content becomes deeply prevalent, then books will become highly desirable items. Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I think that what is really changing is the fact that a person can write their own book, get it published and distributed for little money where in the past this was nearly impossible to do. To get your message out you no longer need to go through publishers.

Anonymous said...

Bronx chica...ok so if you do charge $1 for this, I guess i'll still read it. Mostly if you made a book, I'll buy it! As a female who is doing goood with your money, it'll be worth it to buy your book.

Anonymous said...

The democratization of publishing means the supply of content is exponentially increasing while the demand remains the same. The consequence is that the value of content is dropping fast.

I'm in my mid-30s and have a huge CD and book collection. The vast majority of it is from the 1990's. Over the last few years, I've been able to get so much good content for paying that I have very little incentive to buy it. Most of my family, friends, and acquaintances have similar stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

I meant "good content *without* paying for it".