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The Content Cliché

By Jack Powers
Published: October 15, 1995

I collect media technology clichés:

  • "We’re not in the publishing business, we’re in the information business."

  • "We’re a high quality operation, we can’t use desktop publishing."

  • "Nobody’s figured out a way to make money on the Internet."

  • And "You can’t take a CD-ROM to the beach."

Worst of all, though, is the Content Cliché:

  • "We’re sitting on a gold mine. All we have to do is re-format our content, re-package our content, re-purpose our content, and dump it all out on disk and on-line."

In the first place, purpose is not a verb, and re-purpose is even less of a verb. More important, successful publishing is a lot more than just content, a lot more than merely the words and pictures that make up a magazine, book, brochure or report.

Most commercial and corporate publishers don’t even create content in-house. They buy book manuscripts from outside authors, magazine articles from freelance writers, and images and illustrations from independent artists and photographers. It’s only when the content comes though door of the publishing house that publishing happens. Look at the employee roster of most publishing operations and you’ll find a minority of people generating content; all the rest are doing publishing.

Somebody has to copyedit the content, design it into a package, organize the illustrations and pick the fonts and colors. (Somebody else originally had to decide what content to generate in the first place.) Somebody has to define the audience for the package, pick a price and develop an advertising and marketing program that fits the audience. Somebody else has to sell the package, calling on distributors, booksellers and prospective customers. A whole department has to ship and distribute the work, and another department has to handle credit and collections. If all of these things go right (and by the way of the content is good), the publication is successful.

We all know of work with terrific content that never found an audience because these publishing issues were not handled well, and we see too many books and magazines with mediocre content that succeed —for a while —because they have great marketing, sales and distribution behind them.

It’s not enough to regurgitate your content into new media formats. You have to re-publish the work into appropriate new forms that customers will want and that they will pay for. Magazine companies particularly fall prey to the Content Cliché. Many magazines are run by former ad sales superstars who get promoted to the publisher’s office, and they can’t resist thinking strategically, God love ’em. They never seem to ask themselves if anybody actually wants to buy their ten year old magazine articles compiled and cross-indexed on CD-ROM. They just know that all that content is going to waste and needs to be re- purposed. (We’re assuming for the sake of argument here that the ad sales superstars actually read the magazines they pitch.)


My favorite example of the difference between content and publishing is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on disk, a two-floppy set published by the Voyager Company, a hot multimedia developer here in New York. I purchased my copy of Moby Dick off the accessories shelf at J&R ComputerWorld, a retail outlet that also sells vcrs and cameras downtown. On the same shelf were those fuzzy little mouse houses that secretaries like, some decorative mouse pads and the alcohol that you use to clean your disk drive. Beside Moby Dick were other Voyager disks full of the world’s great literature. Moby cost me $20.00 in cash and 6 megabytes of disk space on my Macintosh PowerBook, but I can read all 1400 pages of the novel at 72 dot per inch, scrolling up and down because the vertically-oriented page doesn’t fit the Mac laptop’s horizontally- oriented screen.

They picked a good version of the original to digitize: the 1930 Random House edition designed by Rockwell Kent which shows real Palatino and real Futura on the screen, but it’s still a painful reading experience. I asked the multimedia gurus why this was a good idea. "Obviously it's better," they said, "it’s digital, it’s electronic, it’s interactive! As you’re reading the 1,400 pages on your laptop, you can just click the mouse anywhere you like and create an electronic bookmark that you can go back to from the main menu."

"Just like a paper bookmark?" I said. "Yes," they said, "but it’s digital. it’s electronic, it’s interactive!"

"You can also generate electronic margin notes," they said. "Click anywhere in the margin with your mouse and write a note to yourself that stays with the page."

"Just like with a pen in a paper book?" I said. "Yes," they said, "but it’s digital, it’s electronic, it’s interactive! And here’s the thing that you can’t do with a paper book. You can search--forward and backward--for how many times the word ‘Ishmael’ comes up."

Moby Disk is a bonehead piece of new media. The design is terrible: it’s hard to read and it doesn’t need any of the electronic tricks that the programmers developed. The distribution channel is weird: who buys literature in the accessories department of a computer store? And the price is crazy: for the same twenty bucks I can buy four paperback copies of Moby Disk and still have enough change left for a pint of grog. And I don’t need a $2,000 computer to read the paper book. Worst of all, if you try to use it like they do in the ads, booting up some Business Class Culture on the Red Eye to the coast, your laptop's batteries won’t last through chapter one.

There’s no better content than Melville’s Great American Novel, but the publishing execution is all wrong. The next time you hear some printing visionary barbering on about re-purposing, remember Ahab and his great white whale. Call me unconvinced.\\


"Visionaries" at Amazon




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