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…