We don't pay for "content," we pay for "form"

In Paul Graham's provocative "Post-Medium Publishing," he argues that we've rarely paid for "content," but rather for "form" -- that's why a good hardcover costs the same as a bad one, and both are more expensive than paperbacks. As the newspaper and CD forms lose currency, their publishers argue that what we've been buying all along is the "content" and demand that we "continue" to pay for it online.
What about iTunes? Doesn't that show people will pay for content? Well, not really. iTunes is more of a tollbooth than a store. Apple controls the default path onto the iPod. They offer a convenient list of songs, and whenever you choose one they ding your credit card for a small amount, just below the threshold of attention. Basically, iTunes makes money by taxing people, not selling them stuff. You can only do that if you own the channel, and even then you don't make much from it, because a toll has to be ignorable to work. Once a toll becomes painful, people start to find ways around it, and that's pretty easy with digital content.
I think he goes off the rails in the next graf, where he talks about how writers can self-publish merely by uploading files; this commits the same error that he's upset about: confusing "publishing" and "printing."

I also wonder if St McLuhan might not object here, with something about the form being the content.

Post-Medium Publishing (via /.)


  1. Form = content only so long as content and form remain unified in the minds of the consumer. For a long time, books were expensive, precious objects, and owning one, regardless of what the book was, was a goal. You had a *book*. Then books became cheaper, and the advent of cheap paperbacks meant books were no longer judged by their value as objects. Advent of digital technology has furthered this. Consider that ebooks were, up ’til recently, not considered such a big deal until the advent of viable readers like the kindle.

    In this sense, Graham is exactly right. The solution to ‘save’ publishing (and writing, for that matter) is to produce works that are essentially and purposfully tied to their form, whatever that may be.

    A writer who designs a book that is only fully experienced as a thick wad of dead trees will sell more wads of dead trees, and not so many ebooks. A writer who, in whatever way, takes advantage of some unique characteristic of reading or viewing on a screen, or on an ereader, will sell more of those.

    Ditto for 3D movies. Right now, they’re a gimmick, because few, if any, directors know how to really use 3D to enhance their presentation. They are still many technical hurdles to clear, and a whole new ‘language’ to learn, just as the language of cinematography and editting were developed in the early days of cinema.

  2. In iTunes you pay even for nothing. iTunes, Amazon and many music stores sell John Cage’s 4’33 (an empty mp3) for $0,99/track or $1,49-$2,97/album. You must notice that 4’33 isn’t a record theme, but a performance theme that needs the public collaboration to be ‘created’.

  3. @2 exactly my point. Buying any ‘copy’ of 4’33 is.. well.. silly. It’s a piece of art where the content is intimately tied to the form. People wanting to experience it have to attend, and presumably pay for, a performance.

    If publishers and authors want to sell books, they should create works that are most properly experienced *as books*. Authors from J.G. Ballard to makers of pop-up books for 5 year olds have realized this.

  4. It’s true as far as it goes. Seems to me that we’re putting the cart before the horse, though.

    There’s a big difference between saying that *publishers* *price* books according to form, and saying that we’re happy to buy them on the same basis. We don’t have a lot of choice.

    Also, in that specific case of books, I’m trying to see how it would work differently. A ‘good’ book is not like a ‘good’ car, for instance — there aren’t really any objective standards to judge a novel by. (Spelling, punctuation and grammar? Oh goody, I get to buy poetry at a discount.)

    So “buy this really good book, look how expensive it is” doesn’t really work. And the “these books are a bit crap” bookclub is even less likely…

  5. He’s right about the difficulty of convincing people to pay for content (and especially newspaper or book content, which for most people is consumed once and then thrown away).

    But one of his opening supporting paragraphs is also wildly wrong.

    “Economically, the print media are in the business of marking up paper. We can all imagine an old-style editor getting a scoop and saying “this will sell a lot of papers!” Cross out that final S and you’re describing their business model. The reason they make less money now is that people don’t need as much paper.”

