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Industry News: What counts?

December 7, 2013

Seth Godin is a heavy-duty blogger. His blogs are short, to the point, and a lot of times what he writes there isn’t particularly earth-shaking. But some of it is, and some of it goes well beyond earth-shaking. His book Tribes is a must-read if you want to understand not just social media–because after all, that’s just a tool–but the underlying factors that make that tool particularly powerful these days.

In a recent blog entry, he asks why some things have credibility and some don’t. Why, for instance, should Wikileaks not be prosecuted only because they worked with the New York Times? Why do appearances on low-rated cable television shows count more than appearances on YouTube videos that go viral and are seen by millions? Why does a brilliant out-of-town play count less than a crappy play on Broadway?

(I would add the question of why sports writers–some of whom no longer cover baseball–get to vote for the Hall of Fame while bloggers and broadcasters–including Vin Scully, who’s been calling Dodgers games since Truman was president–are shut out?)

And why, when Amazon is getting ready to have more self-published books than traditionally published books, do the traditionally published books count more?

What this means to you, or why these things are true and what will change them: Let’s use the Hall of Fame question as a reference point, because it’s pretty simple. When the Baseball Hall of Fame admitted its first class in 1939, baseball was the king of sports and newspapers were the king of all media. It made sense for the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) to decide who got into the Hall of Fame because their members covered more baseball games than everyone else. Radio was still in its infancy, and owners wouldn’t truly embrace it for another decade. TV barely existed.

And since then, the BBWAA hasn’t been forced by anything to give up its role as arbiter. They have the power to determine what counts and there are no market forces to change that.

In all other cases, the market forces are there. Cable used to be the place old shows went for reruns. Over time, cable networks started producing television shows. And some of those shows became the best shows on television. The awards and popular awareness is starting to reflect that. Mad Men, Walking Dead, and a host of other shows are the cool shows everyone talks about. Outside a few reality shows, The Big Bang Theory, and NCIS, broadcast shows don’t have the market penetration because people aren’t watching them. But individuals on YouTube aren’t making the same dent–yet–because they don’t have the capacity to produce and market their work. Eventually, though, it’s not ridiculous to think that someone will produce something amazing on YouTube that will find its way to a TV network.

Which brings us to books, where that’s already happened. Say what you will about 50 Shades of Grey, it started as one of the simplest forms of self-published work–fan fiction. Then a lot of people read it and it got published by a small press. Then a lot more people read it and it got published by a major press. The literary equivalent of going from YouTube to CBS.

Eventually, someone self-publishing on Amazon is going to write something at just the right time and it’ll go through the roof, the way 50 Shades did. And that will start the change the way self-published books are perceived. Then some more people will write excellent books–eventually, someone’s going to write a book so beautiful it hurts, so to speak, and it’ll be self-published. And then people will start to say “Why are we not rewarding these books?” (Kind of the way the Emmys didn’t used to recognize AMC.)

When those things start to happen, the market will overcome the old thought processes and changes will be required to happen. Reality often lags perception. When it catches up, those things, including self-published books, will count.

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