The book business is easy to understand. An author writes a book, a publisher edits, prints, markets, and distributes it, and bookstores sell it. The money gets split up between the bookstore, the publisher, and the author, and it all works well enough to keep the books flowing. This is a successful market mechanism; not perfect but there aren’t any obvious better alternatives. Around the universe of brainware, it doesn’t usually work that well; wherever you look you see markets that are twisted or compromised or just broken. And it’s not obvious what the way forward is. Examples include TV, journalism, conferences, and increasingly what’s on your computer screen.
Death by PVR · TV is the most obvious example; traditionally the product was given away and the advertisers paid the freight. This model is quite likely doomed because soon everybody will have a PVR (TiVo or equivalent) and everybody will fast-forward over commercials. In the universe of specialty cable channels, subscription fees are already an important part of the picture.
Trade-Show Blues · Traditionally, conferences took in a little money from registrations, more from sponsorships, and more still from the trade show. Of course, the sponsors and exhibitors tended to think that they’d bought, along with their booth and name on the conference bag, the right to get their message across in the conference to the paying customers; so the market was once again distorted. The problem is, many companies—including Antarctica—don’t want to do trade shows any more; our Web site functions as a very effective booth 24/7, thank you, and someone who wants to find out about us doesn’t need to get on a plane to Las Vegas to use it.
Journalism · I’ve already written here about the broken-ness of the advertising-supported periodical publishing model. Things haven’t gotten any better.
What’s On the Screen · Screen real estate has long been for sale; everyone remembers the deal that got AOL (temporarily) on the Windows front page. If RSS gets to be as big as I think it will, the potential value of a spot in the default subscription list of a big-name aggregator could be huge. There’s at least one documented case of this having happened already.
Oh Yes, Books Too · It turns out that book publishing is not quite as pure as one might think. I served as technical editor for the first XML book ever, Richard Light’s Introducing XML, and I was puzzled in the early drafts at a guest-authored chapter by this guy who worked for WebMethods, talking about how people were rallying to the banner of an XML-based Web API. I was baffled because I’d never heard of such a thing, but then I discovered that WebMethods was selling one. I managed, by stamping my feet and threatening to pull my name, to force them to rewrite it to say “We’re a company building an XML-based Web API and we think it’ll work really well.”
I don’t know if this is still going on, but up until a few years ago vendors could buy a guest chapter in The XML Handbook for ten thousand dollars or so.
This Sucks · Not uniformly, of course; when I’m reading the New Yorker and there’s an ad for single-malt Scotch among the book reviews, well so what? It doesn’t get in the way and I have fairly solid trust in the publication and some of the pictures are pretty. Similarly with the Mazda TV ads between innings of the ball game; the whole thing is up-front and even if the huge majority of the ads are pathetically lame, the integrity of the whole package is somewhat retained.
I’m not OK with the increasing density of TV commercials and with the thirty pages at the front of some magazines that you have to page through to get to the content.
And I have a lot of trouble with conference leakage from the trade-show to the technical program, and with magazines full of good reviews of products from their advertisers, and with chapters for sale in technical books.
And of course I have a conflict of interest; I’d eventually like to get paid for the writing I do here, and selling ads is definitely an option.
How Can We Do Better? · I don't believe for a moment that everyone is going to gasp in horror at the compromised markets and start volunteering to pay for information products at cost. And let’s face it, advertising is a very old practice that’s not going away any time soon.
Face the Facts · First of all, we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Whenever you’re getting information and you’re not paying for it in full, you should expect by default that you’re not getting the unvarnished truth, because the people covering the costs think they’re buying the right to varnish. There are exceptions, but anyone who’s not suspicious and cynical about this is someone who’s asking to be fooled.
Less, but Better · Network TV has responded to the dilution by cable and satellite of its audience by jacking up the number of ads per hour, which is one reason why people are turning towards PVRs and away from ads. If I’m watching TV, particularly real-time stuff like news and sports, I will cheerfully watch an ad if (a) it provides some useful information or (b) is a pleasant experience. I’m interested in cars and computers and beer and my health, if the people flogging these things thirty seconds at a time provided actual useful information about their products, why wouldn’t I watch? As for item (b), making commercials a pleasant experience, this can only go so far: even if you assembled a team including Fellini, Tarkovsky, and Miyazaki, they couldn’t produce a thirty-second segment that you’d want to watch more than a dozen times or so.
Learn from the Bloggers · The single most important lesson of this whole blogging thang is the importance of a direct unvarnished human voice. This, in particular, is where the conference people need to turn. I’m close to this problem because Lauren chairs the big XML conference. Their strategy for survival in these tough times is simple: interesting people, interesting people, interesting people. By beating the drums in all the mailing lists and communities, they got over 300 papers submitted for the 100 or so speaking slots, and got 90 people to sign up as reviewers, so the attendees are apt to hear something really meaty.
By contrast, check out Alan Meckler’s blog where he promotes his new Comdex competitor, CDXPO. The drums he’s banging are all about which vendors are sending executives with nice suits, and which vendors are signed up to speak. Example: “SIEMENS AND HP PROVIDE MAJOR KEYNOTERS TO CDXPO” Maybe I’m naive, but why would anyone expect an HP corporate mouthpiece to have anything interesting to say that you couldn’t get by reading a magazine?
Anyhow, CDXPO is certainly taking the traditional approach; let’s see how this plays out.
Pay a Little More · I invest—not heavily, but some—and I care a lot about getting accurate, timely information, and I do not trust the community of stockbrokers and analysts in the slightest; as Eliot Spitzer has been demonstrating recently, they’re essentially a bunch of whores conspiring to steal my money.
I subscribe to an online publication called RealMoney.com (they have a free presence at TheStreet.com), it costs me a hundred and change per year. I consider that $100 as buying me a higher chance (not guaranteed, they run ads too) of getting the truth.
Tell the Truth! · Like I said, I don’t expect advertising to go away, and I don’t expect everyone will sign up for the real full cost of information products. I do expect that the product providers will tell me the truth, be up-front about what is content and what is advertising, and when advertising affects content (it will, sometimes) tell me exactly how.
Otherwise, they lose my business, instantly.