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Selling web content offline

The editor of, Thomas Beller, has republished a number of the essays from his website in a book, and today's New York Times has an article on it.

It's good that the Times takes note, but the angle the article takes also indicates how far we have to go. The article seems most interested in comparing print and web publishing, asking which is better in both its title and its conclusion. This makes sense from an artistic standpoint, and it's a valid and interesting question. But publishing is a business, not an art; "better" is defined in no small part by profits. And the fact that an online publisher is moving to profit off his content by publishing it offline shouldn't be all that remarkable, given that there is still so little money to be made online.

And there's nothing wrong with making money, either; in fact, it's a rather important thing in sustaining any artist's career. Until web publishing finds an effective model for turning content into revenue, repurposing that content into tangible, retailable assets makes perfect sense, and can only help web publishers. The ease of online publishing helps all sorts of mediocre works find new life, but it also provides a home for many that are worth reading, and worth paying for. Binding them into books and print magazines will help demonstrate this to greater and wider audiences, and will help the web come into its own not only as a medium for self expression, but also as a place where readers will look to for quality work.

February 4, 2002 1:42 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Who is this Bellers person and why are you interested in his thoughts? Is this just more intellectualism? At a time when the country needs to have single-minded resolve against evil and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky are undermining that resolve? Web publishing is like a vanity press for masturbatorial fantasies (this is consitent with the fact that the web's "killer app" has always been porn; check the "hits"). Traditional publishing has all the cultural impact of a small-town art museum. What's the big argument? If you want to create, get a job and have kids. Then you'll feel some pain; gain some depth; earn some stripes; have something to say!

Posted by Les on February 4, 2002 5:48 PM

No, no intellectualism here. I thought it was funny the way the Times was treating Bellers' decision to publish in print as an aesthetic one. I think it's more interesting in the context of doing business -- and Bellers' own comments in the article are basically to the effect that, The medium doesn't matter that much. (Also, web publishing may be a vanity press, but if Bellers can profit off his site's content, then not only is it not just a vanity, it possibly also has some artistic merit.)

Posted by M on February 4, 2002 7:18 PM

Some further, less tongue-in-cheek thoughts. First and foremost, "should the web be somwhere to make money in the first place?" Results to date have been equivocal at best, at least in terms of income vs. revenue for those surviving web companies, and at worst, in terms of the over-hyped "this changes everything" cattle-call that led to the economic bubble and burst of 1999/2000, disastrous for the U.S. economy. Let's remember that the "internet" began as a DARPA-funded project designed to enable a worldwide exchange of academic and scientific thought and data. This capability, once born, was clearly too big for academics to keep to themselves, particularly given the government funding. Once the excitement and efforts of individual software developers, often students at universities, converged with the hardware advances developed at first for corporate networking functions, the "world wide web" began its snowball ride from either heaven or hell (depending on your perspective). The first concern of its original (academic and government) developers was that widespread "non-qualified" use would overwhelm the net and destroy its originally intended value for professional exchange. In fact, a separate "academic/government" internet with different codes was then developed. This was soon abandoned, as commerce reared its ugly head and those early entrepreneurial and venture capital pioneers decided that the internet "changed everything", most importantly their personal fortunes. With more and more technological investment and advances, the world wide web soon made even its segregated academic counterpart a poor cousin, and a new technology-based medium that was truly democratic in its application and implication took shape. Global access to a global body of information; free expression of individual ideas available to everyone; no rules (at least at the beginning, before the invention of firewalls, AOL "language monitors" and child-proofing options). But while commerce salivated over the internet, poured billions of development and promotional dollars into it, and investors marched like lemmings into a bright new future, the pure democracy of the internet was a resistant whore. It only works because of what it is -- people sharing. Some of what they share is brilliant, some of it repugnant, some of it obscure, some of it useless except to three people in the world, and some of it downright illegal as law evolves to protect its real master, commerce. That's just the point. It's like the old joke about communsim: "if everyone owns everything, then no one owns anything." Perhaps the internet is someplace we just shouldn't worry about making money. God knows we do everywhere else. Hey, if you find a way, great, but it wouldn't be my first choice. Of course, it's still too early to draw conclusions: You can go pray in a brothel and I'm sure you can meet a whore in church.

Posted by Les on February 4, 2002 7:23 PM

That's quite a lengthly rehash of well-known history there Les. I'm not sure exactly what your message was though. Except some thoughts about what is now termed eCommerce and how viable it is.

My feeling is that so far it appears that profitability from pure web driven revenues don't scale too well. They are there, just not in large amounts.

