Even In The Age Of Abundance It’s Quality, Not Quantity, That Counts

Seth Godin is nothing if not prolific. As well as publishing a string of popular marketing books with catchy titles like “All marketers are liars”, “The big moo” and “Small is the new big”, he writes short but smart blog posts every day, some of which are rather obvious, but many of which contain real gems of insight.

This fluency with words means he is well placed to comment on the age of abundance we are entering thanks to the rise of digital technologies. One of his latest pieces is entitled “How the long tail cripples bonus content/multimedia“, and appears as part of The Domino Project, “a new way to think about publishing. Founded by Seth Godin and powered by Amazon” – a partnership that is itself symptomatic of the digital times.

The post is in response to a HuffPo interview with President and CEO of Ingram Content Group, David “Skip” Prichard. Prichard shows himself optimistic and surprisingly open to new ideas for someone leading a book distribution company – not a sector known for its innovation.

But Godin concentrates on one particular aspect of Prichard’s replies, which is typified by the following exchange:

Are there enhanced books available this holiday season that have already changed the definition of a book?

Yes, for example, a biography can to come to life in many ways. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy has all of the interview audios, videos, photographs, text, and transcripts available. Even classics — Penguin has updated Pride & Prejudice with clips from the movie and even instructions on dancing. For the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, HarperCollins released an e-version with exclusives including J.R.R Tolkien’s book illustrations and recently discovered Tolkien recordings. Publishers are still learning what added value readers will or won’t pay for. I expect we’ll continue to see lots of experimentation in this arena.

Godin describes these “breathtaking visions of the future” as “economically ridiculous”, and comments:

The Long Tail creates acres of choice, so much as to make the number of options almost countless. But at the same time, it embraces (in every format) much lower production values. For what Michael Jackson and Sony paid to produce the Thriller album, today’s artists can make and market more than 5,000 songs. You just can’t justify spending millions of dollars to produce a record in the long tail world.

This is an important point that the copyright industries are extremely reluctant to acknowledge, because it’s at odds with their business models based on just a few massive blockbusters that are highly profitable. There’s a good reason for their preference: the elevated costs involved in creating these works act as a barrier to entry for newcomers, and help preserve the status quo. The new model, based around large numbers of low-cost products, is available for anyone to adopt – including artists selling directly to their public.

As Godin puts it:

it’s not a few publishers putting out a few books for the masses. No, the market for the foreseeable future is a million publishers publishing to 100 million readers.

He explains what that means for ebooks:

The typical ebook costs about $10 in out of pocket expenses to write (more if you count coffee and not just pencils). But if we add in $50,000 for app coding, $10,000 for a director and another $500,000 for the sort of bespoke work that was featured in Al Gore’s recent ‘book’, you can see the problem. The publisher will never have a chance to make this money back.

Finally, Godin addresses the inevitable complaint that the imminent loss of those $500,000 multimedia ebooks – like the imminent disappearance of $100 million movies – means the end of creativity as we know it:

The quality is going to remain in the writing and in the bravery of ideas, not in teams of people making expensive digital books.

Even in the age of abundance, it’s not about quantity, but quality.

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