[Starting a series of posts on UX and digital product development for Publishers]

On a completely philosophical level, let’s start here: scarcity and digital do not go together. Now, let’s add this: Everything is or will be available online whether you want it to be or not.

Recently, many publishers and other media companies have begun to analyze their strategies in regards to digital right management (DRM). Tor/Forge announced they were going DRM-free. And, even more recently, the IDPF has called for use cases and requirements for “lightweight DRM” (not exactly sure what that means, but we’ll let that one slide). One step forward. One step back.

And, even more recently than that, I was involved in a conversation on Twitter with Kathy Meis, who is on the verge of launching a public beta for a new author platform/discovery tool called Bublish and Peter Turner, former CEO of Shambhala Publications and now running a marketing shop for publishers called Ampersand. The conversation was short, but poignant on the topic of publishers going d2c and the lack of understanding of the ecommerce UX and sales experiences. A back and forth ensued and we touched on issues of limited selection, UX, ecommerce implementation and, Peter’s point, the lack of a viral network of users.

However, what struck me most was the final comment that Kathy added to the tail end of this conversation:

Limited selection could start to be an asset if handled w incredible UX — bonus content, access to authors, etc.

This really got me thinking. Is creating, or nurturing scarcity and exclusivity, a valid business model in the digital world?

While in niche markets, I would argue “maybe,” for broader markets I have to say no. And here’s why: the promise and objective of digital is ubiquity. You cannot reap the benefits of ubiquity while simultaneously shutting out users in an exclusive space.

It’s clear that certain business models do not work, on a fundamental level, with certain types of products. In the physical world, supply and demand is one of the, if not the, most important forces exerted on a product lifecycle. Keeping up with demand is essential. Playing with scarcity and/or exclusivity here is a valid model that exploits high demand and low supply. It’s a strategy that relies on the inescapable nature of physical product distribution. But when this all goes away, when there is no supply chain as we knew it, when there is no physical product, when there is no low supply. Everything falls apart.

Tactics like embargos, limited releases, windowing, and scarcity are the antithesis of a digital business model. They simply will not deliver the intended results, and most likely do more harm than good to our businesses.

The shift toward digital requires, at some point, to accept these new products for what they are: each have their own set of contraints, their own benefits, their own strengths and their own weaknesses. They are not simply a digital version of some physical product that can be treated the same. They are full-blown products which have a new set of laws that tacitly govern their market performance and expectations.

One thing I learned about linguistics and bilingualism, while living in France, is that inherently every language in the world has its own set of tacit rules and laws; a meta-grammar, so to speak, which creates a de facto logic system for that language. If you are bilingual and have spent time speaking your non-native language, it becomes evident very quickly that the topics you discuss, the tone you use, and the types of jokes you make are very different from your native language self.

This phenomenon is not limited to language. Products, too, come with a tacit meta-grammar that dictate that product’s logic. At it’s core, a digital product is open, ubiquitous, sharable, available. Instead of fighting this, and trying to square-hole-round-peg the situation, we should be focusing our attention of aligning our businesses with the strengths of digital and pushing for digital products to blossom to their full potential.

While it’s easier to continue doing business as usual, only selling a different permutation of the same thing, business that do and will prosper in the digital space all have one thing in common: they understand digital products and allow them to be what they are.



7 Responses to You can’t have it both ways

  1. Peter Turner says:

    Great and provoking post, Brett. Thank you.

    I totally agree that our relationship to digital content, and to “stuff” more broadly, is subtle, varied, and particular, informed by both our specific relationships with the particular stuff and our relationships with each other when we relate to it. Syntax. Meta-language. Ecosystem.

    And I take your point, that interjecting *exclusivity* into this subtle relationship with stuff may just come off as controlling, artificial, primitive, limiting—like trying to control how people relate to each other at a nightclub. It ain’t going to happen and if it did everyone would likely leave.

    *Scarcity* is another matter, I think. Scarcity can be another word for selection. I would say that community and consumption can (has/is) thrive (-d/-n) on scarcity especially if it’s defined around affinity.

    Anyway, I hope so. The alternative looks to me like endless tsunamis of stuff of questionable quality governed by algorithms delivering predetermined relevance (whatever that is).

    But, hey, what do I know—just another x-publisher with a dream.

  2. Brett says:

    Thanks for the comments, Peter. I think I should clarify that by scarcity, I am specifically referring to publishers or distributors creating artificial “supply/demand” circumstances with products that are literally made up of a redistributable zip file or collection of files, thus easily distributed to hundreds, thousands, millions of users without problem. It’s essentially the idea of recreating the physical distro model with digital products.

