Today's front page Wall Street Journal story details how Wal-Mart and Amazon are in a price battle for best-selling (printed) books. Matching the e-book price for best-sellers. Authors are divided. The best-selling authors Dean Koontz and James Paterson believe they will prosper under mass market discounts. Koontz cites now defunct Crown Books, as "exploding" the market for discount hardcover books.
What is clear is that the marketplace for all sorts of information and entertainment is radically changing. After a post-War period of affluence (and the rising social status of women and their incomes in particular) driving niche and fractured marketplaces of specialized entertainment, the mass culture is returning. Driven by technology that pushes revenues to very low margins, declining personal incomes, and the ability for consumers to get "free" or "near free" news, information, entertainment, and more.
This is changing our culture. Winners will be those, who can write or create for a broad audience, taking a populist tone, and generating the widest possible audience, readership, and following. In particular, nimble execution in reaction to changing circumstances and volatile environments (political, economic, and social) will reward those who can churn out content quickly, appealing to men and women, young and old alike. In many ways this resembles the 19th Century, and the serialization of writers as various as Arthur Conan Doyle, Dickens, and Jules Verne in newspapers and magazines, aimed at the broadest possible audience. At the least, the death of the Brandon Tartikoff strategy is at hand.
Pioneering NBC programmer Brandon Tartikoff was one of the first to see the enormous amounts of wealth accruing to the yuppie elite in law, management, "creative" fields, and the like, and how much advertisers would pay to reach a small but wealthy audience. Hence critically acclaimed but low rated shows like "St. Elsewhere" and "Hill Street Blues." Even later ratings winners "Friends" and "Seinfeld" had initially low ratings and were kept on the schedule by the favorable (rich yuppie) demographics. This was true for magazines (Vanity Fair, the New Yorker), newspapers, movies (premium ticket prices, and premium DVD prices/tv rights/foreign distribution rights), and music (expensive CDs instead of cheap vinyl singles). Technology and tremendous amounts of wealth amassed by middle-men in various fields favored specialized content that consumers would pay for directly, or indirectly (by advertisers paying premiums to reach a wealthy few).
Technology changed the playing field, radically, with the adoption of the internet and alternative content providers. Suddenly those unhappy with the Yuppie Wealthy Liberal viewpoint in newspapers could turn to the internet, and sites as diverse as Drudge Report, Hotair, Ace of Spades, or Daily Kos and the Huffington Post for news and information. Often, bloggers such as Mickey Kaus or Luke Ford broke stories the traditional news media refused to cover. Such as the Edwards affair or the LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa affair (with a Spanish language media reporter covering him).
Itunes and Napster changed the music world forever. Consumers could download music for "free" or nearly free, in the former conveniently and cheaply. Music revenues in 2009 are half of what they were in 1999. Sales are dominated by single tracks, not album sales. Newspapers are folding left and right, with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer going online only, and both the Tribune Company (parent of the LA Times) and Freedom Communications (parent of the Orange County Register) filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Craigslist taking lucrative classified advertising, and advertisers moving to the internet.
Clearly, those who can leverage the internet to create content cheaply, keep fans/followers connected, and appeal to the largest group will "win" when prices are a commodity. Those creating content for rich, mostly liberal/PC Yuppies will lose. TV in particular illustrates this trend, with a number of shows on NBC generating less ratings than USA network's "Burn Notice" and "Monk" and "Psych." A show like "NCIS" can be Number One according to Nielsen with 20 million viewers. Precisely by appealing to a broad audience. The difference is that shows like "Mad Men" with ratings less than 2 million viewers (less than 10% of what "NCIS" generates) can no longer depend on affluent yuppies generating advertising revenue. There simply are not enough rich yuppies with the permanent recession, and cable rates paid to channels like AMC are probably not sustainable.
Brian Roberts built Comcast Corp. into the world's largest cable company by being a visionary who has kept the company on the vanguard of phone, broadband and television technology.
But his strategies indicate he's still worried that the Internet could one day become one of the leading forms of television distribution. That is one reason why he is determined to buy more cable channels and other content -- a strategy that has moved him from his failed effort to take over Walt Disney Co. in 2004 to his current interest in buying a piece of General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal.
Traditional cable-TV subscriptions accounted for more than half of Comcast's $17.7 billion of revenue in the first half of this year. Satellite companies and, more recently, phone companies have chipped away in recent years at its subscriber base, which now totals 24 million households.
