"Content is a commodity" has been a continual refrain in the debates over digital product and the future of the publishing industry. We're continually told that our stock-in trade is vanishing from beneath us and so we need to change radically, to become different sorts of companies. The problem is, this is just not true - content is not and never will become a commodity, at least not in the sense that the detractors mean it.
On one level, of course, content actually is a commodity - it's something that can be bought and sold. However, this is a triviality in this discussion because the implication of "content is a commodity" is that this is something new, something that's changed because of the internet and digital technology generally. And, of course, the business of publishing is precisely and always about the buying and selling of content. So, if "content is a commodity" in this sense then this is actually something that publishing has always known and embraced rather than being something new that threatens us.
Why, then, do the demagogues think that saying "content is a commodity" spells doom for traditional publishing houses? It's because they're using the term 'commodity' without enough thought and confusing the basic meaning with another, more technical meaning from the stock markets. To quote from Wikipedia, a commodity is "a class of goods for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market." That is, they mean that content has somehow become tradeable in exactly the same way as bananas or salt or gold. For this to be true, one bit of content must be just like any other bit of content - there's no difference between J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen, between the Huffington Post and The Times, between YouTube and Warner Bros.
Once you state the position like this, it becomes obviously absurd. There are, I will admit, some types of content that are (or might be) commodities in this sense - basic factual news reporting, perhaps, or the rules of arithemetic. But there are huge areas of content where the content is absolutely not a commodity, where quality matters and where customers differentiate very clearly between different sources. And this means that customers will pay very different amounts for these different types of content. In other words, content from one source is not the same as content from another - and hence is not a commodity in the stock-market sense.
In my own sphere of educational publishing, it has always been true that facts are commodities - Newton's laws of motion, the rules of English grammar and the dates of battles during World War Two are the same wherever you obtain them. (Or, at least, they ought to be!) However, the same is absolutely not true of a coursebook, a revision guide or a preparatory test. The tasks of gathering, curating and disseminating those facts, and of building them into a meaningful narrative, makes them into something greater than the simple sum of their parts. In this case, adding lots of zero-value pieces of content together creates something with real value to the customer, because the author has invested the effort and skill into that curation and creation.
The difference the internet revolution has made is not in making content a commodity but in making far more content available to far more people, far more easily than ever before. For publishers, this should be a moment of opportunity. Our business has always been curating content - identifying what is worthwhile, preparing it for consumption and distributing it to the customer. At this level, nothing has changed. It's just that we have lots of new product and service types to engage with.
Of course, the internet has produced new players in the market, new ways to sell and new kinds of competition. But this has been true throughout the history of publishing. The introduction of printing, of stereotyping, of computerised layout and many other technologies have led to huge disruption in the industry. And the 'digital revolution' is really the same. We need to respond to it, to embrace it and to make the changes required to grow with it. But we won't and needn't be destroyed by it. The true challenge to the industry is not avoiding content (because it should somehow be free) but focusing on content and working out how to specialise and differentiate it.
So, next time that someone tells us that "content is a commodity" and that publishing is consequently a moribund industry, let's assert that publishers actually have exactly the same role they always have had - of getting quality content to customers. It's just the details that will change.
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