For a couple of years now, people like Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, and Brian O’Leary at Magellan Media, have been talking about the implications of content abundance. I don’t know if they would agree, but I would argue that content abundance is the single biggest threat and the biggest opportunity facing traditional publishing. I’ll explain why I think so in a minute.
Here is some data that may help in considering what we’re looking at. The chart shows the projection of the relationship between ISBN numbers issued by Bowker for traditional versus self-published books. When I talk to publishers large and small, as well as other folks in the book business, I’m often surprised how little resonance this dynamic seems to have for them. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe the scope is only half imagined, or the expectation is that some other development will render content abundance less relevant than imagined.
When looking at this chart it’s very important to realize that many books are printed (via offset or POD) without an ISBN. Also, many if not most self-published eBooks are issued without ISBNs. Because of this the number of self-published books in 2010 (both print and electronic) is likely vastly higher than the nearly three million shown here, perhaps an order of 3x or more, I’m guessing.
Of course, when we talk about content abundance we’re talking about a lot more than books. Content is any text, video, audio–analog or digital—anything created for sensory consumption that might occupy our attention, or at least that’s how I’d define it. How do you spell tsunami.
It’s impossible to predict how much this flood of content will affect:
My feeling is that a lot on how much faith you have in algorithms and other means of search and filtering. I’m quite skeptical that this general approach can or will produce good results as they are based on existing content consumption behavior within a relative finite world of content. Imagine doing a keyword search on Amazon when there are 100 million titles, and browsing?—I don’t think so. These are inherently “dumb” filters. The future of content abundance will require intelligent filters, at least partly based on human discernment of quality.
I think it’s pretty clear why content abundance might represent a threat to traditional publishing, and readers, and writers. Where’s the opportunity? Content abundance will have many implications for the book industry and the media industry more broadly–many of these outcomes are impossible to predict. But I’m willing to make one prognostication: the ability to discern what content is of quality–of value–and why, will only become more valuable as the sheer volume of content increases. And this ability to discern and develop quality content is something publishers possess to a far greater degree than any other player on the content landscape.
If true, that might represent the single best piece of news publishers have had for some while.