A striking piece has recently appeared on essayist and programmer Paul Graham’s website, and attracted plenty of comment elsewhere, on what he calls “post-medium publishing.” The thesis – which Jeff Jarvis has already declared to be seminal (or close to it) – is that it’s a mistake to think that consumers of any kind of medium have ever, really been paying for content. They may have bought things because of the content but, Graham argues, the economics have always been about the cost of creating and then distributing a physical medium (paper, vinyl) that happens to have stories or pictures printed on it, or makes a nice noise. The trading of valuable information is, Graham concedes, a different game, but a marginal one, and from a different world to most publishers’ crumbling houses of entertainment and diversion:
Publishers of all types, from news to music, are unhappy that consumers won’t pay for content anymore. At least, that’s how they see it… In fact 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? A copy of Time costs $5 for 58 pages, or 8.6 cents a page. The Economist costs $7 for 86 pages, or 8.1 cents a page. Better journalism is actually slightly cheaper… Now that the medium is evaporating, publishers have nothing left to sell. Some seem to think they’re going to sell content—that they were always in the content business, really. But they weren’t, and it’s unclear whether anyone could be.
It’s provocative stuff. But what aren’t touched on here – much as in most of the ongoing debates about what digital media mean – are two themes that I would like to see explored in proper depth: the history of commercial publishing; and what the future looks like not only for the book or the magazine, but for the author.
The future, Graham notes, lies in controlling the devices via which media are consumed; and, more broadly, in controlling the apparatuses of profit that can be built around these devices, as manifested in live appearances, advertising, spin-off goods, and so on. It’s a situation we’re accustomed to viewing as the quintessence of modernity: the digital dilemma of content versus value. And yet history, here, has some startlingly pertinent comparisons to offer.
Having been nipped in the bud by the Puritans, it was after the Restoration of 1660 that professional writing began to flower as a profession in Britain. As in Shakespeare’s day, it was normal for writers to combine their activities with various entrepreneurial activities, from being involved in the running of presses, papers and theatres to hawking their opinions and personalities on street corners and in public debates. Patronage was assiduously pursued; subscriptions were drummed up in advance for editions of new books; and few opportunities were lost to repeat and augment political and social scandals in print. The finished, polished text was the gilding on the lily, but the bulk of the work lay elsewhere, so far as making money went.
Thus it largely remained until the 19th century, which saw the gradual agglomeration and professionalisation of the printing and publishing industries, leaving authors increasingly free to pursue their work in seclusion from the demands of their readers. That seclusion is now being decisively interrupted. But what’s coming in its place looks in many ways like the modern version of a very ancient order: one where personality, patronage, solicitation, subscription and self-advertisement are the most necessary skills for any “creative” not gifted with a substantial private income. It’s a setup that would have seemed familiar to Shakespeare and Dryden, not to mention Virgil and Ovid. And it’s one that, understood in the larger historical context, may even see a restoration of the kind of intimate relations between authors and audiences that twenty years ago were being mourned as lost forever. Provided, of course, that someone can be persuaded to foot the bill.