Monday, June 18, 2007

Open Archives (5): Mousetraps and Cafes

The business of selling subscriptions has changed. Fifty years ago, the 'mousetrap' model of subscription-selling ruled. There are two parts to this commercial strategy: first you must have a fantastic product, a piece of cheese which smells terrific and which appeals to all the mice; second you need to have a well designed and secure cage -- and for consumer magazines, quarterly direct debit payments and a continuous flow of new issues, fitted the bill. Once the first piece of cheese had been tasted and the direct debits were in place, the mice tended to stay in the cage and renew their subs. Everyone was happy.

In fact, publishers, fifty years ago, had another factor working in their favour -- the mice were mostly hungry. The system worked even better if they were starving (there were no satirical magazines when Private Eye was launched, and Rolling Stone showed that rock could be intellectual, so these magazines grew like topsy).

Things have changed. The marginal cost of supplying information through the web is close to zero. It is effectively zero. When printing on paper, the marginal cost of supplying an additional copy is always significant. The web is now a medium through which vasts amounts of information are available to anyone with a broadband connection. Too much. The smell of cheese no longer has an attraction. With this abundance comes a wandering audience which knows that it can have everything, or at least anything that is particularly relevant.

On the web users are always one click away from something else, and the idea of a content cage or content silo makes little sense. Increasingly we are moving to a 'cafe' society, where abundance prevails and users expect to help themselves in a convivial atmosphere. The publisher is no longer a gatekeeper (severe frown, rejection looms), but an orchestrator and a host or service provider (friendly smile, no need for bouncers here). In H A Simon's words "Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention".

Acquiring a subscription is still an attractive proposition, but it has to be presented more as club membership, as bestowing privelege in the core audience, with a premium service. If some are excluded, that may be an unfortunate commercial necessity. But in an information-rich culture our consumers value their priveleged information more if there is the prospect of sharing this (albeit after a lag) with the broader community, and they wish to be seduced with attention and selection rather than swamped with everything. Information subscription services need to be self-selective, individually definable, in an age of abundance.

The moving wall of a potentially Open Archive helps develop this 'cafe' society: of provisional exclusivity and selective membership.

There is still a role for subscription, but its use is primarily to enable the consumer to select the sources which he/she particularly wishes to receive and to enjoy them in the best possible ways. Excluding others from the information is not a primary objective (except in highly competitive situations).

There is a balance to be struck here and how the balance is struck will vary from one magazine to another. So the wall can be a moving wall -- in two senses, (1) month by month, issue by issue, more is included (2) if the publisher decides to stretch or reduce the gap between publication and Open Access, then this can be done.

1 comment:

Eoin Purcell said...

Adam,

A great series on a really interesting topic.

Eoin