Excerpts from two different posts from Seth Godin:
What happens when we reach the halfway point, when most of the great books have already been published? Just as most of the great TV shows have probably already been made, and most of the great classical music recordings have already been recorded. Golden ages don’t last forever, and it’s entirely possible that we’ve reached that moment in the printed book world.
When that happens, the backlist becomes far more important than it already is. Instead of always being focused on ‘what’s new’, we may end up thinking about, ‘what haven’t I read yet?’
. . . .
Yesterday’s post about the halfway mark got a few responses from people who thought I was selling books short. “There has not ever been, nor will there ever be, a “halfway point” for cultural achievements,” one wrote.
Let me try again, with more detail.
We can probably all agree that more than half of the culturally important cookbooks printed on paper have already been printed. From the Joy of Cooking to Julia Child to The Thrill of the Grill, there are some essential cookbooks that have laid a foundation for most that followed. Now that the original cookbook market has been decimated by TV, by free recipes online and by the growth of the ios app, it’s hard for me to imagine the pile of cookbook titles that millions read and trust to dramatically increase in size.
Or, if you grew up with science fiction, we ought to be able to agree that Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Atwood, Lem, Zelazny, LeGuin, Doctorow and (early) Stephenson are quite a touchstone, and if we look at the future of all books on paper, it’s hard to imagine a new generation of science fiction books being as widely embraced as they were twenty or forty years ago.
I’m not arguing that Scalzi and Doctorow and others won’t write great books going forward. I’m pointing out that most of those books are going to be read on ereaders, and thanks to the shifting economics, few of them will reach as widespread an audience.
. . . .
Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a typical bestseller to stay on the bestseller list for months or even years. Now, the typical book lasts for two weeks. More titles, more churn means less cultural achievement.
Consider what blogs did to the magazine article. Not long ago, a Time cover story was read by everyone you knew. Today, that attention has been replaced by 500 different blogs, and no one reads all of them.
. . . .
I’m bullish on ideas, on innovation and on individuals who have something to say, saying it. But it’s clear to me and to many in the industry that we’re well past the halfway mark (given that we started 400 years ago) in terms of creating the essential library of touchstone cultural achievements that every single smart person has either read or is aware of.
Seth’s point is similar to those political commentators who observe that thirty years ago, the mass audience in America got its political news from three major television networks and/or a handful of major newspapers and magazines. Today, there are cable news shows and a zillion websites and blogs providing political information and the old media has lost substantial viewership/readership. In the American presidential race, new web videos and daily Twitter wars between the two campaigns make news.
PG disagrees that mass cultural phenomena – items that every single smart person has read or is aware of – have gone away or will go away. Is there any smart person who isn’t aware of Fifty Shades of Grey or Lady Gaga in the same way that he/she would have been aware of The Bourne Identity or Michael Jackson thirty years ago?
The fact that there are now a zillion sources of information doesn’t mean that memes don’t spread through that network just as effectively as they spread through the much smaller and simpler networks in days past.
For one thing, today’s network is much more agile than the older networks. Think about how much faster information can spread through Twitter than it did via the traditional broadcast networks of the past. You can get all latest news through tweets on your smartphone instead of waiting until 6:00 PM when you sit down in front of a television.
The kinds of cultural monuments of former times that Seth speaks of all had to make their way through gatekeepers. It’s PG’s opinion that gatekeepers prevented some works – books, music, video – to which the mass market would respond and which had the potential to become cultural landmarks from ever reaching the mass market. For every great book that wasn’t accepted until the 25th submission, there may well be another great book whose author who gave up after the 24th rejection.
For books at least, authors in most parts of the world can effectively publish to the mass market without pleasing a gatekeeper. For PG, that’s the optimal structure for discovering future cultural landmarks.