The Theory of Infinite Shelf Space

May 17, 2012 | Opinions

orion-nebula-space-galaxyConsider a scenario: a company produces a product. The product is excellent, and demand is good. The company has overheads in order to produce this product and get it out to the masses. It’s a cost they are willing to bear.

Technology advances. Suddenly the capability appears for their product to be¬†infinitely cloned and distributed at a speed and convenience that they could only dream about, and at a cost that’s so marginal as to be almost free. How does the company respond to this?

If the company was a record label, back when Napster was booming, the response was nothing short of horror. They did not see the fact that millions more people wanted their product now that they had easy access to it; millions of fans, all talking and engaging and sharing and buying. They only saw one thing: people were getting their product for free. The why and how were not important.

History Repeating

The reaction of the legacy industries to the Internet have been a joke, more or less. DRM, the SOPA and ACTA reforms, lawsuits, FBI warnings… but what difference has it made? None. The Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.¬†Piracy hasn’t stopped, and it never will.

Their reactions have been the same, every time a new form of technology comes out. Then the business adapts, and finds that new markets open up that allow them to make even more money than ever before. The Internet, however, is something new, something far more expansive than they have ever encountered. Up to this point, the legacy industries have maintained control over what gets seen, or heard, or read. Now, the effortless transmission of data, and modern technology, has made that control all but irrelevant.

The publishing industry is no different than any other entertainment medium. It thrived when it was the only way for a creative work to get any kind of widespread audience. When a better way appears that allows a creator to build an audience, sell their work, and make a lot more money, then that industry is in a lot of trouble.

Infinite Shelf Space

The fundamental disconnect between a legacy entertainment industry and a modern, Internet-orientated one is that of scope. An industry that’s beholden to traditional ideas will not be able to take advantage of new opportunities, because they simply cannot think outside their decades-old box. For publishers, it’s infinite shelf space.

Let’s take a bookstore and give it infinite shelves on which to display books. Let’s give it infinite access, so that anyone in the world may walk in and buy a book. Let’s give it instant, custom distribution, so that any book is delivered in the format of the customer’s choice. Now imagine that someone stands outside this bookstore, and tut-tuts that there are too many books there, and how will people find anything? Well, let’s give it a terminal at the entrance, so that anyone can type in a title and the book magically appears in front of them.

Publishers have traditionally acted as the gatekeepers. In a world with limited shelf space, there is a market in selling that space. That, of course, is the province of the brick-and-mortar stores. There is also a market in deciding what’s good enough to appear in that space, and publishers have filled that spot for years. Their role as filters and producers was required, as a matter of efficiency; there were thousands of people who wrote books, and someone had to select the best and spend the money to bring them to the market.

But the problem of infinite shelf space turns all of this on its head. Unlimited space means there is no market in selling that space. Unlimited space means there is no reason to have a gatekeeper who selects which books appear. And if that unlimited space is more accessible, more convenient, and cheaper than the alternative, then it is inevitable that consumers will be drawn to it, and that authors will follow them. There are huge possibilities in this new publishing paradigm, after all. The legacy publishers, however, face the same problems as the legacy record labels – this publishing paradigm has no place for a business model that relies on having to ration out space and access. They have to adapt, and quickly, or risk being rendered obsolete – especially when the very bookstores that they rely on for the majority of their business are starting to close.

The Future

Part of the problem is that publishers don’t seem to recognize their core strengths. They have long experience in production, editing, and all the nuts and bolts of creating a good book. They also have the marketing systems to pull in, say, TV appearances. They have the infrastructure to take the fullest advantage of the Internet, if they are willing to reorient their business towards it and play up the skills that can’t be replaced with technology. Readers will still need someone to recommend the best work, and who better than the people who have years of experience in that? Imagine, for example, a marketplace website like Amazon where one could pay a set fee for access to a publisher’s titles? A Netflix-type system that offers an all-you-can-eat alternative to Amazon for dedicated readers, with all kinds of extras and bonuses for subscribers; one that respects the limitless nature of the Internet, and focuses on delivering the best experience possible? Readers would flock to it, because it’s a better deal for anyone who reads a lot of a particular genre or a particular publisher.

They could do this. The proof of concept already exists, obviously. Again, publishing is not so different from other industries that it can’t work just as well for them.

I fear that it will never happen because they’re simply too afraid of people getting their products for free. This has always struck me as similar to being afraid of whether it will rain today, and staying inside just in case no matter how interesting the outside world can be. Denying reality doesn’t make it go away, unfortunately, and I believe the major publishing houses will have a rather stark choice in front of them: radically alter their whole business around the theory of infinite shelf space, let go of the past, or simply be washed away.