    This isn’t true at all. Depending on the newspaper, they make anything from a very small profit to a small loss on the cost of the subscription or single-copy sale vs. the cost of printing and delivery. I can’t speak for book publishers, but newspapers are in the business of delivering readers to advertising. The reason they are making less money now is that advertising has plummeted.

    Of course, the uncomfortable truth for us reporters is that when you strip away the comics and the obits and the classifieds, we find out that as a standalone product few people value what we do. That’s a pretty harsh reality to face, but you can’t blame us for at least trying to get people to pay for it.

  6. “The reason they are making less money now is that advertising has plummeted.”

    Well, yes – but for 2 reasons
    1 – because there is less being spent on advertising overall
    2 – even if 1 were not true, newspapers would still be making less money BECAUSE FEWER PEOPLE READ THEM. Audience is what delivers advertising revenue.

    The form is changing but the content is key.

    To go back to the basic argument of “we’ve rarely paid for ‘content,’ but rather for ‘form’ — that’s why a good hardcover costs the same as a bad one” – well that’s just tosh.

    We paid for the words AND the form. That’s why the good one sells more copies than the bad one – the content not the form. There may be a choice of form as well, sometimes; however, there is often NO CHOICE of form (e.g. hardback only), so we must have been paying for the content, surely.

  7. That’s a bit like saying “you’re not paying to go over the bridge, you’re paying to get through the tollbooth.” One is a means to the other. You don’t buy books of gibberish, and you don’t set out to buy a hardcover, you set out to buy a particular book (i.e. a particular set of content) whatever form that might take. Or you browse, and choose based on content.

    That said, it is true that books have plummeted in price from, say, pre-printing press times, because the price of manufacture has plummeted. However, for new books, that price has already gone almost as low as it can go. When you’re buying a newly released hardcover book, only a very small percentage of the price pays for the actual physical printing. If it cost nothing, the price of the book wouldn’t go down very much, which is exactly why ebooks still cost what they do, despite being almost free to duplicate.

    In fact, the cost of the “form” is not even the point. The point is that anyone with a computer can duplicate that form. To continue the tollbooth/bridge analogy, it’s as if the actual tollbooth was getting cheaper and cheaper to manufacture and easier and easier to get around, but the bridge still had to be maintained. Eventually nobody bothers paying, the bridge collapses, and we’re all stuck on our respective sides of the river. That’s the narrative the publishers are predicting, and they’re panicked about it. Time will tell if the bridge can be maintained by donation, volunteer labor, etc.

  8. Advertising has changed, yes. And it has nothing to do with numbers, as comment #6 indicates–it has to do with effectiveness–target markets, specialization, transcendence of geography. For many products, online advertising produced more cost effective results.

    But to consider the basic argument, paper is only a delivery mechanism. “Good” and “Bad” content are determined by the beholder, of course, but the way the content is distributed is an entirely different argument. Consumers to pay for delivery, whether it’s grabbing a newspaper as I enter the subway or synching my iPod before I leave home–I select my method for the convenience, because the content is everywhere.

  9. If I buy the argument of the publishing industry (broadly speaking, including print, music, etc) that we pay for content rather than form then logic would follow that I would only have to ever pay once for the content, no matter what form. So, having acquired The Beatles’ White Album on vinyl, I have the rights to the content. I should have been provided with free upgrades to 8-track, cassette, CD and iTunes/mp3, no?

  10. Graham’s mistake is assuming that this is an either/or proposition. In fact, we pay for both form and content when we purchase a creative work. Obviously we typically want the most convenient and useful form possible for things like music and literature, but all content must have some sort of form. As an earlier commenter noted, we don’t pay for books full of empty pages (unless they’re journals). We pay for the words and (hopefully) meaning on those pages.

    Graham is also wrong about iTunes, for several reasons:

    1) The cost of music ($.99) is not a toll. It is a reasonable price for a song. If I buy a whole album from iTunes for $9.99 (which I have often done), is this still just a toll?

    2) There are many ways to get content on your iPod. I actually rarely purchase songs from iTunes anymore. Before iTunes began taking steps to eliminate DRM, I started using other DRM-free sources. Now I typically purchase music from the Amazon music store, or directly from the artist’s website.

