Small ponds

Last December, I wrote a post destined to become the basis for a presentation, "Disaggregating supply". In it, I observed for the first time that "the web isn’t a community of millions; it’s millions of communities, even inside a platform like Tumblr."

At the time, I was trying to explain why a desire to recreate the (ad-supported) platforms of old was likely to go unsatisfied. In the later post, which examined what content-consumption trends might mean for book publishers, my argument evolved a bit:

Here, the advocates are mainly folks who favor ad-supported media, which has a hard time figuring out how to monetize audiences that aren’t built and sold by the millions. That is to say, it has a hard time trying to monetize the web.

These two interlinked thoughts came to mind when I read a post by Om Malik about his conversation with Longreads founder Mark Armstrong. In it, Armstrong relates:

When I started Longreads four years ago, the accepted wisdom was that people did not have time for in-depth storytelling on the web—and very few online-only publishers could be bothered to invest in it. This has changed dramatically, and I think the Longreads community has shown that there is a huge appetite for these stories.

If you're not familiar, Longreads is in the curation business. For a nominal subscription fee, it combs the web for interesting, stimulating or perhaps offbeat longer-form articles, then makes them available to its audience.

Armstrong is right, I think, to argue against the conventional wisdom that people would not read long-form works on the web. They will, and they benefit from a service that helps them decide which long-form content to read.

But I am not sure the Longreads story shows that there is a "huge appetite for these stories." There should be a huge appetite, but long-form reading is only a small part of the U.S. economy. Heck, books are a small part of the U.S. economy: $27.4 billion were sold in 2012, with only $3.4 billion (12%) in digital formats ($2.4 billion of that came from eBooks).

For context, in 2012 the U.S. gross domestic product was estimated at $15,685 billion, making book sales something less than 0.2% of the total. As I've pointed out on occasion, Apple alone has enough cash on hand to buy the U.S. book publishing business three or four times over.

This makes me think that the appetite for these stories may not be huge, but it doesn't have to be. Longreads is up and running with a minimal staff. The investment can scale with the opportunity.

Publishers can take advantage of these opportunities by reframing their thinking. Writing in April about the growth of the web, I claimed:

[W]e’re starting to see the dominance of a platform that includes everything and excludes nothing. In return, we get access to global communities and the ability to meet latent desires. But we are competing with everyone else to reach and serve these communities.

The challenge we face is less about an effort to find the next big thing and more about a series of efforts to accumulate a set of related, smaller things. The good news is, publishers have long been good at sussing out these niches, though more by subject than format.

Some developments might surprise us, growing well beyond any expectations. But even if we dramatically increase demand for content, we're still going to be swimming in a lot of pretty small ponds.

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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