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'Content is being devalued by technology'

3 May 2010

Mike Shatzkin is well-known in the publishing business on both sides of the pond for his visionary and often uncomfortable views of the future.

Unable to make it across the Atlantic to deliver a speech in London because of the ash, he asked someone else to deliver his speech and it can be found on his blog. And uncomfortable it certainly is this time. In a sobering analysis of the next 20 years, Shatzkin says there is one inexorable truth: 'The price consumers will be willing to pay for content is going to go down because of the laws of supply and demand.'

Shatzkin's view is that: 'Content will be distributed digitally and if distribution of all content is digital, and it is hard to see why it would not be, then the list of businesses that exist today that won't exist in 20 years is a long one. Bookstores will exist, but they'll be curiosity shops carrying used books and perhaps a handful of printed-on-demand newer items for the few print-pervy holdouts that remain.'

It is publishers rather than writers who will be most affected by this change: 'The change for publishers, though, is far more profound than a simple change in delivery mechanism would suggest. Publishers, indeed all commercial media in our lifetime, have been defined primarily by format. Some do books; some do magazines; some do newspapers. Others called producers do movies or television or radio. The capital and skill set requirements for a format effectively channelled the media company. For the most part, big media was not topic- or subject-specific; it was format-specific.'

This will change because format will become irrelevant if it is all digital and can easily be reproduced in different formats. Shatzkin says: 'Here's the important point for publishers to take on board. Content is being devalued by technology. This is inexorable. It is not anybody's fault. It is not in anybody's power to change it. The price consumers will be willing to pay for content is going to go down because of the laws of supply and demand. It is true that professional content creators can benefit from efficiencies and cost savings offered by the same technologies, so the loss of revenue doesn't necessarily translate into an equivalent loss of income or profit. But the general direction is one way: down.'

He argues that content will be devalued and that it will be communities that matter and that they will be in a position to get what they want. Owning a web community which is both a principal source of content and provides the audience for it will be the way forward.

But publishers need to start thinking hard about the future, because if they don't they will be overtaken by the vast changes occurring at a rapid speed. Authors won't necessarily need them, so publishers will have to reinvent themselves in a way that makes full play of what they can offer, in terms of marketing, publicity and sales skills.

Mike Shatzkin's blog