Never mind the content … (2)

Paul Graham, an essayist and successful entrepreneur, pens a very interesting piece on Post-Medium Publishing which is worth reading in full (hat tip John Naughton). He opens:

consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren’t really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn’t better content cost more?

We didn’t (don’t) buy fiction and non-fiction, we bought books; not news, but newspapers; not music and movies, but encased CDs and DVDs. Publishers play to our desire for better packaging and/or our perception that bigger and better packaged products are more valuable: hardcovers command a premium over paperbacks; DVD cases are larger than CD jewel cases. It’s easy to see this working in the mass market. But in business and professional markets, where there is a compelling need (rather than desire) for the content and/or a relative scarcity of content creators and publishers, the content:packaging value ratio increases.

So it is with law books. Lawyers need up-to-date reference texts; the market is small and there were hitherto relatively few authors willing to put the time in to creating content and relatively few publishers willing to invest in its dissemination. So law books have always been expensive – several times more than equivalently-packaged consumer books.

Enter the internet which has enlarged the market, enabled more authors and more publishers and driven the marginal cost of producing copies to near zero. What price content now? Has the emperor been denuded of his clothes?

The physical packaging has gone, but there is still a relative scarcity of good authors and good publishers – just because anyone can do it, does not mean that anyone can do it well. There is value in the packaging, but that packaging is about how content is edited, combined, organised and presented. Despite the physical apparel, that is what publishing has always been about.

Those are my thoughts. As to what forms these new packages will take, Paul concludes:

The reason I’ve been writing about existing forms is that I don’t know what new forms will appear. But though I can’t predict specific winners, I can offer a recipe for recognizing them. When you see something that’s taking advantage of new technology to give people something they want that they couldn’t have before, you’re probably looking at a winner. And when you see something that’s merely reacting to new technology in an attempt to preserve some existing source of revenue, you’re probably looking at a loser.

PS. More on content/packaging from Scott Karp.