    3) The iPod is not the only music player. There are many. And people listen to their music on multiple devices. Sometimes days go by when I don’t listen to music on my iPod, but I do listen to it on my computer while I work.

    And finally, Graham is wrong about the cost of hardcovers. Publishers may initially try to price all hardcovers the same, but anyone who’s ever stepped into a Borders or Barnes & Noble knows that crappy hardcovers (and often even not so crappy ones) are on sale for about $5.00. Right there in the entryway, before you even walk through the anti-theft sensors. As if they don’t value the books at all and are daring you to steal them.

  11. Personally, it’s hardcovers all the way. It ain’t a book without a slip cover.

    Though someone from a large yogurt company once told me, “We don’t sell yogurt, the yogurt is free.”

  12. I agree with moriarity: Don’t confuse the most effective places for tollbooths with what you’re paying for. You’re paying for the destination, not the journey. Nobody builds toll piers, so that you can drive on them, turn around and drive back. The fact that Philadelphia may not we as tollworthy as NYC doesn’t change the fact that most people pay to visit the city nor ride over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Certainly the tolls to get into NYC don’t differentiate between pretty bridges and ugly ones.

  13. Graham has forgotten the third ingredient.

    We don’t pay just for form (except for, eg, stupid rich people who buy books by the yard and specify they all have to be green to match the decor). Nor do we pay only for content when we pay to download something from Itunes instead of grabbing it off a bittorrent site.

    We also pay for something that doesn’t really have a label, but is the thing that distinguishes a POD copy of Alice in Wonderland robo-scraped off Project Gutenberg from a copy put out by a real publisher with typesetters and proofreaders on staff. It’s the thing that distinguishes a poorly labelled, overcompressed torrent of a TV show where the third episode appears twice, the fourth episode is missing, and the credits are not included, from a properly identified, full-res and uncut copy available for a fee from Itunes.

    In short, in addition to form and content, we pay for publishing – a combination of convenience, professional presentation, and genuineness that has a small but significant value. It’s the thing that publishers and media companies are forgetting about when they complain that they “can’t compete with free.”

    Having taught people to disregard form in order to maximize their profits, and having taught themselves to hold quality of content in contempt to maximize their profits, the media companies are faced with the problem that people don’t value the benefits of publishing itself enough to maintain their profit margins at the levels to which they have become accustomed.

  14. ‘I think he goes off the rails in the next graf, where he talks about how writers can self-publish merely by uploading files; this commits the same error that he’s upset about: confusing
    “publishing” and “printing.” ‘

    Where’s the confusion?

    If I upload a file to the web, it’s published. If somebody wants to print it, they can. If I upload to lulu.com, anyone can order it in printed book form.

    Where is he confused?

    Your remark has me confused.

  15. “2 – even if 1 were not true, newspapers would still be making less money BECAUSE FEWER PEOPLE READ THEM. Audience is what delivers advertising revenue.”

    Yes and no.

    Newspaper circulation is plummetting.

    Newspaper content is being read by more people than ever before, and the number is constantly growing.

    The difference is that advertisers won’t pay the same as they used to for those eyes.

  16. Regardless of what we pay for, the reason (inciting incident) for a purchase is content. But I must admit that a CD seems more valuable than a download. I don’t feel the middleman should make nearly as much money on a download, and wish I could just pay the artist directly. (And do when I can.)

  17. I think he’s exactly right, but it seems he doesn’t quite realize WHY he’s exactly right.

    Let’s say you have a hardcover, and the hardcover is $20. You pay $20 because that’s what a book costs. All good. Books are $20. There’s some fraction of that that goes to the printing, and the rest is obviously to pay for the words on the pages. Seems fair.

    Now a new invention comes out called the paperback. The same book is now $7. Okay. $7 is even better than $20! That means that the percentage of the production price of the hardcover was actually bigger than we assumed… it had to be well over $13! The actual value of the words on the page must be some fraction of $7, and based on previous experience, it could even be as little as half of the cover price. Well, good to know.

