Monday, 20 November, 2000

Publishers Fear the Internet

I heard a piece on NPR today in which the commentator was describing the Chicken Little attitude that major publishers and some authors are taking towards the Web.  Basically, they're worried that the Web will be the end of their profits.  With all this information available online, who's going to pay to buy a book or magazine?  The commentator likened it to the record companies of the 1930's, who were afraid that radio would reduce their markets.  Who would buy a record when they could hear the music on the radio?  Some record companies went so far as to prohibit their records from being played on the radio.  20 years later, record companies were paying radio stations to play records.  They discovered that exposure increased, rather than decreased, their markets.

I certainly haven't seen any evidence that the wide availability of information on the Internet has reduced the number of books being published.  On the contrary, computer sections in book stores seem to be growing exponentially, even though most of the information in the books is available online.  Books and magazines are still a heck of a lot more convenient for me than my desktop computer.  I like online availability of reference information, but I find detailed technical information and and "how to" documents much easier to read in printed, rather than online, form.  So do most other programmers who I know.  O'Reilly seems to have figured this out.  They publish entire book chapters online as advertisements.  Programmers who like what they see in sample chapters end up ordering the book.  Think of it as buying an album because you like one song you hear on the radio.

Authors, too, should embrace this medium.  A novelist might post the first couple of chapters on the web.  Many people who read and like the first few chapters will end up ordering the book.  New authors might consider publishing a story or two on one of the fiction sites.  If people like the stories, the author will be noticed by somebody in the publishing business.  Think of it as a way to get your story "read".  It certainly can't be any less efficient than sending blind query letters to dozens of publishers and agents.  Plus, people are actually reading your story, which is probably the reason you wrote it in the first place.  Money is a secondary consideration, at least when you start.

It's paradoxical, and seemingly flies in the face of supply and demand.  As information becomes more available, it becomes more valuable.  Publishing is about getting attention.  The more attention you get, the more money you make.  The Web is the best way yet to get attention.  Learn it, love it, live it.