A process post

A little more than three weeks ago I wrote a post, "Market failures", that prompted a pointed exchange between Jeremy Greenfield, a reporter for Digital Book World, and me. Since that time I've been thinking about the post and what, if anything, I might have done differently.

First, a bit of background: When I started trying to post something every day, I found that I needed to increase both my supply of ideas and the sequence in which I might tackle a topic. Early last year, I started using a one-week planning calendar. For each day of the week, I capture interesting links on the right and topics on the left.

I'm usually not chasing the news, so I can outline the calendar over time – typically two to three weeks in advance. Often I put down one link and come across others that make sense as companion pieces, in that they extend an idea or offer an opportunity to draw a comparative insight.

For January 23, the "starting link" criticized NBC's Today Show for a lack of reporting on a Facebook privacy story. It was an interesting hook, dating back to the holidays, but I didn't want to write about television on its own. I kept the link on the calendar, bumping it a couple of times as I struggled to find a publishing tie-in.

Eventually, I did find what I thought was a companion piece: a blog post on a piracy presentation by Carnegie-Mellon professor Michael D. Smith. This is where I started to make a series of inter-related mistakes.

If you follow the Today show link, you'll see that the author criticizes the show itself. I used that as a jumping-off point to critique the headline ("Does piracy hurt digital content sales? Yes") on Greenfield's post about the presentation.

The post and my subsequent comments explain why I didn't think the headline was accurate. But if I wanted to write about a piracy presentation, which was my intent going in, the Today show link was the wrong starting point. The parallel to a piece claiming that the Today show didn't do its job is a post that in effect asserts that Greenfield didn't do his job.

Greenfield and I can (and did) debate whether he did his job adequately, but that discussion only detracts from the thing I should have focused on: how can we productively talk about piracy? At least that's an area I've given some thought.

My second mistake: I didn’t review the primary research, which I usually do. I was criticizing the presentation, which is presumably derived from the research, based on what Greenfield had reported. I should not have been evaluating Smith's work based on what Greenfield had written; I should have read and evaluated what Smith had written.

I’ve since been in contact with Smith, who has provided links to some supporting material. This post is about process, not piracy, and I hope to return to Smith’s work in a future entry.

Finally, I let my observations and biases creep into the post without adequately explaining what they were or why I held onto them. This mistake is fatal.

Most people will read “Market failures” without having engaged with much or any of the writing I have done on piracy in the last five years. That audience needs to be brought along; failing to do so reduces the post and its comments to little more than a flame war.

I don’t need to recite chapter and verse every time I write about piracy, but I do have to give people enough information to judge whether what I see as a misleading headline or a risky summary presentation is valid. Some of that came out in the post, but only some.

As a topic, piracy is not that complex. But piracy discussions always involve nuances whose implications I try to explore by asking four “W” questions:

  • When did piracy occur?
  • What happened after it occurred?
  • Who was affected?
  • Why was piracy the chosen option?

To date, most studies of piracy look at “what happened after it occurred?" (lost sales, or not). Looking at trends over time (“when?”), differentiating between content whose sales are hurt and content whose sales are helped (or at least, not affected) by piracy, and asking the critical “why” question are often tangential or non-existent parts of most statistical studies.

There’s a reason for that. The studies are largely academic. The questions I want to answer are for the most part a function of business models and competitive strategy. That’s where I think the piracy discussion should take place: not as a problem, but as a component of an environmental scan.

Ultimately, the industry's overall unwillingness to embrace this perspective fueled the frustration that came out in the post and in my responses to the comments that followed.

So, why do I write at length about all of this?

There are three reasons, at least from my point of view. First, I made a mistake in the way I wrote the January 23 post. I reached too far, using an overly broad analogy that confused the core point (that decisions about piracy are nuanced and reasonably complex, and reducing them to a compilation of disparate research studies is a mistake).

Second, I do think the reporting on these kinds of topics is a problem, but I also think that it’s the kind of reporting that the market too often demands. I can combat that selection bias by providing better content than the alternatives, but I can’t claim I’m better if I write posts that confuse the issue. I need to own the problems I create.

Finally, in posting my thoughts here I want to convince you that my point of view on various publishing topics is one worth considering, not to the exclusion of other points of view, but in context. The exchange that took place between Greenfield and me (as well as a different one of a similar, though briefer, nature that occurred last year) require at least one adult to remain in the conversation. I failed on that account, and in the process I blocked learning about piracy (or much else).

These reflections make me wonder if the time I’ve decided to dedicate to writing this blog should come to a conclusion. There’s little to be gained in arguing the same points with a new generation of observers and reporters. I’ve been posting here for nearly four years (the anniversary comes next month), and the reality is that little has changed when it comes to industry views about topics like piracy.

Maybe piracy is a problem that publishers should worry about in aggregate. It’s possible that enforcement can mitigate its impact universally. It’s also possible that this decade will be seen as the inflection point, a time when the impact of piracy truly changed publishing forever.

As Professor Smith points out, the number of studies favoring enforcement is certainly weighted against my point of view. In total, only a handful of people have tried to argue for a different approach to piracy. Does piracy hurt digital content sales? Maybe I'm just wrong.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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