Abundance vs. scarcity in the publishing world

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.)

7 Comments on Abundance vs. scarcity in the publishing world

  1. Another example is pricing an ebook similarly to the out-of-print physical book. One of my favorite books, published in 1998, has been out of print for a long time but is still in high demand. That has led to paperback copies being priced at around $20, pretty high for a 14-year-old paperback that was originally less than $5.

    When the publisher (Random House) got around to converting it to an ebook, they priced it the same, $20. After a while it fell to $17 and now sits at $12.99, outrageously high for an ebook edition of an old paperback.

    Needless to say, I’ll just re-read my paperback copy, if I ever find the time away from reading the thousands of ebooks I have in my library.

    The publisher could have made some good sales if they had priced the book reasonably, lots of people like to get an ebook version of their physical books, but not at new bestseller prices.

  2. I don’t think authors and publishers have figured out how to calculate optimal price of ebooks yet. In a marketplace of abundance, the price of a commodity over time tends to drop to some sort of minimal value, so that the seller captures the “need it now, can’t wait” crowd at a higher price, and progressive captures the rest of the market at successively lower price points acceptable to both buyer and seller.

    I think publishers and authors tend to view pricing the backlist at lower price points as cannibalizing new book sales, which it does a little, so they generally are only willing to price ebooks to compete with hardcover, discounted hardcover, trade, discounted trade, and mass market. I suspect adding lower price points after a ebook has been out for a while will provide a higher total revenue for any given book because there are usually additional readers who would be willing to buy if the price dropped.

  3. I needed a reminder of this advice; though I blogged on it myself a while ago, some of the points just didn’t quite sink in. Time to get back on track.

  4. Authors and publishers are, in many ways, no different than the rest of us. We have been brought up thinking scarcity in just about every walk of life.

    We were constantly told by our parents that money doesn´t grow on trees when we asked for whatever toy it was we wanted. We have spent our entire lives being more or less brain washed by this scarcity idea.

    Concepts that have stayed contant for decades have suddenly changed and our minds are constantly trying to catch up with the new way of thinking.

    Old thought = books – shelves -space

    New thought = books – digital – no space needed.

  5. One thing about abundance is that it creates a disconnect between the product that is abundantly available, and the work that went into creating it… which will always be a scarcity commodity. A writer’s time is limited and valuable. If his product is, in many opinions, worth little in an abundance economy, how does the writer reconcile his effort with his product?

    Abundance may demand a very different economy, one based on the micropayments idea that’s been bandied around for so long (and that find myself considering on a regular basis). Unfortunately, most existing payment systems aren’t well-suited for micropayments, making it hard for producers to go that route; I couldn’t sell on Amazon or B&N, for instance, as their payment systems are set at no less than 99 cents for a book.

    And despite the popularity of an idea like micropayments in an abundance economy, there is still the stigma of low-priced items being considered “cheap” and low-quality. How do we get past that?

  6. The author conflates two different concepts here. The scarcity/abundance of shelf space and capacity of a web site – with scarcity/abundance of titles.
    Her point about scarcity/abundance of shelf space is very true and the publishers failed miserably to grasp what it meant. She is also correct, naturally, about the challenge to find good reads with so many titles available.

    However people really want is quality and reading that matches their taste. I submit that it is a very subjective thing to suggest that there is an abundance of quality – I would say that there isn’t an abundance at all, there is a shortage.

    Bruce wrote:
    “I think publishers and authors tend to view pricing the backlist at lower price points as cannibalizing new book sales”
    Demonstrating how publishers are absolutely not looking out for writers that they represent. if this is how they think then they are clearly abandoning their responsibility to older titles in favour of newer titles. A salutary lesson to writers when signing contracts.

    Steven wrote:
    “And despite the popularity of an idea like micropayments in an abundance economy, there is still the stigma of low-priced items being considered “cheap” and low-quality. How do we get past that?”
    I really believe that this ‘value’ concept is one that authors need to eject from their minds. What they need to think about is the total earnings from their title. Because this is the way that readers/consumers think. They think about what they will spend in total on browsing pay sites or buying ‘cheap’ reads. ‘cheap’ is also a very subjective comparison concept.

  7. Readers/consumers don’t think about how much an author/producer makes; they’re only concerned with how much it will cost them to obtain something they want. I don’t know anyone who decided not to buy an Apple product based on the size of Steve Jobs’ paycheck. Worrying about authors/producers is generally heard only in rationalizations about “stealing from the rich” (a continuing issue with digital media).

    And it’s not authors who need to rethink quality and value: It’s the consumer who places those labels on products, using them to decide on purchases; and the idea that low price equals low value is still a common concept, especially regarding ebooks.

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