I took a long ride yesterday on Metaphor (my imaginary horse), trying to clear my head. There are so many cross-currents in the issues facing publishing that it’s easy to become overwhelmed, confused and convinced that each new issue needs to be attacked or defended on the merits. Riding aimlessly under a blue sky filled with nothing but wispy clouds and narrative dreams tends to diminish the immediacies of any online debate. The names of individual plants, birds and butterflies fade into the landscape, becoming part of a vital evolving whole that can be observed and understood in no other way.
Take the theory of The Long Tail, as put forward by Chris Anderson. I’ve read about it before, and heard about it for years, but lately there have been studies published that question the validity of the theory. Being a conscientious sort I started reading up on the issue and thinking it through myself, and even started several posts on the subject — all of which derailed due to subsequent articles I ran across while trying to nail down my thoughts.
In the end I had more questions than answers. If history is any guide, that meant there was nothing in the Long Tail that was going to help me solve the issues I’m confronting as an independent author. So I officially have no opinion on the theory. I’m opting out, again.
The prairie that Metaphor and I passed through had no theories in it. Only realities as cold and certain as the partially decomposed buffalo calf we came across around noon. I sat and looked at the dead animal a long time, the sun high on my shoulders and back, keeping the chill of the autumn air at bay. When Metaphor got itchy feet I moved on, thinking all the while about the thin line between life and death.
For example, I think enthusiasm is a good thing. But enthusiasm coupled with ignorance is a synonym for youth and a recipe for disaster. (Which may be why healthy young drivers scare us more than blind old drivers.) Nobody does youth better than the internet: it’s a young medium, dominated by young minds, with a young spirit and a youthful disregard for the past. Like, for instance, the dot-com meltdown. Or, say, the current recession. Or the millions (if not billions) of dollars that have already been poured into the question of how to make money on the internet.
As sexy as the Long Tail or any other internet-driven sales theory might be, we already have an established history of the internet making a few gatekeepers (Google, Amazon) rich, while everybody else slowly succumbs to economic injury, hospitalization, coma, and death. Content providers in particular seem to have a rough go of it, even after every conceivable business model from subscriptions to microstransactions to retail sales to free content has been tried and tried and tried again. (This doesn’t mean a given business with a given product cannot find success, but rather that there is no silver-bullet solution to monetizing online content. It’s a one-off struggle, just like business has always been.)
Having spent a few years in the interactive industry, I’ve seen a lot of subscription-based services come and go. Some were larks, some were jokes, some were serious efforts, but all were inevitably doomed. And they’re still doomed, even after a decade of silky-smooth pitches, VC funding rounds and non-stop insistence that a solution is just around the corner. Witness Turbine converting their flagship game, Dungeons & Dragons Online, from subscription to free-to-play only a few months ago.
How does Turbine plan to monetize D&D Online? The same way most other online games make money — by selling cheats:
Visit the new DDO Store! — The DDO Store is loaded with hundreds of convenience items as well as premium dungeon packs, additional character slots, hirelings (hired muscle), potions, character customization and more! The DDO Store is seamlessly integrated into the game play and lets the player identify new and exciting ways to enhance and customize their experience.
Some players, maybe even most players, will play for free, increasing the power of their characters by fighting battles and selling loot. A small group of players, however, will be too impatient, too competitive, too lame, or simply two wealthy to earn their success. Instead of bashing their way to a +4 Mace they’ll buy one off the rack. And armor. And maybe a house. And….
Between two gently rolling hills Metaphor and I came upon a field of late-blooming wildflowers, their colors all the more vibrant against the dusty green carpet of fading foliage. Swinging down from the saddle I walked Metaphor through the flowers, feeling hidden burrs grabbing at my pants as I passed. In minutes I was encrusted with spiky barnacles intent on colonizing the future, but I didn’t care. I was at peace.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Hey, that imaginary horse bit is cool — and I love the name!” Well, thank you. Unfortunately, the rest of the people reading this article are thinking, “Hey, what about World of Warcraft — it’s subscription based and making a ton of money?”
Because they’re right I’m going to have to deal with this apparent contradiction. World of Warcraft is the best online game available to your generic online-game-playing customer. If it were a stock or a dog (or both), it would be called best of breed, and that’s a fair assessment. And therein lies a clue to something we’re not really talking about with regard to self-publishing. (As an aside: Half of all WoW users are Chinese, but those users only contribute a guestimated six percent of WoW’s haul. Even a single product offering may struggle to monetize different markets.)
