How much is writing worth?

A recent article in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing discussed pirated music downloads. A study cited for the article said that for commonly-available products, those which have virtually no cost to reproduce (like recorded music in MP3 format) the sales price tends to go to zero. Music is expensive to produce, but is commonly available and very cheap to reproduce and distribute (we all know about Napster). And although the study said this effect was not applicable to unique or customizable products (like writing), I’m not so sure I agree.

Writing requires a skilled, experienced journalist to deliver interesting, persuasive text. It takes time, money, and effort to produce the journalist (or musician) and the product. But today, a couple of keystrokes can make the product available to the world at no cost. In my opinion, we are seeing the same trend in both music and text.

Small-town and regional newspapers have been free on-line for years. They don’t have the market size, demand for information, or quality of writing to support selling their text.

 

It used to be different for the big publishers. But in September, 2007, the New York Times, which up until then had charged Web viewers for access to its “premium” content, switched to free, advertising-supported service. In October London’s Financial Times said it would offer 30 free articles on its Web site each month. My favorite magazine, The Atlantic, began offering its content on-line for free last month. I felt offended because I’ve been a subscriber to the magazine for years, and now everyone else will get for free what I’ve been paying for.

 

These and similar publications will always attract readers willing to pay. The question is whether subscription-based Web sites are the most lucrative way to market the text.

It looks as though the answer is no. Instead, the big publishers now put their content in a different package. They can still make money by selling it to readers, it’s true, but they make more money by giving away the writing and selling ad space next to it.

My concern as a copywriter is the perception that “great writing shouldn’t cost much, and that’s the way it should be!” will become pervasive.

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