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Confusing media with messages

July 13, 2012
by seth godin

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Yesterday’s post about the halfway mark got a few responses from people who thought I was selling books short. “There has not ever been, nor will there ever be, a “halfway point” for cultural achievements,” one wrote.

Let me try again, with more detail.

We can probably all agree that more than half of the culturally important cookbooks printed on paper have already been printed. From the Joy of Cooking to Julia Child to The Thrill of the Grill, there are some essential cookbooks that have laid a foundation for most that followed. Now that the original cookbook market has been decimated by TV, by free recipes online and by the growth of the ios app, it’s hard for me to imagine the pile of cookbook titles that millions read and trust to dramatically increase in size.

Or, if you grew up with science fiction, we ought to be able to agree that Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Atwood, Lem, Zelazny, LeGuin, Doctorow and (early) Stephenson are quite a touchstone, and if we look at the future of all books on paper, it’s hard to imagine a new generation of science fiction books being as widely embraced as they were twenty or forty years ago.

I’m not arguing that Scalzi and Doctorow and others won’t write great books going forward. I’m pointing out that most of those books are going to be read on ereaders, and thanks to the shifting economics, few of them will reach as widespread an audience.

Forty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for a typical bestseller to stay on the bestseller list for months or even years. Now, the typical book lasts for two weeks. More titles, more churn means less cultural achievement.

Consider what blogs did to the magazine article. Not long ago, a Time cover story was read by everyone you knew. Today, that attention has been replaced by 500 different blogs, and no one reads all of them.

The same thing already happened to pop music albums. We all used to listen to the same thing, now we don’t. We used to buy albums, now we don’t. Sure, there will be more music made my more musicians going forward than ever before. And much of it will be fabulous. But the chances that we’ll see mass phenomena like the Beatles or even Elton (times 100 because that’s how deep the hits bench was) are slim indeed.

I’m bullish on ideas, on innovation and on individuals who have something to say, saying it. But it’s clear to me and to many in the industry that we’re well past the halfway mark (given that we started 400 years ago) in terms of creating the essential library of touchstone cultural achievements that every single smart person has either read or is aware of.

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