However we define quality or merit in literary works, the question is the same: will good self-published books and stories do better in the marketplace over time — regardless of their publishing origins — or is the business going to (d)evolve into a corporate hits-driven business like music and movies? (The huge ‘opening’ of Dan Brown’s follow up to The Da Vinci Code seemed very much like a Hollywood event.) I think it’s an important question for publishers and independent authors, but one that’s admittedly tricky to address in a democratized medium. How does quality factor into online success? Are authors-as-brands still important? More important? How many best-of-breed writers will the public accept, where acceptance means meeting the author’s price? Or any price?
While we’re on the subject of pricing and profits, I was riding up through a ravine when I was struck by the realization that FREE is not a business model, but rather a distribution model, and a clever one at that. I’m not saying this is a new thought; just that it finally clicked for me. Unlike online games that adopt a free-to-play model, however, I can’t see the freemium that will actually bring in money for a self-publishing author. Chapters with adverbs? Better yet, no adverbs? +3 Nouns? Premium-only additional characters?
A little while later Metaphor and I came across an old man sitting in a snazzy-looking office chair beside a quiet stream. In front of him was a desk filled with wide-screen LCD’s showing streams of incoming data, most of it related to a fantasy league for Australian Rules Football.
The old man seemed very intent on what was happening, but every time he moved his mouse onscreen a pop-up obscured what he was trying to read. Some of the pop-ups were banner ads that volunteered themselves to full size while offering a small (very small, lightly-contrasted, hard to find, deliberately obscured, marketing-weasel-grade) ‘x’ for reducing the ad’s size. Some were pop-up text hyperlinks which were meant to snag mouse movements and display ads related to a hyperlinked word, but which invariably displayed nothing related to the word, article, or site. Some were pop-up pleas to complete a new survey. Some were old-school pop-under ads from Netflix, designed to be revealed when a window was closed.
Metaphor and I moved on before the old man noticed me, but what I’d seen was a good reminder. I don’t know if this is the second or third pop-up wave that I’ve lived through as an internet user, but it’s gotten pretty bad lately. Where I’m seeing these ads is interesting, however, because I implicitly equate their presence with a conviction that those sites are not doing well. Which brings me to PCMag.com, and ESPN.com.
PC Magazine used to be the go-to magazine for test results and reviews of new tech products. It was respected, published twice a month, and packed with new innovations and product advertisements. Today, PC Magazine is an online-only business, the print magazine having been discontinued at the beginning of the year. Ziff Davis, the once-powerful publishing company behind PC Magazine and untold other tech magazines and offerings, is also struggling.
Today, when I go to the PCMag.com site, there is a very good chance that a pop-up ad will expand over the center of the screen from the right sidebar. The ad will do this whether or not I floated my mouse over the ad as the page loaded: meaning the default for the page on my browser is for the ad to launch, forcing me to reduce it by clicking on a carefully-hidden ‘x’. Except sometimes the ‘x’ is set far enough inside the image border that it’s impossible to click on it without triggering the ad to expand again. Because PCMag is a tech-savvy site designed and managed by people who know this sort of thing inside and out, this means they made it that way on purpose.
I learned a lot of what I know about computers and the web from reading PC Magazine over the years. Today their own site is a littany of abuses and disgraces that they used to castigate others for in web site reviews. In effect, after talking the talk, PC Magazine has been reduced to panhandling for clicks, and it’s pathetic.
Following the crest of a hill I turned back toward home, letting Metaphor take the lead. His ears pricked up and he picked up the pace a bit, and for a moment I could see a bucket of oats floating in a bubble over his head. I closed my eyes and listened to nothing but the rhythmic creaking of the leather stirrups against Metaphor’s hide.
When the computer was new to the world PC Magazine had a clearly-defined mission. Now that the computer is a throw-away commodity the magazine has no purpose. ESPN, on the other hand, has an eternal purpose: to separate the winners from the losers. And at that it has no peer. The best of breed in sports web sites and sports networks, ESPN is a subsidiary of Disney, which also owns ABC:
According to an analysis published by Barron’s magazine in February 2008, ESPN “is probably worth more than 40% of Disney’s entire value… based on prevailing cash-flow multiples in the industry.”
For these reasons I’ve been watching ESPN for years as they try to monetize their impressive online offerings. If anyone’s going to figure out how to make it work, ESPN will. And if they can’t do it, well…that’s Bad News.
ESPN has always had ads, of course, but like PC Magazine today’s ESPN ads seem much more obtrusive than they were even a year or two ago. Particularly surprising to me, given ESPN’s excellent branding and near-monopoly as an online sports site, are the auto-expanding banner ads on the homepage, which quite often shove the rest of the carefully-laid-out content down the page. These ads often have no consistent format or presentation, and generally wreak havoc with the user experience — which is, of course, the point. Advertisers want people looking at their ads, so ESPN’s ads shout at ESPN’s users.
