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Is Live Performace the Future of Print?

Chris Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, is a case study in the chaotic state of the media business. The book argues that...


Chris Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, is a case study in the chaotic state of the media business. The book argues that the cost of what we now call "content" (i.e. words, images, video, and the like) will necessarily approach zero and that businesses can't charge for it, they can only hope to make money around that free content somehow.The book Free costs $26.99, but, as the Virginia Quarterly Review has documented, Anderson lifted several passages of the book from Wikipedia (for free). In a recent New Yorker review, Malcolm Gladwell attacks Anderson's argument that free content will be the standard. Chris Anderson noted an irony on Twitter: "Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker review of Free now out. You can read it for free; I guess he wouldn't approve." Of course, you still need to pay for a print copy of the New Yorker.It's complicated, and there's little consensus how-or whether-the media business will find its footing. In a Guardian piece today (in their "Comment is free" section), Adrian Monck makes the point that, while these two journalists argue about whether money can be made from media, both are pulling in huge sums from live speeches:Anderson makes-reportedly-a couple of million dollars a year in speaking fees. Gladwell has re-invented the book promotional tour as a paid-for event. A ticket to see Malcolm Gladwell Live! costs more than the book that the show notionally promotes.So if the Anderson/Gladwell debate has a future, it's one in which you'll pay for ringside tickets to see them engaging in the intellectual equivalent of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation or, to be kinder, heavyweight boxing.This has already happened in the music business. MP3s are easy to distribute and hard to charge for. A live experience with Radiohead is the opposite on both counts. That's why recorded music has become a promotional tool to sell concert tickets.Might the journalists and writers of the next decade give their "content" away and pay their bills with speaking tours? Only those with a fan base, perhaps. But Anderson, Gladwell, and hundreds of other authors and "public intellectuals" certainly do have fans. Speakers in their class get $10,000 to $50,000 per appearance. And an event like TED can pay them lavishly, charge $6,000 per ticket, and still make a profit. Anderson himself has invested in a start-up, BookTour.com, designed to collect and distribute book tour information. Even a first-time author with a comparatively low profile can make money on tour by starting to appear on panels with bigger names (sort of like an opening act).This "live events" model might not help the publishers of media much, but it could be a saving grace for the writers themselves, and perhaps even provide us all with new, high-quality public debates. And, as Monck points out, the Gladwell-versus-Anderson clash of the titans will only make them both more valuable on the speaker circuit.
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