    Now we have e-books. E-Books have no physical framing whatsoever. They come downloaded to your laptop or Kindle, which means the publishers aren’t shelling out ANYTHING up front, which means their value is something in the range of the actual words on the page. Something like $2. It seems fair. That’s what a book is worth.

    Now the publishers ask for $20 for that e-book, or $9.99, and no matter how you look at it, you’re paying a MASSIVE premium over what you KNOW the book is worth. Not ASSUME, but KNOW. How do you know? Years of experience buying “stuff”, where the content-producing industries very carefully taught you how to expect price based on the content wrapper. It was how they increased margins at different stages of a product’s life, and I bet they never expected it would come back to bite them.

    I think most people have an appreciation of this dynamic, but they don’t appreciate it in the order it happened. Content has great value (probably more than anyone is willing to pay), but the producers have trained the marketplace to see it otherwise. This article is perfectly reasoned, assuming the producers’ case is true. Assuming basic content has no value, and the illusion has finally been broken by non-physical formats. The assumption is wrong, but the producers have worked hard for many decades to make it SEEM right.

    Interestingly, I realize that all the “freemium” models that give away digital versions while charging for more elaborate packaging… those are all buying into this confusion, too. As with Cory’s new experiment, if you’re paying more for an exquisitely-packaged version of a book, are you paying for the words, or the exquisite packaging? You see? The best we can manage any more is to repeat the same actions that got us here in the first place. Content has virtually no value: if you pay more, it will either be for a physical embellishment, or corporate profit. So says history.

  18. I have to disagree with lectroid and raster in regards to Cage’s 4’33. Perhaps downloading a video (or even a “performance”with a still shot of the pianist)might be more pertinent, but you the listener are still bringing many of the same elements to the experience. This is just the same distinction that can be made about the difference between any recording and a live performance. I think that Cage would have been the first to point out the performative and aural aspects of this approach to his piece, had he lived to see the day. As a brash young man in 1966 I asked him about the piece. What he told me then, in terms of what you “hear,”is just as applicable. Is your chair squeaking? Is your laptop/desktop fan ramping up? Are you clicking away at the keyboard posting a WTF to boingboing? Fill in your own environment.

  19. C’mon now.

    All wrong, Graham. We don’t pay for form or, in a generic sense, ‘content.’ We pay for effort.

    Among, say, newspaper or newspaper-like publications that means paying for labor. It’s hard work to authoritatively go chasing down bad government and financial meltdowns and medical development, et cetera forever.

    Among other sorts of publications you may be paying for talent. Jon Anderson isn’t going to write his fantastic New Yorker stories for free.

    To say nothing of, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Philip Roth; much less the financial requirements of that great genius and poet of our time: Dan Brown.

  20. Here’s a radical thought. If we’re paying for CONTENT rather than FORM, publishers should pass along the cost savings resulting from print to digital form. Assuming a hardcover book costs $20 in the store, the vast majority of that cost is comprised of the printing and delivery costs associated with the tangible book. Authors see very little of the $20 cover price of a book, thereby attesting to the value publishers assign to the content. The same argument could be made for music released on CD, movies on DVD, newspapers and magazines, etc…


    You’re mostly right. And maybe that really is what the publishers have trained us to think. But the truth is, hardback buyers are just like early adopters. They pay a little more to get the product a little earlier. Maybe the production costs go down a bit going from hardback to paperback, maybe not. What’s really happened is that the publisher runs the numbers and decides that they’ll make more money by producing a paperback at a fraction of the original price.

    There’s an old saying in the content world: making the first copy costs thousands and thousands of dollars, while each copy thereafter is a fraction of the price. Of course, if the producer tried to sell each copy at the cost to make it (plus a small overhead) they’d never sell that first copy.

  22. MrAndrews has just explained the issue more eloquently than has ever been stated. You win my appreciation! That post should be on the frontpage and read to every content producer around.

  23. McLuhan would actually probably agree. He would just say we are paying for the medium, which contains the message, right? We place value on things because of their medium. The message we get for free.