Want to find an example of massive profits but not purely web driven? Look no farther than Microsoft. The vast amount of online knowledge (and the resulting support) they make available to developers is a big reason IMO why their development platforms endure. (I know this because I use these resources every day as a software developer.)

Want an example of a pure web-driven concept that easily could have been profitable at a smaller scale? Look at The combination of low inventory costs, employee overhead, etc. easily made this a big winner a few years back.

But combine the two and look for something that can take in millions in profits annually through the web? Not yet. (Amazon did turn their first profit last quarter. I really think they could have done this earlier if only they weren't forced to begin carrying inventory.)

If a single entrepreneur (1)has a unique concept, (2)looks for only enough profits to get by and (3)can protect his 'property' from the big money the web offers a better chance than almost any market mechanism. Low overhead and startup costs, excellent and many free marketing paths....

Hey! Sounds to me like the perfect place for a struggling writer to place their work for others to find him or her! :-)

Posted by Dave on February 4, 2002 11:25 PM

Dave -- Thanks for the response; I wasn't expecting one and I stand somewhat corrected. Sorry about the lengthy historical babble, but it may not be common knowledge to everyone and I thought it was important to set up my point. Sorrier still that I apparently didn't make one. Perhaps in the next two paragraphs I'll discover if I even had one.

Simply put, the web -- unlike, say, cable TV -- was never designed as a commercial medium and I don't believe, despite massive infrastructure investment, that it's truly evolved to become one. I think it's largely stayed true to its original blueprint, which is designed for what you and I are doing right now (and also for someone to check the whole body of web history to see if I've grossly oversimplified).

So if the www has indeed "changed everything" and yet it still "is what it is", then business models must change to adapt to the reality of what the internet does, and doesn't do well. IMO, most eCommerce has been an attempt to throw a traditional bricks-and-mortar business model at the massive (and purportedly targetted) reach of the web. is a great example. There are still the paper companies, printers, inventory (in this case inherently massive although centralized), quality control and dellivery. It's probably not that hard, given hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, to sell a lot of books over the web. It's just hard to make more money than Barnes & Nobles. The real winner of this model is UPS.

Certainly, the web has made an enormous impact for some companies, and Microsoft is an excellent example. They've harnessed web capabilities to enhance traditional lines of business and, like other companies with technologies that enhance the capabilities of the internet itself, have directly profited from web operations. Company web sites can inform investors and enhance valuation. Product web sites can encourage product sales -- essentially by a new medium for "infomercials". But most eCommerce still strikes me as a mail-order business without the stamps. And the cost of making it work from the business side is far more expensive than even the best catalogue.

Ironically, while the internet was never designed for commerce, it may itself force eCommerce to find a way to work, simply because it increasingly becomes how people want and expect to shop or interact with business in general. I guess that's already happened to a significant degree.

Maybe I am, after all, left without a point. But at least I'm becoming more comfortable with doing stuff over the internet; I've still never even been in a chat room (unless this counts).

Thanks and regards.

Posted by Les on February 5, 2002 5:46 PM

Very good points Les. Funny that the first thing you should mention is _cable_ TV. That brought a relevant thought to mind.

I'm not quite old enough to remember that advent of bradcast television (color, yes but that really happened in the 1960s) but anyone who can seems to recall that era says that TV was just radio with pictures. Many also talked about time not very well spent watching a small 9 inch tube or whatever.

All that says to me is that the medium hadn't yet evolved. Imagine how this country would have reacted to the Viet Nam war, or last Septmber 11th without television.

Yet, what really moved it into the era we now have? The capitalistic drives this culture thrives on. Yes, it's a fine balance between a strong economy driven by businesses and a weak one filled with greed. But without the profit potentials that broadcast satellites and the receiving dishes yeild, I just don't think the government would have pulled off todays communication architecture.

Nobody has yet figured out how to make big money through the internet. But then again, I'm not sure that they have really figured out what it is yet!



Posted by Dave on February 5, 2002 8:53 PM

A completely off topic question for Matt. I know I could email you but I think it's possible others visiting here may have the same feelings here.

Is it possible to change the popup window we comment in?

Mine doesn't allow resizing. That would be fine, except that the width is so small that a horizontal scroll appears because the width of the textarea we type in gets chopped.

Do you have any control on that?

Thanks, and keep up the good writing!

Posted by Dave on February 5, 2002 8:58 PM

Re: The size of the comments window -- I can change it. I hadn't anticipated so much discussion appearing here....

You can also view the comments in a full-size window, by clicking on the time stamp below each post. The comments will appear below the post itself, in the new window.

Posted by M on February 5, 2002 11:51 PM

Clicking the timestamp works for me! Thanks Matt.

Posted by Dave on February 6, 2002 12:07 AM

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