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Aimee Liu

Aimee Liu

Posted: November 26, 2008 04:59 PM

Publish or Perish v. Publish and Perish

Simon Dumenco in Advertising Age today reported the demise of Cottage Living Magazine and likened major publishers like CL's parent Time, Inc. to the anti-government administration that's been butchering our government for the past eight years.

"Retrenching during an economic contraction is one thing," Dumenco writes, "But starving and killing off your brands one by one -- and refusing to invest adequately in the transition from print to web -- suggests that you're simply abdicating. You've lost faith in what you do. You've lost faith in publishing."

While it's true that the future of magazines seems bleak, if not doomed, I don't think traditional publishers are anti-publishing. I think the executives and editors in charge are running scared. They also lack the necessary imagination - or are simply too stunned or stuck -- to think creatively in the midst of a plunging economy and a technological sea change.

This is a moment for true entrepreneurship and hard-core objectivity. The critical question is: how can you get people to pay to read what they already get for free all over the Web?

The vaunted egalitarian anarchy of the Web has been undermining the commercial value of intellectual property from the outset. The notion that we all have a "right" to free access to everything online began with Napster et al, and artists quickly began paying the price. We've now seen it sink the music industry and much of book publishing, and threaten the video market and Hollywood, so of course magazines must go.

Online advertising was supposed to pick up the financial slack, allowing print publications to morph into online versions, but Dumenco found that the Magazine Publishers of America doesn't track or have any idea what revenues online magazines reap from advertising. He notes MediaWorks Editor Ann Marie Kerwin's suspicion that, "maybe they are tracking the number -- but it's so pathetic, 'they just don't want to share it.'"

Just yesterday Random House announced its plans to digitize thousands of books from its current and back lists.

According to Random House CEO Markus Dohle, "more people everyday are enjoying reading in the electronic format and Random House wants to extend our reach to them with more of our books." That's good news for E-book readers, but what does it do financially for Random House and its authors? Not much. Random House's vice president for digital operations, Matt Shatz, refused to say how many audio books actually sold last year, but across the book industry E-books account for 1 percent or less of the market.

Free online reading material, meanwhile, is virtually limitless. Many of the world's most prominent writers, along with the least prominent, host their own blogs. Newspapers have given up charging for access to their online editions. Venerable publications such as the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly now post their most popular articles free for the reading. And downloads of free books are as readily accessible as downloads of free music.

Is there money to be made by artists and writers in the current environment? Yes, but the competition increases geometrically by the day. Here's the central paradox:
There's more opportunity for all to publish, but more than ever, only the mega-sellers profit at all. It's like a rapidly expanding casino with a winner's circle that's simultaneously, and just as rapidly, shrinking.

Artists, writers, and publishers who fail to come up with alternative delivery paradigms can keep playing for free as long as they like, but they're already going broke.