But the Internet in some ways poses an even bigger threat: free content. An increasing amount of programs, including shows like "The Office" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," are being offered free of charge on Web sites owned by networks and cable channels.
While most households still pay for TV, the idea of millions of cable subscribers canceling their service, is chilling. Industry executives have described it as "the cable bypass."
Owning the programs and the channels is one way to block this from happening. Either the content can be kept off the Internet, forcing people to buy it if they want to see it, or it can go behind a subscription wall on the web. Cable companies, including Comcast, are experimenting with a plan to put cable programming on the web, but require viewers to prove that they subscribe to a pay-TV service through an online authentication process before they can access it.
Robert's Comcast strategy of course assumes that consumers won't simply substitute "free" content online (probably advertiser supported) in favor of pay-per-access Comcast generated content. Other content creators can compete by "free" access with ads, with more broad-based content. This is particularly true since Hollywood and many of the creative class has spent in some cases sixty years (this is particularly true in publishing) catering to a wealthy elite with vastly different cultural tastes than the average consumer. Hollywood's rush to defend Roman Polanski on child-rape charges are proof of that.
Meanwhile, the hottest country act is Taylor Swift, who the Wall Street Journal notes at the bottom of a story on Tim McGraw has leveraged MySpace, Twitter, and other social networks to generate cross-over attention and following, from both traditional country fans and rock fans. Swift's rise, outside the traditional Country apprenticeship in Nashville, shows how the internet allows creative people to bypass the traditional distribution channels and rewards those with a mass-market sensibility.
The lesson of our new mass-market age is that free or low cost beats expensive, and financial rewards accrue only to those able to make creative or informational content with a broad appeal. This is true even in publishing.
Already e-books are offering fast, and cheaper alternatives to printed books. Project Gutenberg has free, public domain HTML, audio/mp3, and "Plucker" e-books of classics such as Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and Mark Twain's "Roughing It." Plucker which is software available for both Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs, and runs on Linux, Macintosh OS X, and Windows, can read e-books prepared in that format. [Currently the Plucker site is unavailable, Sourceforge.com has various project files available. I have personally tried this with a Palm Tungsten, while offering limited readability, the software and content are free. Iphone owners have the option of using free application "Stanza" to read public domain books.
It is very hard to beat free, particularly when classics like "Huckleberry Finn" or "Robinson Crusoe" are still so eminently readable. Clearly prices for publishing are moving downwards, and those who sell the most copies at lower prices win. From the Wall Street Journal article on the Amazon-Wal-Mart pricing fight:
Some big authors, however, are looking on the bright side. Dean Koontz, whose soon-to-be released novel "Breathless" is being discounted to $10 from $28, said that he thinks the discounting may prove a good thing for the authors involved.
"Any time people are fighting over your work it's a good thing, especially when you've worked all those years hoping it would be fought over," he said. "I don't think this is going to be a long-term thing. Rather, it sounds like a promotional strategy designed to call attention to Wal-Mart's decision to enter the digital marketplace more heartily than in the past."
Mr. Koontz said that Crown Books Corp., a now-defunct book chain that grew to 170 stores in only seven years after launching in 1977, paved the way for book discounting. "They're no longer with us, and perhaps that tells us something, but after they started to discount books hardcover sales simply exploded."
Mr. Koontz said he's more worried about the independent bookstores. Although most limit their stock of best-sellers, a price war on the most popular books may hurt.
James Patterson, whose coming novel, "I, Alex Cross," is being discounted from $27.99 to $10, said he was happy to be in Wal-Mart's top 10. However, he warned any industry that sets low price points may later have a difficult time re-establishing those prices. "Obviously e-books have gotten this thing going," said Mr. Patterson. "E-books are terrific and here to stay. But I think that people need to think through the repercussions....But I'm not taking sides....I'm not the endangered species here."
Given the move towards mass culture, what sort of content can we expect on various e-book formats? Popular content of course. Horror, comedy, thrillers, action-adventure books, that generate wide audiences are likely to be the winners. Efforts like Borders Ink, aimed at tween and teen girls with fantasy novels like "Lonely Werewolf Girl" or "Vampire Academy" are likely to be long-term losers. While "chic lit" books offering fantasies of shopping, "fabulous" gay friends, and hunky Alpha males have dominated hype and sales, the NYT Paperback best-seller lists are likely to be the dominant books of the future.
