03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Literacy and the Commoditization of Content

This summer, Wired ran an article by Clive Thompson on the New Literacy. From 2001 to 2006, Andrea Lunsford studied nearly 15,000 college students' writing behaviors, in and out of the class room, in the Stanford Study of Writing. She found that people are writing more often and writing more effectively to their audiences than ever before, concluding that we are "in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization." While I am skeptical that a sample population of Stanford college students is sufficiently representative of the rest of the world, it does make sense that emailing, texting, blogging, and social networking have increased how much we write every day.

In response to this five-year study, I have conducted my own five-minute study, Celeste Fine's Study of Reading, in which I similarly interviewed a much more sophisticated sample of seven people from my Tuesday night pool team and discovered that this New Literacy has also significantly increased how much we read every day. My unsubstantiated conclusion: people are also reading more than ever.

As a literary agent, I am particularly interested in how this New Literacy affects the book industry. Maybe sales for traditional formats, like books, aren't low because the demand for reading is low but because the supply of written content in our everyday lives is at an all-time high (Take that, Steve Jobs). The Stanford Study also found that people are writing more succinctly -- status updates, text messages, blogs -- which creates a double supply whammy: people are writing more and increasingly compact content is quicker to produce.

The Internet has also made written content more readily available and for cheap -- free even. The Internet is a low-cost distribution channel that gives writers and readers easy access to each other. So the likes of Perez Hilton can compete with the distribution of premium brands like the New York Times at little to no cost. These low costs are in-turn enjoyed by readers, who can base their reading choices heavily on price, creating a perfect competition for readers. Check out this Paid Content: UK's study with Harris Interactive that shows 74% of people who read free online news would simply switch to a free source if their favorite news site began to charge. Sorry, Rupert Murdoch, but if you bill it, they may not come.

An increased supply, low costs, and few barriers to distribution may have basically commoditized written content and therefore the book industry. If that's the case, perhaps the book industry can learn a thing or two from other commoditized industries.

Let's head from Stanford to USC and take a look at Martin Reimann's "Industry commoditization: Its nature and role in competitive strategy," which explored commoditization across several industries, from energy to underwear. This study found that different marketing strategies are successful based on the level of commoditization in an industry. They found that customer intimacy -- creating value by focusing on customers' specific needs and meeting them -- is the most successful marketing tool in a highly commoditized industry. Operational excellence was second. Both were more important than product leadership, which corresponds to innovation in the actual product.

Let's think of written content as a product and the time and energy a writer spends on writing as operations. Let's consider the writing style and format the writer's way of marketing her product to readers (her customers). According to Martin Reimann's study, if written content is highly commoditized, the most successful writer will focus on her reader and streamline her writing to improve efficiency, which happens to correspond to Andrea Lunsford's description of the New Literacy: focusing on the audience and writing more efficiently. This New Literacy could be the reflection of writers competing for readers in a highly commoditized environment.

So maybe reading isn't dead. Perhaps we aren't lazy couch potatoes lacking the attention span to read. This New Literacy may show that writers are already responding to the commoditization of written content, and the most successful book publishers will be the ones that follow suit and focus on publishing books in a way that better understands and meets readers' specific needs. Perhaps product innovations, like books with video, are only as successful as they pertain to customer intimacy, and the future of books isn't inventing a better book but better meeting readers' needs.

One Fine Question: What do you want from a book?