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Abundance versus scarcity

1 March 2016

From Chris Meadows via TeleRead:

[A]t the moment, e-books (and, for that matter, other digital media) are a sort of predecessor of the post-scarcity society. With digital media, there is no need for scarcity—and when you have goods that are unencumbered, such as public-domain media, you can see that in operation. Anyone who wants a copy of Jane Eyre or A Tale of Two Cities or Barchester Towers need only click a link and boom: there they are.

As I originally wrote the above paragraph, I said “goods that are free,” but that just points out the way that our current way of thinking has trouble adapting to abundance. With digital media, every copy is “free.” But many works are encumbered by copyright. Even if they can be copied freely, doing so doesn’t pay the work’s creator (or at least owner) anything for the extra copy—so they end up retrofitted with digital rights management to impose artificial scarcity.

And with that artificial scarcity in place, the publishers impose high prices on those digital books, to enforce that scarcity further and possibly divert would-be buyers into buying physical goods that are legitimately scarce.

. . . .

We’ve mentioned publishers’ problems with abundance a few times before. More recently, Joe Wilkert also discussed the issue:

Most publishers desperately want to preserve yesterday’s scarcity-based business model but what they really need to do is acknowledge and embrace abundance, be willing to cannibalize yesterday’s revenue stream and focus on what really defines their brand for both authors and consumers. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to read The Innovator’s Dilemma and think about how it applies to your business and the discovery challenge.

The abundance question is also why many consumers complain about publishers overpricing e-books—even publishers like Baen who price as low as $8 in new release. They know there aren’t any printing and distribution costs to encumber the e-book with extra expense, and want to see the lower costs reflected in a lower retail price. And many self-publishing authors do price their e-books just that way, at $5 to $6 or even less.

Publishers insist that the fixed costs of creating a book have to be shared out across the e-book version, too—but consumers often find that rationale hard to swallow when the e-book price of a new-release book usually costs more than the hardcover version on Amazon. The wholesale sales terms for physical goods permit Amazon to mark them down, but the agency arrangement for digital sales does not—and a big part of the reason the publishers felt justified in imposing agency pricing for digital was that there were no actual physical goods to change hands at wholesale rates. So, ironically, digital goods’ very abundance actually makes them cost more than the equivalent physical good. What kind of sense does that make?

That’s the situation we have when one specific type of good gains an abundant version: friction all over the place as everyone tries to reconcile the existence of abundant and scarce versions of the same good. Publishers continually express their contempt for Amazon as the chief purveyor of that digital abundance, while they’re still trying to prop up the old form of wood-pulp scarcity—even as Amazon is also one of the prime movers in selling those scarce goods, too.

Link to the rest at TeleRead

Amazon, Big Publishing

5 Comments to “Abundance versus scarcity”

  1. 3D printers? Yes, obviously. They’re already here.

    Burke’s nano fabbers? I don’t they can do what he thinks they can do.

    The nanofabricator, making anything you wish from the molecular level up, atomic level up really, with raw material consisting mainly of dirt, air, and water, and a lot of carbon…
    . . .
    This thing works at the atomic level; I mean there’s no such thing. You make the molecules you want in order to the molecules together to make stuff; once you’ve got the stuff then you shape it.
    . . .
    …want a cup of coffee you get a cup of coffee. I want a Mona Lisa, I want a bar of gold and whatever…

    He’s talking about nano tech, but then he and McRaney slip into alchemy.

    Gold is an element. You cannot make it from air and dirt and water and carbon. You cannot make it from nano particles of other elements, which are still atoms, after all.

    Without realizing it, he’s envisioning his nano fabber putting together quarks and such to build elements. That is not happening in 50 years. How long have we been working on fusion as a power source? And we are still not there.

    His nano fabber may build molecules from atoms, but it won’t be building atoms from quarks and other quantum particles.

    He talks about people not needing to share things. No question that things are valuable. We all like shelter and food. But he seems to think that once we no longer need worry about sharing things, we no longer need worry about sharing anything at all. And that is incorrect.

    Once physical objects become abundant, humans tend to focus on social and emotional and intellectual elements. We will still want one another’s attention and ideas, and will choose whether or not to share our own. And our attention will still be limited by our energy levels, by time (no one gets more than 24 hours per day), and by interest. We are monkeys, not tigers.

    Sorry for going off on a tangent. I realize Chris was talking about ebooks and abundance. I clicked through to the interview with Burke and found both participants to be somewhat limited in their thinking.


    Although I loved Burke’s show Connections, apparently like all the rest of its audience. 😉

    • That’s why I said I wasn’t sure I was with him that far. It’s possible that he has a reasonable explanation for his assumptions that he just didn’t get to in the interviews. In any event, he’s a historian, not necessarily a physicist or chemist. And even if you have to put in the same elements you need to get out, by and large most elements in their raw state are a lot cheaper than finished goods.

      • One thing that seems clear is that with ever growing abundance – whether of physical items or intellectual property or both – ever more discerning search mechanisms will be very useful indeed.

        I’ll want the plan/program that generates the exact sort of toothbrush I want from my 3D printer, not just any toothbrush. And the niche author who writes books with that wonderful blend of wonder, insight, emotion, and adventure that thrills my reader sensibilities.

        I know that many folks commenting on TPV have no trouble finding what they want, but apparently my own tastes are sufficiently niche that I still do have trouble. 😉

    • Heh, the things they manage not to notice is the ‘time’ it would take to make the object one atom at a time, and the power requirements (never mind being able to control the process …)

      Maybe we’ll have Star Trek replicators after we have warp speed antimatter powered star ships, but not too much before …

      • …the ‘time’ it would take to make the object one atom at a time, and the power requirements…

        Excellent point, Allen! I’m an interested layperson, but not an engineer or a physicist. Thanks for sharing that observation. It sounds key!

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