Archive for December, 2011

the race to zero

consulting the crystal ball

 

In late August, author Ewan Morrison shared his bleak forecast for the publishing industry at the Edinburgh Book Fair. His core premise: If you’re a writer, publisher, photographer, journalist or even a porn star – anyone who earns a paycheque by producing original work for a passive audience – your professional days are numbered.

Yikes.

Morrison begins by predicting that paper books have just a generation left until their inevitable extinction. When 78% of Gen Y readers consume all their news online, for free (according to Bertelsmann CEO Richard Sarnoff), it’s easy to imagine a paperless future. Books as interior décor is not an outlandish suggestion in today’s market.

Next, Morrison cites Chris Anderson’s Long Tail model of niche consumption and his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Morrison lists eight products and industries that have begun (or nearly completed) the downward spiral to free: home videos, music, porn, computer games, newspapers, photography, telecommunications, and the Internet itself.

According to Morrison, “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases, terminal decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content.’ Writing has already begun its slide toward becoming something produced and consumed for free.”

Instead of selling a product or content service, online businesses are selling your demographic profile to advertisers and sponsors. The content is simply what gets you there. Many business strategists now champion paywalls or subscription-based content (a model the New York Times is currently test driving). It seems everyone is filling their bar napkins with charts and scribbles, trying to flip longstanding production models and save the embattled content industries. Morrison, however, suggests all this brainstorming is just busywork:

“… ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”

He says the only solution is to demand that writers and authors (and by extension, all professional content creators) receive a living wage for their work – a figure that’s entirely separate from how much they sell, to whom, and in what format. It’s a wage simply for doing the work and doing it well.

I hate that Morrison’s predictions will probably hit the bull’s eye. But, I just don’t know about the “living wage” argument. We’ve all become entitled consumers who demand top-quality free information and entertainment. At the same time, North American culture is increasingly polarized. People struggle to feed their families while we collectively pay the Kardashian family millions to get their nails done and plan blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marriages. It feels like there’s less cultural space to follow tangents, create for the sheer joy of it, or pursue niche pursuits – unless it will pay off in the free market.

So what do we want from art and culture? What does it mean to create? Who’s responsible for footing the bill? These are questions that keep me up at night.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the patronage system.

What do you think?

posted 6 Dec 11 in: books, business, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.