  24. As a person who is both a published writer (in print and electronically) and professional publisher (e-book pioneer since 1996), I find the post, and many of the comments, troubling although enlightening–thanks.

    I find it astounding that, despite the fact that most people have been using books and other media from early childhood and attending schools all along the way, knowledge and perceptions of the business of writing and publishing are so deficient. I count it as a huge failure of not just public schooling but colleges as well. I have personally heard professors criticize book prices although they obviously know nothing about the skills or economics involved.

    What you’re buying, unless you looking for a collector’s item or impressive shelf decoration (some people do that)is mostly content. Only an idiot would pay $30 for a book of, in the extreme, blank pages. Stephen King isn’t a best-selling author because people like the solid binding and colorful dustjacket.

    Regarding digital publishing here’s a newsflash: There is only a cost saving for hacks and hobbyists, not for the publisher-for-profit of high-quality content. The costs are just different and actually much higher at the end of the day. The cost of keeping abreast of technological change and related marketing obstacles alone is enormous.

    McLuhan was right when he said: The medium is the message. But “medium” isn’t synonymous with “value.” Which is more valuable: a pearl or an oyster shell? Professional writers and publishers are not in the oyster shell business. Take away the ability to protect intellectual property and to profit from its sale and eventually you’re down to reading aunt Susie’s autobiography in hardcover with the title engraved in gold leaf.

    1. Only an idiot would pay $30 for a book of, in the extreme, blank pages.

      Dear diary,

      You won’t believe the silly thing that I read online today.

  25. Interesting discussion, but I have a slight quibble with the perception of cost for paper books vs. ebooks. It’s true that the cost of actually printing a paper book is only a small part of the total cost of producing a book, but eBooks aren’t “free” to produce just because you don’t have to buy paper. You don’t have to pay a printing press, but you have to pay to maintain a website, file servers, etc. And at this point, eBooks actually need additional typesetting beyond the paper books. The files you prepare to print a paper book have everything on each page set, whereas an eBook has to have a different format (or lack thereof) to allow them to “flow” on an eReader, on which the size of the font and screen can vary, not to mention the issue of making them PDFs vs. ePub vs. Kindle format vs. whatever.

    If someone were to complain about the redundancy and waste of this, I’d agree, but that’s where we’re at right now.

    I generally only work with paper books in my job, so I don’t know much about the costs of eBooks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually cost a little more to produce an eBook than a paper book.

  26. @26: I completely agree with your notion that the value is in the content, but you’re taking an overly-reasonable view of things…

    “Only an idiot would pay $30 for a book of, in the extreme, blank pages. Stephen King isn’t a best-selling author because people like the solid binding and colorful dustjacket.”

    True, but people can’t think they’re paying $30 for the words on the page when the same book will come out a year later for a third of the price as a paperback. It makes no logical sense. Does the content become less valuable over time? How does that work?

    Like it or not, the industry has carefully trained consumers to value the size of the oyster shell over the pearl. The pearl is a given. The shell tells you what it’s worth.

    It makes no sense, and what’s worse, I’m pretty sure we’re stuck with it.

  27. I have very little knowledge on the subject matter, though I’d still like to share my view on all of this.

    When an author sits down to write a book, he spends a lot of time not earning any money to live. He should be compensated for this time and risk he takes.

    On the other hand, an author wants the ideas he wrote to be read, and the reader wants to read them. But he has to stop readers from reading as best as he can, in order to be paid for his time.

    Before the information age, he could be payed in a very natural way, by setting the price on a physical object that contained the written ideas. Nowadays, he has to artificially restrain readers from reading.

    I think that this is a paradox. Therefore, IMHO we should find a way that’d allow us to pay an author only for his time, and not for his ideas. It’d be a win win situation for both the author and the reader, since both the author and the readers want the ideas to be read.

    I don’t think the content/container issue is an issue anymore, if it ever was one.

  28. How much would you pay for content itself(not for form) per page/minute?

    Do both good content and bad content have to be sold at the same price?