    What you mention above would, in my mind, be much more related to “curation” (ugh, sorry for the buzzword) which is really a question of UX. There is nothing wrong with a curated selection of products which reflects your company’s values and tastes. Or even better, which reflects the values and tastes of your customers. This, to me, is not scarcity, but part of the larger UX offering that each company should have to make decisions about.

  3. Peter Turner says:

    Got it. I think I was wanting to bend the conversation (sorry) a bit in the direction of what we want out of digital content, which is a UX dynamic I guess. I think we want big box and boutique all at once. If there is an opportunity for publishers, we know which way to go. Opposite Amazon.

  4. Nicole Valentine says:

    Excellent post, Brett. I agree with you, artificial scarcity doesn’t work in digital. It never has (many historical software examples).

    I realize this is taking this off on a tangent (inspired by Peter’s intelligent comments), but I’d love your take on the big publishing houses and UX. The current model is many houses don’t want a “brand.” They promote titles and authors, but ask for the house logo to not exist in the ad. How does a user, in this case the reader, know where to identify quality in a flooded marketplace?

  5. Brett says:

    Nicole, thanks so much for the comment.

    I have a few ideas about this very topic that I’ve been working on. Seems like a good time for an additional post soon. But, definitely something I’ve been meaning to take on. :)

  6. bowerbird says:

    brett said:
    > On a completely philosophical level,
    > let’s start here:
    > scarcity and digital do not go together.
    > Now, let’s add this:
    > Everything is or will be
    > available online
    > whether you want it to be or not.

    my word.

    i’ve been waiting about 20 years now
    for people to start recognizing that,
    saying it out loud, and practicing it.

    when your variable cost approaches zero,
    the best strategy is to move those units,
    as many as possible, and far and wide…

    i hope you can get the ball rolling…


    p.s. although i do not necessarily agree
    that we should “out” absolutely everything.
    to the extent that individual human beings
    do not want something exposed to the world
    – something personal and private to them,
    with no real impact on society at large –
    we should probably respect their desires…
    but i take it that you’d say that that is
    not what you’re talking about in this post.

  7. Kathy Meis says:

    So sorry to be late to the conversation. As Brett mentioned, Bublish is very close to going live. I have been in meetings all day. This is a fascinating and important conversation. I’m going to steer it in yet another direction. Last night’s conversation began with a question about why more publishers don’t sell directly to readers. It is from that point of view that we launched into the challenges publishers would face with the UX experience. It is also from that perspective that I made my comment about limited selection being turned into an asset. My intent was not to encourage scarcity or exclusivity, but rather the opportunity for publishers to create a very different user experience, one that could differentiate them other retailers. You could still find publishers’ books everywhere, but if they were purchased directly from the publisher, the reader would be rewarded with a rich, social user experience created around that publisher’s unique relationship with the content, authors, artists and editors who created the books being sold there. What amazes me is that publishers don’t capitalize more on these relationships to the benefit of all, including the author and reader. It’s the publisher’s secret weapon, yet they don’t even seem to recognize this. I understand that efforts to build community around these relationships just wasn’t as important in the good old days. Now, however, it is crucial. And for those publishers who do take the plunge and start to sell direct, it’s what could distinguish them from other retailers. To Peter’s point, the gatekeepers could be recast as valued curators. Peter and I have spoken about this before. I call it The Whole Foods model. In a nutshell, a new way of valuing books much like Whole Foods did with food when it shifted the discussion from price to quality and disrupted an entirely different industry. (I will be blogging about this soon.) What holds publishers back in this regard? I think it’s what Nicole mentions — publishers don’t think of themselves as brands. That is a mistake in the Age of Content Abundance. Great editorial brands are built on informed curation as well as editorial and design excellence. I would argue that right now, access to the writers, editors and designers who are the strength of today’s publishing “brands” is exclusive. Open up, let readers in, let them see what it takes to take a truly great book from manuscript to retailer. I suppose what I am arguing is the opposite of exclusivity and scarcity. It’s about creating an informed and supportive community around quality. It’s the Whole Foods model. (And just to make clear, I think there are plenty of quality self-published books. You just have to sort through a huge mish-mash of uncurated content to find them.) Sorry for the rant. I hope, at least I added some value to an excellent conversation. Thanks Brett for getting us all thinking more deeply about these important subjects.

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