Media Disintermediation, Redux Part Deux

7 Jan ’06

Looking back on 2005 in review, it’s hard to escape the predominance of the copywars as a defining theme for the year. I was recently reminded of how absurd it is that the debate has been framed in this way when I heard of a recent NYT article on a test of book publishers:

Submitted to 20 publishers and agents, the typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of two books were assumed to be the work of aspiring novelists. Of 21 replies, all but one were rejections. Sent by The Sunday Times of London, the manuscripts were the opening chapters of novels that won Booker Prizes in the 1970’s. One was “Holiday,” by Stanley Middleton; the other was “In a Free State,” by Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Middleton said he wasn’t surprised. “People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays,” he said. Mr. Naipaul said: “To see something is well written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent, and there is not a great deal of that around. With all the other forms of entertainment today, there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”

I would dispute Naipaul’s contention that there is a shortage of that ability. It is abundant – it’s just absent from the publishers. His readers and the would-be readers of every gifted writer ignored by the publishers would be excellent judges of what merited attention, and systems to facilitate that could easily be fashioned from the internet – today.

If intermediaries like the book publishers can’t aggregate valuable content, what value are they adding – what are they doing in the business? Is their competence solely marketing and distribution? Is that actually a competence, or could it be done better by others? Just how much of our culture are we losing to their inability to intermediate effectively? Relevant questions these days, as the music, publishing and film businesses seem beset by the shock of the new. They complain, naturally, that others are responsible for their problems – file sharers, for example. But others deplore the quality of today’s content and the diminishing relevance of the distribution systems that bring content to the masses. I suspect that the music and film industries have the same problem that book publishing does – they cannot reliably identify and efficiently bring to market valuable content. And so they have resorted to the tried and true – the music business relying on one-hit wonders and teeny-bopper pulp, the film business on CGI and remakes of old stories.

At times it seems quite absurd that we are locked in this almost kafkesque debate about file sharing and DRM – about copyright law, of all things – when we ought to be aggressively taking advantage of these new technologies to re-engineer the delivery of media and seize every opportunity to enrich our culture. The internet offers far more opportunity to bring desirable content efficiently to market, and the media cartels are so hopelessly conflicted that we can’t rely on them to do it. We ought to be sweeping away the media cartels as quickly as we can, or at least doing what we can to facilitate their accelerated obsolescence.

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