ESPN has also added commercials to the front of just about every video clip on their site, and over time they’ve increased the length of these ads. Originally, many were ten seconds long; now thirty seems to be the norm. Want to watch the Plays of the Day? You have to sit through a commercial first. Want to see highlights of your favorite game? You have to sit through a commercial first. Not surprisingly, this is the TV advertising model ported to the web. Free content + hostage viewers = $.
Years ago ESPN also added premium content in the form of their Insider subscription service. Identified by a small “In” icon on free pages, Insider content is teased on free pages to up-sell content to salivating sports enthusiasts.
Who would want to pay money for rumor and innuendo? Well, here the motivation is indirect: premium content on ESPN often seems to be the kind of ‘inside’ (get it?) info craved by people who bet on sports. Where I don’t really care if a back-up point guard is having trouble with his girlfriend, people who bet sports see weakness in second and third quarter point production, perhaps giving them an edge against the spread.
Now, I don’t know if ESPN’s web site makes money. It obviously makes sense for them to monetize ads on such a high-traffic site, and in a purely business sense they’re right to exploit the information craving of people addicted to sports betting. In fact, the sports information business (often hilariously referred to as news) has always relied on handicapping and scouting to make money, because trying to make money by betting on sports is a sucker’s bet. Still, the fact that even ESPN is relying on annoying popups and treating their paying customers like suckers does not fill me with confidence. In fact, in its own way, despite the strong ESPN brand and their best-of-breed standing, it seems as pathetic as PC Magazine.
When we got back to the barn I rubbed Metaphor down and gave him a long drink. I decided to hang out with him for a while while he ate, and not just because of the 60″ plasma TV that hangs on the wall of his stall, which I gave him for his birthday. (Metaphor is a freak for tabloid shows like TMZ and Extra, and nothing makes me laugh like watching him roll his eyes at a steady stream of pop-culture nastiness.)
I’m not sure which channel we were watching, but at one point a story caught my attention. It seems the price of producing reality shows is climbing these days, in large part due to the salary demands of the stars.
In fact, some reality-show personalities are earning per-episode fees that approach or even exceed those of actors in scripted dramas or comedies.
MTV’s The Hills, for example, is reportedly paying Kristin Cavallari $90,000 an episode, while the program’s other top cast members Audrina Patridge, Lauren Bosworth and Heidi Montag are grabbing $100,000 per episode, according to The Daily Beast.
The irony here is that reality shows were originally embraced by television networks because of their savings compared with the production costs of more heavily-scripted prime-time dramas and sitcom. (Don’t let anyone tell you that reality shows aren’t scripted: the Writers Guild of America is currently fighting to put those writers under the minimum basic agreement.) After a few years reaping the benefits of depressed production costs, however, the medium is going back to its old ways, bidding up talent even in the face of an advertising slump.
Which is when a lightbulb went on for me. Nothing ever really changes, and nothing changed in TV when reality shows became popular. Competition is competition, revenue is revenue, costs are costs. Which means that in any established medium, the medium is the business model. You can monkey with it from time to time and try to gain a short term advantage, but it’s not going to last. Sooner or later the same forces will play out as they always do.
The new wrench in the works for all mediums is the internet and its ubiquity as a distribution mechanism. So far the music industry has been hardest hit — but they’re dealing with it and in time the medium will stabilize. So will Hollywood, and so will publishing.
What’s fundamentally changed is that the gates have come down, giving almost anyone a shot at readers, and by extension, success as defined on an individual basis. Success in the market, however, will still be a competition, costs will still be costs, and revenues will still be revenues. (It’s tempting to confuse Long Tail sales theories with the democratizing of a medium. Keep sales and distribution separate in your mind.)
What does this mean for online and self-published authors? It means we’re looking in the wrong direction, if not actually looking for things that don’t exist. There is no new business model because there is no new business. The publishing industry is being torn apart by basic issues: supply and demand, revenue and expenses. It will stabilize.
The job for independent authors isn’t to define a new business model, it’s to define their place in the medium. How might the ability to speak directly to readers translate into revenue? How low can costs go for indy authors? What are indy author best practices? Is self-publishing a new and viable means of entering the ranks of professional storytellers? Can authors and readers facilitate the filtering process for the industry, diminishing the load (and responsibility and gatekeeping opportunities) for agents and editors?
All good questions, and all answerable in the same way.
The medium is the model. Define your place in the medium.
— Mark Barrett