Re: Online Self-Archiving: Distinguishing the Optimal from the Optional

From: Andrew Odlyzko <odlyzko_at_DTC.UMN.EDU>
Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 08:25:51 -0600

> On Thu Dec 12, Arthur P. Smith wrote:

> By the way, Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly software book publishing fame) has
> an interesting article up on very related issues in the book publishing
> business (and music publishing, movies, and other forms):


> Some quotes:
> "Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than
> piracy."

> "Many works linger in deserved obscurity, but so many more suffer simply
> from the vast differential between supply and demand."

> "Publishing is not a role that will be undone by any new technology,
> since its existence is mandated by mathematics. Millions of buyers and
> millions of sellers cannot find one another without one or more
> middlemen who, like a kind of step-down transformer, segment the market
> into more manageable pieces. In fact, there is usually a rich ecology of
> middlemen. Publishers aggregate authors for retailers [or libraries].
> Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. Wholesalers aggregate
> small publishers for retailers and small retailers for publishers. [etc.]"

> "In the Web's early days, rhetoric claimed that we faced an age of
> disintermediation, that everyone could be his or her own publisher. But
> before long, individual web site owners were paying others to help them
> increase their visibility in Yahoo!, Google, and other search engines
> (equivalent of Barnes & Noble and Borders for the Web), and Web authors
> were happily writing for sites like AOL and MSN, or on the technology
> side, Cnet, Slashdot, O'Reilly Network, and other Web publishers. [...]"

> "[...] publishing isn't just about physical aggregation of product but
> also requires an intangible aggregation and management of "reputation."
> People go to Google or Yahoo!, Barnes & Noble or Borders, HMV, or
> MediaPlay, because they believe that they will find what they want
> there. And they seek out particular publishers, like Knopf or O'Reilly,
> because we have built a track-record of trust in our ability to find
> interesting topics and skilled authors."

> "Free" is eventually replaced by a higher-quality paid service."

A very interesting article, with many good points. Let me just make
a few points about it.

1. Much of what Tim O'Reilly says applies to scholarly publishing.
However, he is concerned with trade publishing, and only book publishing.
With trade press, we have a situation where the amount of time people
spend reading is decreasing, if only slowly (see the fascinating
article by Doug Galbi in the July 2001 issue of First Monday, "Some
economics of personal activity and implications for the digital economy,"
<>). On the
other hand, the number of books published in the US has risen rapidly
(from 39,000 in 1975 to 115,000 in 2001). That immediately implies
that the average book is getting fewer readers, adn that indeed, in
O'Reilly's words, "[o]bscurity is a far greater threat to authors and
creative artists than piracy." What that implies is that more and
more of them are likely to move (as O'Reilly predicts) to giving their
material away, either because they give up hope for making any real
money, or because they hope free distribution will lead to greater
popularity and allow them to make money on either future books or
through lecture fees, etc.

The situation for scholars is different. Almost invariably they
already give away their works. This is part of the tradition, but
a tradition based on the economic facts of life, namely that there
is no real way for them to make money. The expected readership of
the average scholarly article is at most a few hundred, and that
has not changed much over the centuries. (The first printing of
Copernicus' "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" was of about
500 copies, fairly typical of scholarly monographs today, or of
the number of times an article gets read today.)

2. O'Reilly says that "[l]owering the barriers to entry in distribution,
and the continuous availability of the entire catalog rather than just
the most popular works, is good for artists, since it gives them a chance
to build their own reputation and visibility, working with entrepreneurs
of the new medium who will be the publishers and distributors of tomorrow."
Whether that is true or not depends on how one looks at the distributive
aspects of the resulting economy. It is likely to be even more of a
"winner-take-all" situation. Barriers to entry will be lower, but total
consumption is likely to be constant, so more entrants is likely to
translate into lower prices. The one saving grace is that the share
of the total pie that goes to the artists and writers is likely to
grow (but be increasingly skewed towards the most popular). That is
what has happened in professional sports teams (where nowadays more
than half of the money goes to player salaries), in Hollywood (where
aspiring artists wait on tables, while Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey
make a minimum of $20 million per movie), and in investment banking.

Received on Sat Dec 14 2002 - 14:25:51 GMT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Dec 10 2010 - 19:46:46 GMT