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Want to buy a watch? Patronage, scarcity and souvenirs

September 28, 2011
by seth godin

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A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know what time it was, you had to make a significant investment–in a watch.

Twenty years ago, Timex made it clear that if you merely wanted the time (not jewelry) it would be about $15.

And five years ago, every kid with a cell phone got the time as a free bonus.

And yet there are still watchmakers. Still Rolex and Patek and the rest. Some of them are having great years.

Clearly, they don’t sell the time. They sell jewelry. Exclusivity. A souvenir.

One reason to buy a watch (or a book) is because you want to possess it, show it off, give it to your grandchildren. Holding a book is a luxury, one for which you pay a premium. There are few books that contain information unavailable anywhere else, and fewer still that can’t be bought more cheaply and easily as an ebook.

In the non-fiction category, the reasons to buy a book are smaller still. With a novel or a significant work of non-fiction research, the book itself might be part of what you’re paying for. In a busy universe, though, if all you want is information, you can probably find it faster and cheaper without the book part coming along for the ride.

And so 90% of the people who read my blog don’t buy my books, figuring that they can get the information (or at least enough information) for free. This is as big a change as the time-keeping change that rocked the watch world. You no longer have to pay a book toll to get information.

Sam Harris is worried that this means the end of authors. At some level he’s correct: the lack of a barrier means the number of authors is skyrocketing, yet the sales per author are going down. eBook distribution means that everyone can be everywhere, but it also means that more choice generates less income for each writer.

It’s as if the watch business had 100,000 competitors in it.

Patronage is one answer. The way it makes you feel to put a dollar in the busker’s guitar case, or to buy a CD even though you know how to listen for free. I get pleasure out of buying books, I like supporting the genre (even though the vast majority of the money I spend goes nowhere near the person who took the creative risks). Patronage, though, doesn’t make an industry work.

No, the future of books lies in amateur authors, together with the few superstars with a big enough tribe or a big enough reputation to earn significant advances and royalties. (And yes, a ‘middle class’ of authors with a big enough tribe to make a living, but nowhere near what it takes to make it big.) The big middle, though, the writers who earned enough on tolls–those guys are in big trouble long term. As Esther Dyson predicted fifteen years ago, they are going to have to become troubadors again, traveling, selling live events, doing speeches, etc.

You don’t have to like it but that’s how it’s sorting out.  Anyone know what time it is?

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