Thursday, May 21, 2009

'Net publishing gets Scribd

If it's made it to the pages of "that august newspaper of record", the New York Times, it's a clear sign of having gone -- or being on the cusp of going -- mainstream. Scribd, the YouTube of documents such as text and powerpoint presentations, is now introducing a scheme whereby you can charge people for downloading your literary outpourings. Document uploaders can set their price and Scribd will let them keep 80% of their earnings. As a percentage, this is far better than the 15% or less that dead-tree publishers provide to their authors -- although they are likely to be able to set a higher price, have better production quality and command a larger reading/buying audience through the strength the distribution channels (plus many more benefits).

This new service is unlikely to influence the way mainstream authors publish. But it is an example of -- to use the term that has begun to grate on my ears -- a disruptive innovation. Oh, man, will we ever be able to move on to entirely new buzzword for new wine in old bottles? But I will grudgingly admit that Scribding, if I may coin a new term for publishing one's work through Scribd, will create an entirely new niche for people who might otherwise have never dreamed of going through the publishing process. Scribding is simple -- create a document (or find one sitting among the numerous folders in your hard drive), upload it, set your price and sit back and enjoy the sound of ringing cash registers. As if.

As with all other social phenomena, the popularity Scribded workd will likely follow a power law pattern: there will be a relatively few documents that become wildly popular and generate significant earnings for their authors. The vast majority of documents will settle down in the long tail to the right of the popularity curve: a small but loyal audience.

Scribding will provide an alternative outlet for publishing that will, over time, challenge the dominance of mainstream dead-tree publishing, at least at the low end, and perhaps for specialized documents, in much the way the PC challenged the mini- and mainframe computers and flash memory drives are going up against hard drives.

Scribding may also become the way to go for magazine publishers whose products have a relatively short shelf-life. Most magazines are read, often even merely skimmed, and then discarded, thereby choking up landfills and adding to the growing litter of modern urban living. Scribding magazines not only significantly reduces the cost of production but also eliminates the solid waste generated. Further, it reduces the demand for paper, eliminates the often toxin-laden processes used in its production and saves vast swathes of forests from passing into the hereafter.

There is nothing new about either online publishing or even the distribution of mainstream magazines electronically. These have been around for over a decade. But nobody has thus far been able to build a business model that handles ease of use and distribution and payment for publishers. It's too early to tell if Scribd will succeed, but their model looks promising.

The New York Times article focuses far too much on the use of Scribd mainstream publishers. There is no suggestion at all that Scribd could be a, well, disruptive innovation. It talks about how Scribd competes with Amazon's e-publishing offering via its Kindle e-book reader, and how Scribd scores by using non-proprietary formats.

NYT is off-base. Wouldn't be the first time mainstream sources find themselves in this situation.

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