27 November 2006

Allocating Mondays

The point of economic theory is to model, and preferably enable, the efficient allocation of scarce resources (for some value of "efficient"). Periodically, the balance in the status quo shifts, usually based upon internalization of an external influence. Sometimes this includes the creation (or death) of a market; other times, this includes shifts within an existing market.1 In publishing, this has usually been a technological change, ranging from widespread availability of paper, the printing press, and mechanization of printing through the steam press and mechanical typesetting to the electronic and information technologies with which neither the industry nor the public has assimilated. Admittedly, some of the changes in publishing have had nontechnological causes, but (with only one exception) these causes have themselves been driven by technological change. That exception is the returns system; but I've said my piece on that particular economic inefficiency.

One aspect of technological change has proven a constant predictor of incipient crises in the publishing industry: Changes in the economic viability of small-run/small-audience works. This isn't just book/magazine publishing, either; it also includes recordations of all kinds, with classical music providing an excellent window into the problems with the carrying cost of low-demand works. Shifts in printing and distribution technology also have interesting — if not entirely clear — effects on market participation by low-demand works, often with the objective of using a low-demand distribution system to create a larger demand (and thereby escape the low-demand system for the Big Time).

Unfortunately, the quality of a work is seldom strongly correlated with its success in the publishing marketplace. Sometimes this is amusing, as in the bad sex prize. Sometimes, it's merely immensely frustrating to try to find a reasoned award given to a bestseller... and vice versa. It's even worse when one considers that most books really are judged by their covers. But it's Monday, so I suppose that pessimism is to be expected.

  1. Central-control systems, such as true communism, still live within the market, however much they might try to deny it. The critical assumption of central-control systems is that no necessity is scarce; if any necessity is scarce, even central-control systems must adopt marketlike mechanisms to rectify that scarcity. Sometimes, that "marketlike mechanism" has tried to put an explicit price on freedom... or, at least, on avoiding the gulag.