The Archives of the International Informatics Institute


> Article Index









To get IN3 updates, enter your email:

New Media Is Cheap As Dirt

By Jack Powers

Published: July 15, 1996 | Revised: February 9, 2002

Not long ago, an old retired printer pushed me to name the most important commercial advantage of new media. The visionary in me started to barber on about paradigm shifts, participative texts and global communities, but old Mal was dissatisfied. He didn’t want the big picture, he was after the practical reality. “What’s the big attraction?” he demanded. “Why are all these people interested in new media?” Finally I gave in: “It’s a publishing format that’s cheap as dirt."

Yes it’s also faster, it’s interactive, it’s customized and it’s searchable. But more than anything else, it’s cheap as dirt. It costs less than a buck to press a CD-ROM and just pennies to publish a page on the World Wide Web. Xerox has proved that laser printers can be cheaper per black-and-white impression than offset presses, and Indigo and Chromapress are close to doing the same thing for color.

New media challenges the economic assumptions of the graphic communications business. It’s a world without economies of scale, a world with very few really big pieces of capital equipment, a world where the creator is closer to the reader than ever before.


CD-ROMs have come along way in the last ten years. The early geek-designed multimedia disks were flashy, badly written and poorly edited “coffee table” publications that were sold in computer stores for $50 and up. When was the last time you bought a book for $50? And who shops for coffee table subjects in the software stacks of a computer store?

Early CD-ROMs cost too much because the equipment to make them was expensive. As the technology has matured, prices have come down dramatically. Custom-configured gigabyte authoring PCs and the software to create disks used to cost $20,000 and up; now they’re available at CompUSA for $3,000 or so. CD-R desktop disk recording machines are down below $800, and high volume CD pressing facilities charge less than 70 cents per CD in quantities as low as 500. (Disk packaging—the plastic jewel case, the four-color cover art, and the cardboard mailer—often costs more than the disk itself.)

Disk pricing, marketing and distribution ideas have come down to earth, as well. Just like print, CD-ROM publications cover a wide spectrum of applications: the $50 coffee table disk, the $17 newsstand magazine, the $5 software sampler and the free catalog and brochure. Because the cost-per-page is so low, publishers can set prices for their products based on the content, not on the manufacturing costs.
This is bad news for printers, among others. A book printer told me at a conference recently that he’d be producing CD-ROMs instead of paper books inside of five years. He didn’t realize how stupid that sounds. He’ll go from charging $20 or more for a six volume encyclopedia set to just 70 cents for the same content on disk, and he’ll lose all the film recording, stripping and platemaking income as well. CD-ROMs destroy the manufacturing profits of graphic arts suppliers.


Publishing over the Internet is even cheaper. Most World Wide Web servers are souped up PCs and Macintoshes, and commercial web hosting fees start at around $50 per month. AT&T sells unlimited web access to users for $22 per month, and every $10-per-month America Online subscriber gets 120 megabytes of web home page space for free. (At IN3.ORG we pay just $100 each month to serve up to 500 megabytes of content to more than 6,000 readers in 38 countries.)

Cheap always sells, and a good part of the reason so many people have started publishing via the web is that it doesn’t cost anything to try. Four or five hundred companies a week are establishing a web presence and every art director in the world is learning to make HTML pages on the Mac. There’s even a company that sells web sites to firms without web access. Just fill out the templates by hand and they’ll code and host your pages and fax you the email business that your site draws.

In the U.S., most companies have Web sites, and for most of them, their web hosting costs—the electronic analog of printing, paper and delivery costs—are insignificant, less than what they spend each month on lighting, gas for the delivery vans or cleaning services.


Of course, all those pages still have to be written, illustrated, designed and prepared for distribution, so new media can be a real bonanza for people who create copy and art. The costs of design, though, are harder to hide: it’s easy to overlook an extra grand in art charges when the printing bill is $20,000; it’s harder to explain when the manufacturing charges drop to nothing.

As a rule of thumb, I generally figure that preparing a page for interactive media costs about 30% more than preparing the same page for print—the tools are new, everybody’s still learning and there’s that nasty HTML code to work within. But having spent an extra 30% on design and composition, there’s no repro costs, no prepress or proofing fees, no paper, ink, printing and binding charge, and no postage or delivery bills—just a couple of hundred bucks for the web server.

No wonder prep shops are exploring new technologies. No wonder film manufacturers are reorganizing. No wonder printers are consolidating. They’re up against a powerful force, an exciting new competitor that’s cheap as dirt.\\


"New Media" at Amazon



Creative Commons License
 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.