Abundance vs. scarcity in the publishing world
March 18, 2012 | 9:06 pm
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has posted an essay to her blog about abundance-based versus scarcity-based thinking, and how ingrained scarcity-based habits are making it harder for the publishing industry to adapt to the new abundance-based world of the Internet and e-books.
The publishing industry used to be strictly scarcity-based. Shelf space on bookstores was a valuable and limited resource, and books could only stay there for a limited amount of time before being shipped back to the publisher for destruction or discount resale. But Amazon came along and changed all that—by having effectively unlimited shelf space, Amazon can sell you any book you want.
It is really hard, Rusch explains, to shake scarcity-based thinking when that’s how you’ve spent your whole life. She uses the examples of her mother, who grew up poor during the Great Depression, and her father, who grew up in a well-off family, and the arguments they would have over saving or spending money.
The publishing industry is now in that same situation—making decisions based on scarcity thinking when consumers are accustomed to abundance.
In an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake. Consumers who expect everything they want at their virtual fingertips get angry when they can’t get something. We’re seeing that a lot with traditionally published bestsellers. For a while, traditional publishers tried to release the e-books six months after the print books. All that did was anger the consumer, who wanted their e-book now.
Traditional publishers thought scarcity—the lack of an e-book—would drive consumers to the hardcover. Instead, it made the consumers so mad that they actually wrote nasty online reviews of the books in question. Not a nasty review of a book’s content, mind you, but a nasty review of the book’s lack of availability.
Abundance confuses those used to scarcity thinking. A common complaint of those accustomed to scarcity is that the abundance of available self-published works makes it harder to find any individual book worth reading. But the recommendation system many stores have (“people who bought this title also bought…”) helps reduce that problem.
At the moment, Rusch writes, the only thing that’s really “scarce” in publishing is the money publishers need to convert and sell their backlists electronically. So they, or else agents, are trying to hold onto the rights to writers’ backlist books, because although they can’t currently afford to do anything with them, they believe someday they might.
Hopefully, Publishers will eventually get their act together with a more abundance-based approach, but at the moment the clash in ways of thinking is causing a lot of the friction that is giving the industry so much trouble today.
(This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned abundance giving publishers fits.)