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Boom and Disrupted Business Models

A while back, I was browsing through Amazon, looking for new short ebooks to read, and I landed on Boom, by Tony Horwitz. As often happens when I go browsing, I bought more than I could immediately read, so Boom sat on my reader for a little bit. When I finally go to it, I loved it. I loved the fact that while it explained the political arguments about the Keystone XL pipeline, its focus was on the people along its proposed path. I loved how it showed the way different people can look at a proposed development and see different outcomes. I loved the subtle (and not so subtle) nudges to consider my own potential hypocrisy on the issue.

Since I loved the book so much, I wanted to recommend it here. And that’s where things got weird. I couldn’t find the book on Amazon, or B&N, or Kobo. I did a web search and found the links to all those places on the author’s page, but the links were broken. I was confused, and wondered WTF had happened, but had not choice but to shrug and pick a different book to recommend.

Then Horwitz published a NY Times piece explaining just what had happened: the publisher had fallen on hard times and the book was pulled. Then it was put back. It is available now, and honestly, you should read it. It is great.

The NY Times story about Boom and how it came to be written and then be a short ebook is also worth your time. It makes clear that the current environment for writers is difficult, to say the least. Boom is a great story that puts an important and controversial issue into a wider context. I want to live in a world in which stories like that get written. In fact, I think we need to live in a world where stories like that get written. But I am afraid we’re disassembling that world, or at least allowing the infrastructure that supports it to slowly disintegrate without giving much thought to what might replace it.

I am not arguing that we need to go back to the “good old days,” in which newspapers had the money to pay for more in depth stories like this one. Those days are long gone, and I don’t see how they could come back. Various online services have too thoroughly disrupted the income streams that made it possible for newspapers to invest so much in their content. It is clear to me that no one has figured out how to replace what was lost in terms of support for the writing of great stories- but it is also clear that people still like to read them, so perhaps someone will eventually find a model that works.

Back when I first found short ebooks, I thought that perhaps they could help provide that model. I still think that, actually. I love the idea of readers being able to pay directly for the stories they want to read. However, Horowitz’ experience with Boom indicates that if short ebooks are going to help fill the void left as newspapers and magazines shrink, the market for short ebooks will need to mature a bit more. Horowitz is an established author who wrote about a topic of interest to a lot of people for a publisher who had built a reputation for having good content. And still, it didn’t really work.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that this is not just a problem for writers and publishers. It is a problem for all of us. Who will write the stories we read if there is no money to be made in writing them? Wealthy people who can afford not to be paid for their work and people so intensely devoted to their message that they don’t care it they are paid. I suspect corporations would also be willing to pay writers to write some stories, but only those stories that advance the other interests of the corporation. I don’t like what that would mean for the breadth and depth of stories that would be available for me to read.

Nor do I think we should just shrug our shoulders and leave it to writers and publishers to figure out the solution. We can take a page from Boom and think about our own potential hypocrisy on this issue. I am as guilty as the next person of not paying for content. I block some ads (less ad revenue for the site owner). I click away when I find a paywall. And yet… I am willing to spend hundreds of dollars on the fancy gadgets I use to access content. Even though I know that content is hard and that the people who produce it deserve to be compensated just as much as the people who invent fancy new devices. I once saw a piece by a musician arguing that the big companies who do get paid in this new environment- the internet service providers, the tech companies, and the like- should pay a tax of sorts to a fund that would be used to compensate the people who make the content that makes people want their services and devices. (Sadly, I cannot find that article now.) I am not sure how that could be made to work, but it is worth considering if only to make yourself think: what am I willing to pay for and what do I expect to be free. And why?

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I have been surfing online more than 2 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.
It's pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all site owners
and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be much
more useful than ever before.

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