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dobbspic I write on science, medicine, nature, culture and other matters for the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, and other publications. (Find clips here.) Right now I'm writing my fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, which explores the hypothesis that the genetic roots some of our worst problems and traits — depresison, hyperaggression, violence, antisocial behavior — can also give rise to resilience, cooperation, empathy, and contentment. The book expands on my December 2009 Atlantic article exploring these ideas. I've also written three books, including Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, which traces the strangest but most forgotten controversy in Darwin's career — an elemental dispute running some 75 years.

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Is publishing really doomed by oversupply of writing?

Posted on: December 18, 2009 10:21 AM, by David Dobbs

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?

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Hell, you could argue that the greater the supply, the higher the premium for the really good stuff – because it gets progressively harder to sift the wheat from the chaff. Magazines, with their gorgeous layouts and clubby atmosphere, used to be great at creating a sense of exclusivity. Maybe someone will figure out how to do that again.

Posted by: Christopher Mims | December 18, 2009 10:31 AM


Good discussion in the comments there.

Posted by: Coturnix | December 18, 2009 10:56 AM


I wonder if the 'competition' is against other forms of entertainment--that is, a writer isn't competing against other writers, but the attention and time lost due to Playstation games (or porn).

Posted by: Mike the Mad Biologist | December 18, 2009 12:59 PM


What cheek we have! There is a lot more involved. A case in point is the French writers. Astounding to me are the number of publications per each writer over decades, and I cease not to be amazed. For example, a minor writer will have forty or fifty publications listed, as "also by," and he is not the exception, but the rule for most writers. The publishers are involved, and the format being usually a paperback must influence the cost evaluations, and the public is involved by wanting a great variety if offered to them. Thus the French will publish some stuff that's not very good, that's long-winded, that's boring, that's repetitive, which is no different than other languages, just by the same authors instead of different varieties. Go figure, and the triage must be on different criteria for writer, publishers, and public. Is "really good writing" the first criterion for any of these three for the French? Maybe we don't know, but we do know whether "really good writing" is, or is not, the criterion for NY Times bestsellers that are made up and tabled before they are even published. A lot more is involved than "really good writing."
The fallacy in this cheek is deep, and the equivalent of "the cream will rise to the top." Is the fallacy malicious?

Posted by: david | December 18, 2009 1:18 PM


"If that's the case, is there still a way that the best writing can be charged for profitably, whatever the medium"

If there is, the publishing industry has never discovered it. Or at least not in a reliably repeatable way. It's always been the less-good writing that pays the bills. Some of the good writing makes it back over time in backlist, but it's a fairly small percentage of the total.

Posted by: Moopheus | December 18, 2009 1:45 PM

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?

It's not quite analogous because you (unless you're very lucky) can't get food for free. For food, the distinction is between expensive food and cheap food. For writing, the distinciton is between writing that you pay for and writing that's free.

Free changes everything. The difference between £0 and £5 is much greater than between £5 and £10.

Posted by: Ed Yong | December 19, 2009 10:03 PM


somebody pointed me to this article.

i found it to be very poorly written,
as the argumentation was unconvincing.

i wish i hadn't followed that pointer.


Posted by: bowerbird | December 20, 2009 12:15 AM


You can always rely on Bowerbird to tell it like it is in a few brief lines of verse.

I - probably rightly as I fear I am the pointer in question - tend however to the prolix. My problem with theis article is its over-simplification - a strange thing for a science blog. First, I agree with Ed Yong that we need to take account of the fact that the difference between 0 cents and 1 cent is qualitative - every other difference is purely quantitative.

Second up, and this is what bowerbird is getting at I suspect - the argument only works if suggested price and actual quality tally. It deconstructs itself when the BEST content is free. And the myth that free is lesser in quality is just that - a myth. And the more of the very best writers there are who give their work for free, the more the myth will be exposed.

Why should the best writers do that? Well, as the coordinator of the Year Zero Writers collective, a group of the very best writers of contemporary fiction, I can suggest the following:
1. they believe the best culture should be available to all - taht art transcends commodification
2. related, they want to separate in the public's mind art from the indutries that profit from art and want to undermine once and for all the intellectual link between value and monetary worth
3. the capitalists amongst them will seek to exploit their reputation by monetising a non-artistic commodity

Where does that leave the answer to your questions - well, there is plenty of opportunity for money to flow to the producers of great content. But the intellectual decoupling of content producers and separate disseminators will lead to an ever lessening place for money to flow to publishers.

Posted by: Dan Holloway | December 20, 2009 6:05 AM


Thanks Dan.I agree.

Posted by: Dış Cephe | December 20, 2009 9:03 AM

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