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What We Talk About When We Talk About Content Abundance

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.

Bowker Annual Publisher Survey

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.

So Why Does Content Abundance Matter?

It’s impossible to predict how much this flood of content will affect:

  • the sales of traditionally published books,
  • the quality of readers’ experience, or
  • the likelihood that any particular author’s work might actually be read (and paid for!).

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.

Where’s the Opportunity?

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.

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16 Responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Content Abundance”

  1. I agree. What we do with this opportunity determines not only what happens to publishers, but also what happens with the ability of audiences to cope and consume in ways that sustain a social order (as well as an industry).


    • Peter Turner says:

      I’m of the view that publishers, at least the general trade, have a fundamental obstacle. They only participate in a meaningful way in one part of the funnel to the consumer and the consumer largely does not know or care who the publishers are. My guess is that a new generation of intermediaries will spring up that can wed the quality creation of content that publishers provide with the containers of aggregation that customers want. I also imagine the release of the burden of the supply chain may hold to key to the revenue necessary to focus publishers’ emerging role.


  2. Peter,

    I am really happy this conversation is happening. It should come as no surprise to hear me say that content abundance is both a blessing and a curse for publishers. While content diversity and quickness to market are new(-ish) for most publishers, many don’t know what to do with themselves.

    Some, not necessarily many and by no means all but some, self-pub stories are good ones. And by stories, I don’t mean the story in the book, but rather the story in the marketplace. People respond to clear messages, straightforward value, and articulated, transparent goals. So many publishers have obscured these things for so long, now, that it is no wonder their customers are looking elsewhere.

    Overall, if handled right, abundance is a blessing. It may just be the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back and push us to evolve. But, to compete we need to articulate a clear understanding of our role in the consumer space. In addition, we need to compete on context, something that Brian O’Leary speaks on often. Simply being there is no longer a valid business model.


  3. Peter Turner says:

    Yes, “simply being . . is no longer a valid business model.” Harsh but true. I prefer to focus on the positive possibility, that publishers now HAVE to define their own relevance. It’s choiceless, which is a good thing. Thanks, Brett, for your comment.


  4. Douglas Penick says:

    Thank you so much for this discussion and your blog in general.

    As you so correctly say, “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.”

    It seems however that the other half of this equation is how to communicate what one finds of quality. First, how do you find those who would likely be interested in a specific book? Second, since the world is awash in fervent hucksterism, how do you become identifiable as a reliable advisor?


    • Peter Turner says:

      Thanks, Douglas. I think your questions are spot on.

      The only way you can communicated that you can discern quality and deliver it is to do it. There’s no short cut, in my view. With every piece of content–while keeping oneself focused on a niche of interests, or affinity, the term I prefer–one has to ask is it of quality, of benefit? Why? How? I sort of think of it as a practice. Scaling this requires a social community.

      In terms of your second question, “how do you find those who would likely be interested in a specific book.” My feeling is that it it’s much harder to do this for any particular book. But a curated shop, one that is social, and with lots of shareable content, can attract readers of a specific affinity. I kind of see this as the opposite of Amazon, if you know what I mean.

      Yes, hucksterism is everywhere–and there’s a rapidly growing world of people and services promising that they can connect your work to appreciative consumers. The only way to avoid appearing to be a huckster is to not be one.

      Thanks again for your comments and questions. By the by, your name is familiar. Do I know you from another world?




      • Douglas Penick says:

        I don’t think we’ve met.

        I’ve written some books on Gesar of Ling and currently, my publisher/agent, Caleb Mason of Publerati has brought out an e-version of my historical novel on the Yong Le Emperor, Journey of the North Star.

        I know of you from Shambhala pubs., no?

        I enjoy what you write. It provides perspective on the whole adventure of the publishing enterprise today.


  5. Dan Porter says:


    One factor that could play an important role in the evolution of the publishing industry is the nature of self-published content is its nature. I have no empirical evidence for this, but my own experience with self-published content is that much of it is individual short stories in the five to twenty page range. Very few traditional publishers put out individual short stories. This could result in two “sectors” in the publishing industry with two audiences with some overlap.


    • Peter Turner says:

      Hi Dan: Digital definitely makes a much broader array of forms available, without having to be anthologized to be sold and read. What I can’t help but wonder about is what will happen in a world where the volume of digital content wanting to be consumed continues to explode but the number of eyeballs doesn’t. 1 in 4 people in the world have access to the internet. Cheap smart phones will enable more growth but it feels like we’re peaking just as the tools for creating content are spreading like wildfire.

      Thanks for your comments.



  6. Jay says:

    “how much faith you have in algorithms and other means of search and filtering…”
    yeah, this is true. I’m probably a little less skeptical than you, but that’s coz I’m optimistic that people’s ability to use the tools will continue to improve at as fast a rate as the tools do for a while at least, and when you put the improved tools together with the improved user-skills at filter and search, the combination will suffice, even to filter sets of millions of books.


    • Peter Turner says:

      Thanks, Jay, for your comments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pessimistic about the future of content discovery/engagement, I just don’t think the sorts of filters we have now will be of quickly diminishing value, as they are based on past-user related algorithms or indexing of metadata. But, I’m not an expert in all this and always welcome contrarian views.


  7. Mike Michaels says:

    Just think, all that self published ink that nobody’s going to lay thier eyes on and when some authors meet the reaper they will have family members hauling boxes and boxes of books to the curb. Thank goodness for print on demand. We all read alot of crap but we don’t buy it. We buy what’s good and important to us and though it’s often difficult to wade through so much, we do. What concerns me is what I may have missed.


    • Peter Turner says:

      Hi Michael: Thanks for your comment. Writers write for many reasons, it seems to me–only one of them is to be reader. Readers reader for one reason, to be engaged. I’m with you, though, I worry less about what is left unread than the quality-content the unread might obscure.


  8. Jean Brunson says:

    This information motivates me to keep editing until my book sings, “Read me!”


  9. Julia Denton says:

    This discussion reminds me of what my classmates and I learned in library school back in 1994. For centuries, the role of the librarian was to archive, preserve and protect the written word to ensure access to it. With the explosion of print and online content, our priorities changed dramatically. We now focus on helping people to sort, filter and evaluate content, so that access to valuable resources is facilitated, not buried in a glut of misinformation and garbage. Trustworthy publishers will continue to play a vital role for librarians, researchers and all who value quality over quantity. Publishers who consistently deliver excellent content will increase in importance as they prove themselves reliable over the long haul, not least because they will save the time readers spend searching for what they need.


    • Peter Turner says:

      Thanks, Julia, for your contribution to the discussion. While I agree “quality over quantity” will continue to be valued (even more so in the glut of content being produced), we need new and better tools–“smart filters,” scale-able human curation, etc.


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