(Selling) content in a networked age

I’m just back from Torquay where I’d been asked to speak at the 32nd annual UKSG conference. I first came across UKSG more than a year ago when they asked me to speak at a London workshop they were hosting. Back then, I did a general overview of API’s from a non-technical perspective.

This time around, my presentation was about opening up access to content: the title “If you love your content, set it free?” builds on some previous themes I’ve talked and written about. Presenting on “setting content free” to a room of librarians and publishers is always likely to be difficult. Both groups are – either directly or indirectly – dependent on income from published works. I’m also neither publisher nor librarian, and although I spent some time working for Waterstone’s Online and know bits about the book trade, my knowledge is undoubtedly hopelessly out of date.

Actually, I had two very receptive crowds (thank you for coming if you were there!) and some really interesting debate around the whole notion of value, scarcity and network effects.

[slideshare id=1228656&doc=settingcontentfreeuksg2009final-090331123331-phpapp01]

Like any sector, publishers and librarians have their own language, their own agendas and their own histories of successes and failures. Also like any sector, they are often challenged to spend time thinking about the bigger picture. Day jobs are about rights and DRM, OPAC and tenure. They aren’t (usually) about user experience, big-picture strategy or considering and comparing approaches from other sectors.

What I wanted to do with the presentation was to look at some of the big challenges which face (commercial) material in the networked world by thinking a bit more holistically about people’s relationship with that content, and the modes of use that they apply to the stuff that they acquire via this networked environment.

The – granted, rather challenging – title of the presentation is actually a question cunningly disguised as a statement. Or maybe it’s a statement cunningly disguised as a question. I lost track. The thing I was trying to do with this questatement (and some people missed this, more fool me for being too subtle) was to say: “Look, here’s how many people are talking about content now: they’re making it free and available; they’re encouraging re-use; they’re providing free and open API’s. They’re understanding that users are fickle, content-hungry and often unfussy about the origin of that content. What, exactly, do we do in an environment like this? What are the strategies that might serve us best? Can we still sell stuff, and if so, how?”

The wider proposition (that content fares rather better when it is freed on the network than when it is tethered and locked down) is a source of fairly passionate debate. I’ve written extensively about Paulo Coehlo’s experiments in freeing his books, about API’s, about “copywrong“, about value, authority and authenticity. The suggestion that if you free it up you will see more cultural capital is starting to be established in museums and galleries. The suggestion that you might, just might, increase your financial capital by opening up is for the most part considered PREPOSTEROUS to publishers. Giving away PDF’s increases book sales? Outrageous. Apart from the only example I’ve actually seen documented, of course, which is Coehlo’s, and that seems to indicate a completely different story.

There are fine – and all the finer the closer you examine them – levels of detail. Yes, an academic market is vastly different from a popular one: you don’t have the scale of the crowd, the articles are used in different ways, the works are generally shorter, the audiences worlds apart. But nonetheless, Clay Shirky’s robust (if deeply depressing) angle on the future – sorry, lack of future – of the newspaper industry needs close examination in any content-rich sector. I don’t think anyone can deny that the core proposition he holds up – that the problems that (newspaper) publishing solves (printing, marketing and distribution) are no longer problems in the networked age. I don’t think that what he’s saying is that we won’t have newspapers in the future, and he’s definitely not saying that we won’t need journalists. What he is saying – and this was the angle I focused on in my slides – is that this change is akin to living through a revolution. And with this revolution needs to come revolutionary responses and understanding that the change is far bigger and more profound than almost anyone can anticipate. The open API is one such response (The Guardian “Open Platform” being an apposite example). Free PDF’s / paid books is another. Music streaming and the killing of DRM is another.

Revolutions are uncomfortable. The wholesale examination of an entire industry is horrifically uncomfortable. Just take a look at the music business and you’ll see a group of deeply unhappy executives sitting around the ashes of a big pile of CD’s as they mourn the good ‘ole times. But over there with music, new business models are also beginning to evolve and emerge from these ashes. Spotify is based on streaming, Last.fm is based on social, Seeqpod is a lightweight wrapper for Google searches, The Pirate Bay ignores everyone else and provides stuff for free.

Which ones are going to work? Which ones will make money? Which ones will work but displace the money-making somewhere else? The simple answer, of course, is that no-one really knows. Some models will thrive, others will fail. Some will pave a new direction for the industry, others we’ll laugh at in five years time.

So where can the answers be found? Predictably for me, I think all sectors (including academic publishing!) need to take a punt and do some lightweight experimentation. I think they need to be trying new models of access based around personalisation, attention data and identity. They need to examine who gets paid, how much and when. They need to be setting stuff free in an environment where they can measure – effectively – the impact of this freedom across a range of returns, from marketing to cultural to financial. If they do this then they’re at least going to have some solid intelligence to use when deciding which models to take ahead. And it may be that this particular industry isn’t as challenged as most people assume, and that the existing models can carry on – lock it down, slap on some DRM, charge for access. It’d be far less uncomfortable if this was the case. But at least that decision would be made with some solid knowledge backing it up.

Open Access is one clear way of forging this debate ahead. But once you get under the apparently simple hood of the OA proposition, it actually turns out that not only are many institutions simply ignoring guidelines to produce OA versions of published works but that the payment models are complicated and based on a historical backdrop which to many seems inherently broken. I’d be interested to hear from someone with way more knowledge than me on the successes and failures or market research done on setting content free in this way.

It was clear to me in talking to a range of people at UKSG – librarians, publishers, content providers – that there are huge swathes of evidence missing – surprising, perhaps, from sectors which pride themselves on accuracy and academic rigour. When I asked “how many people aren’t coming to your site because search engines can’t see your content?” or “what is your e-commerce drop-out rate?” or “how much of your stuff do you estimate is illegally pirated?”, very few had coherent – (or even vague) (or any!) – answers.

More telling, perhaps, is that the informal straw poll question I posed to various people during the conference: “Do you feel that this is a healthy industry?” was almost always answered with a negative response. And when I asked why, the near-consistent reply was: “It’s too complicated; too political; too entangled” or from one person: “the internet has killed us”.

I’m really not as naive as I sometimes appear :-) I know how terribly, terribly hard it is to unpick enormous, political and emotive histories. When I suggest that “we need to start again”, I’m obviously not suggesting that we can wipe the slate clean and redefine the entire value proposition across a multi-billion dollar, multi-faceted industry. But I think – simply – that awareness of the networked environment, a knowledge of how people really use the web today and an open mind that things might need to change in profound ways are very powerful starting points in what will clearly be an ongoing, fraught and fascinating discussion.