Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dealing with the Devaluation of Content

Content is literally becoming worthless. Those are probably strong words from someone involved in publishing, but the changes I see in the publishing industry and the impact the Internet has had on how people find information leads me to that conclusion.

A number of factors contribute to this erosion of value, but two main themes stand out: the digital distribution of content (particularly through the Internet), and the attitudes of readers regarding that content. I'm writing mostly about non-fiction content here, but fiction isn't far behind.

The Internet has obviously made it possible for content, both good and bad, to proliferate. It has contributed to the devaluation of content in several key ways:

  • The Internet has had a cultural bias since its inception that makes it difficult to charge for content: readers expect to get information for free.
  • Thanks to sleazy search engine optimization tactics, junk content proliferates, damaging the reputation, value, and visibility of good content.
  • Readers can easily locate targeted information that solves a specific problem, which damages the value of a content collection (e.g. book).

Digital media, such as e-books delivered through readers like the Kindle, further muddy the waters. The middleman between the publisher and the reader is no longer just a distributor. In the case of the Kindle, Amazon can take away your access to the materials you purchased. That makes Amazon the "owner" of the material in a sense, and you just a borrower. Would you pay to check a book out of the library? Maybe. And only if it were really inexpensive.

The other theme, public attitude toward content, has en even bigger potential to drain the value of content (and all intellectual property, when you get right down to it.) Public attitude changes have manifested in a number of ways:

  • Many people think that everything on the Internet is public domain. They copy your articles, photographs, audio files, and videos to their own web sites, and sometimes even sell them, without getting your permission to do so.
  • The original Google Settlement was essentially going to legitimize plagiarism with its orphan works policy. If they couldn't get in contact you for permission to use your material, they would just assume the material was orphaned and sell it anyway.
  • Commercial interests have realized the value of free content in capturing leads for their products and services. The cost of producing that content is viewed as a "loss-leader" for bringing customers to the virtual door.

Copyright and trademark law is flimsy protection for your intellectual property. In a sense, everything you produce is immediately in the public domain. Only a societal convention called Copyright Law that originated with our Constitution protects your right to all commercial gains from the material, but even that right has a time limit attached to it.

So, what's an author or publisher to do? If you can't make money from your intellectual property, what's the point in creating it in the first place?

The answer is that content still has intellectual and emotional value for your readers, even if the monetary value has eroded to almost nothing. You can still use your content to inform people and get their attention. You can still use it to demonstrate your expertise and build trust.

The difference is that the reader's acquisition of your content is no longer the end game. It isn't what is going to make you money. The content forms the basis of a stronger relationship with your reader. It helps them learn what they need to know about you, and it helps you find people who are genuinely interested in what you have to offer.

In today's world of free content everywhere, you may not be able to make money on your content, but that doesn't mean you can't make money with your content.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

If You Don't Value It, Don't Ask for It

I recently developed a fairly large web application for a relatively small client. As is often the case on projects like this, no money was budgeted for any kind of documentation. The customer wants to pay for functionality, and documentation has little perceived "bang for the buck."

However, at some point, the customer realized that every time we move the application from one server to another or need to tweak the configuration, they usually need my help. That's no problem right now because I can remote into their server or drive down to their offices if necessary and resolve any problems that come up. However, what happens if I'm not available for some reason?

In the latest release of their site software, the customer asked for system documentation that would help them install and configure the software themselves should they need to do so. I included about a day's worth of writing in the quote and submitted it to them.

The customer approved everything in the quote except the documentation. They asked me to include the docs for free due to the fact that they were spending a good deal of money on the project already.

Now, I'm not averse to giving away stuff on larger projects. I view it as a type of discount. But this project had already received a substantial discount from my standard rate due to its size, and when I thought about it, I realized that documentation is a bit of a sore spot for me.

The problem with technical documentation in general, and system documentation in particular, is that nobody reads it. Because nobody reads it, nobody values it. Because nobody values it, nobody wants to pay for it. On top of all this, writing said documentation is often a painful process that is also demoralizing because you know it won't be appreciated and it will become obsolete (or at least inaccurate) almost immediately.

Another problem is that the people who understand the subject matter best, the developers, are rarely skilled writers themselves. That works out just as well because the companies who hire them would rather pay a lower-salaried technical writer to deal with the documentation. But getting the necessary information out of the heads of uncooperative developers and into the documentation is one of the main things that makes the process painful for the under-appreciated technical writer (yes, I've known several of these long-suffering individuals, including my wife).

The final nail in the coffin is that technical documentation is not usually an income generator. It is an expensive project adjunct with a value that is best calculated by assessing the cost of not having it. Such a vague notion of value is often too subtle for most bean counters to appreciate.

Doing documentation right requires a long-term investment in time and money. You have to be willing to produce and maintain well-written, readable, and easily-accessible documents. But the truth is that few companies are willing to do that for technology that will probably be scrapped within 5 years anyway.

But I digress.

I'm actually one of the few developers I've known who enjoys writing documentation as part of my development work, so I don't mind the idea of putting it together. I'm just not willing to do a bunch of work that won't be appreciated for free.

The way I see it, if something has so little value to you that you aren't willing to pay for it, then just move on and forget about it. If the value finally becomes apparent at a later date and something can still be done about the situation, deal with it then.