  29. Interesting point, but I disagree based on two principles:

    1) “If people really pay more for better content, why hasn’t anyone sold it to them already?” They have. It’s called HBO, Showtime, etc..

    when it comes to media of taste, like music, books, etc… what one person considers great, someone else will consider trash. (I’m looking at you Da Vinci Code) So that, in effect, creates a great equalizer

    2) Most often, people make a purchase based off of the EXPECTATION of quality, rather than the assurance of quality. By this I mean that you look at a book, scan the flap or back cover, and if it seems like a safe gamble, you’ll pick it up. Same with music.

  30. MRANDREWS has really nailed the big mistaken idea that publishers have created for book purchasers (as made obvious by commenter Jay Gatsby).

    Let’s be frank here about costs. A hardcover book costs just a small amount more to print than does a paperback. Of a book’s cover price, around 10-20% covers the cost of paper, printing, binding, shipping and other aspects of the physical object.

    So if, as Gatsby asks, we eliminate costs of the physical object for an e-book, then the e-book costs around 20% less than the hardcover. Is that acceptable to you?

    The reason you can buy a book in paperback for less than the hardcover is based on the business model of the publisher more than the costs of production. They’ve calculated how many copies of the hardcover they think they can sell at the higher list price. Once they feel they’ve exhausted that part of the market, they go through a massive price cut by releasing the paperback (which doesn’t cost that much less to print) and pick up the rest of the market, those who wouldn’t buy at the higher price. They can now afford to sell it for less because they’ve already made back enough to cover their costs and whatever they consider an acceptable amount of profit.

    But you’re right in that publishers have created this idea that hardcovers are particularly expensive to create. That’s helped them to charge higher prices but is now hurting as the e-book market emerges and people are demanding things be sold at prices too low to cover the costs of production. e-books that cost 80% as much to produce but can only be sold for 30% as much are problematic to the industry.

  31. I buy a lot of media: books, CDs, DVDs, etc.

    I have several thousand books, CDs, DVDs, etc.

    I could walk to the Public Library, minutes away and borrow enough stuff to keep me busy forever. My own library could keep me busy for life, even if I were a gentleman of leisure.

    Yet I am buying more.

    Why? What am I paying for?

    Convenience is sometimes a consideration. It might be easier to buy a cheap paperback than find the copy I have.

    Time is a consideration: all things come to he who waits.

    But why do I keep buying hardcover books when the paperback is inevitable?

    Why do I pay full price for this stuff when eventually, most of it will turn up?

    Partly because I fear the small percentage that will never turn up.

    What am I paying for? Time. Neither content nor form, as it turns out. The infernal publishers know that their clients are more or less willing to wait, more or less determined to get this or that particular item. They make you pay as much as they can.

    Of course, if I didn’t buy the hardcover, you might never get to buy the softcover.

    Early adopters and the luxurious subsidize the rest of us. When they publish a paperback, they’re just eeking out the last few cents of an orange they have already squeezed or else making the real money on a hardcover they lost a fortune on.

    It’s hard to tell which unless you’re in the industry.

    Basically, I could get almost anything free in time. But can I take the chance? And is it worth it? If I have to wait 10 years for the price of that movie to drop from $29.95 or $69.95 in the deluxe boxed set to $6.99 in every store in town, I have lost 10 years.

    Time is money. But how much money?

  32. Let’s be frank here about costs. … around 10-20% covers the cost of paper, printing, binding, shipping and other aspects of the physical object.

    Is there also a factor 2x for the retail outlet and a factor 2x since half the books printed are pulped.

    It seems like saying 10-20% of the cost of creating a particular book object is printing etc. means moving to e could bring production cost down by 20-40% (excluding the cost of the pulping). Moving to e also changes the justification for the retail 2x to some kind of 10-15% commission.

    Using the cost of production quoted a p book that costs $20 should cost $7-$9 in e without hurting the author or publisher.

  33. Just a note to remind people that when CDs were a fairly new format, they charged MORE for them than they did for Cassette tapes, even though the cost LESS to produce. Cost of production affects the potential SUPPLY, but really only has a great effect on price when DEMAND is low.

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