With one caveat. Anyone can write an e-book, potentially. If the story is compelling enough, people will read it. Now, even lone authors un-connected to publishing houses or agents can produce e-books, and use viral marketing on MySpace and other social networks the way Taylor Swift did to promote themselves. Much of this content will resemble fan-fiction: truly awful. But enough will be of high quality (America and the West in general possesses simply astonishing talent among its general populace). As one of my readers points out in a comment, much of the problems Agents and publishing houses have is the readers. Note how the comment link here points out the weak link:
Jim Baen formed Baen Books with the specific mandate to write science fiction books drawing on a more 'traditional' heroic motif.
This is why Baen Books dominates (owns really) the 15-55 year old male audience in SF.
The key is that Baen books has a tiny staff with no bureaucracy to protect value-subtracted idiots.
This is why Baen Books is successful.
Large organizations like Time-Warner, CBS, ABC & NBC all provide niches for value-subtracted idiots to hide in, and the bureaucracies to protect them.
The publishing industry case in point, according to the writers I know, is the following:
"...the vast majority of first readers and acquisition editors can not recognize a story that straight men and boys may like, because those readers and editors are for the most part twenty-something females.
They are female because entry-level editorial jobs at major American publishers pay just a wee bit better than a summer internship -- and the jobs require one to live within commuting distance of some of America's most expensive cities.
The pay sucks so badly because every year, teeming masses of young women graduate from college with degrees in fields that don't lead to any clear, immediate career path. Thousands of them decide to move to New York City and get a job in publishing because, after all, they majored in English Literature. They all apply for the same seven first-reader positions that happen to be open at the time. The delighted publishers then hire the ones who will work for the lowest salaries. When promotional opportunities open up, the publishers hire from within -- i.e., from the pool of people of who have demonstrated an eager desire to work for an unbelievably low salary.
Guys who've graduated from college (with the exception of those who want to work on Broadway or in commercials) don't move to NYC for $25,000 a year jobs. Chicks do. Because NYC is glamorous, as is publishing.
So we wind up with a situation in which a huge portion of America's literary output is being filtered by young women who don't have a clue as to what straight boys and men like to read. Not surprising that what comes out of the filters is stuff that straight girls and women like to read."
Author John Ringo is now Baen's primary profit generator.
Baen being so small was the key to their recognizing Ringo & pulling him out of the first rejection slush piles.
Ringo's first novel was rejected by a young woman who had followed that exact career path listed above.
Jim Baen overrode that decision (and fired said first reader) because he read Ringo's stuff on the Baen fan board. They had a fan fiction section there and the fanboys there were all talking about how good Ringo's stuff was.
Baen went there, read it, found out what happened and the rest, as they say, is history.
Baen used his bulletin board fans as his unpaid for first readers and simply followed those with the best track record to promising new talent.
I just don't see any of the major media incumbents being able to "Do a Baen" and get back into the male market.
Someone will offer first-time authors the ability to produce e-books and publish them on a marketplace, with the "winners" those with good content and social network promotion skills. This offers an end-around the first reader roadblock of publishers and agents, that filter out male-oriented (or really, broadly appealing content) in favor of what 22-23 year old single, English lit majors find appealing. Which is not likely to reflect the older, more conservative socially and culturally male and female audience.
Price points will keep dropping, "free" or nearly free content will guarantee that. Content creation, particularly for authors, will be far easier, as will distribution through e-books. Sooner or later, our mass culture will return, after being slowly phased out during the post-War boom. It will look different, not the least of which will be the democratization of content creation, and a lot of truly bad fiction and non-fiction no longer filtered out by gatekeepers. But overall, this change in culture is a good thing.
Mass middle brow culture creates a series of ties that bind ordinary people in shared values, something particularly important as religious belief and attendance declines. Society cannot operate without most people most of the time having values and moral behavior pounded into them. Like it or not, that means popular culture these days, as religion has faded into irrelevance across the West (save the neo-Calvinist "Global Warming" / Gaia / Green elect-damned elites and masses). The Polanski debacle clearly points out how the elites have become decadent and debased, and are no longer fit to be instructors of proper moral behavior, so society can function without a police officer on every corner and in every home.
While much of technology has been socially isolating and atomizing, the good news is that low prices for entertainment and news equals the return of the mass culture, particularly with new creators entering into the marketplace.
It's about time.