Is Self-Publishing the Book Equivalent of Demand Media?

A few weeks ago I was listening to CBC Radio. (I was pretty sure it was The Sunday Edition, but I haven’t been able to find the right mention of it so maybe I’m wrong. It was a while ago. But it was definitely CBC.) The show was covering Demand Media’s entry into the stock market and it’s role in the industry of web content.

Demand Media is what most would describe as a “content farm”: It’s the equivalent of factory-farmed chicken. The content is created and put out as cheaply and quickly as possible, but the welfare of those involved and the nutritional content is questionable.

The people who write pieces for Demand Media get paid about $5 to $20 a pop. These are not award-winning journalists or field experts. Those who are do not work for such pitiful wages. So the quality and accuracy of the content put up is suspect. But what’s impressive about the whole operation is the amount of content they put out, how good they are at SEO and the breadth of what they cover. So now when you look online for advice on how to deal with your cat’s ear infection or for clues as to weather you have yellow fever, one of the top search results you’ll get is written by a random person who writes about just about anything as quickly as possible and, arguably, for as little compensation as possible.

I don’t want advice from that kind of content source. And yet I have a hard time not getting these sorts of results in my web searches.

Parallels can be drawn between what’s going on in publishing and Demand Media’s invasion of the web content world, which was previously the terrain of professional journalists, magazines, experts, etc. Books on any topic, in any style or genre, can now be published by anyone. The web and the book market are full of noise.

The key differences are that self-publishing is done by individuals and not a “publishing farm”, and self-publishing writers are not raking in the advertising dollars the way Demand Media does. Another key difference is that not all self-published books are bad. Some are very, very good and have very appreciative audiences. (And, conversely, not all publisher-published books are good.)

But the important similarity is lack of quality control for the consumer. When you Google “feline ear infection” or sift through all the books available online, the result or purchase you end up with might not be what you were looking for in terms of quality. It’s hard to search only for the good stuff when self-publishing doesn’t have a quality filter built in. If you want the best book on a specific topic or in a particular genre, a simple search on some websites will not be that helpful. You’ll get results, all right, but not ranked by quality. Finding a book you know is good and doing it quickly is becoming really hard to do. It seems that right now things are set up mainly for the bargain hunters.

But the CBC show I was listening to gave me hope: Clay Shirky, a trusted authority on the web, believes that Demand Media and other content farms will soon reach saturation. There will be cheap content on just about everything. And then, Shirky predicts there will be a race to create high-quality content.

We are currently seeing a trend in publishing of prioritizing low, with less interest in claims of superior quality or curation. It is feasible that a time will come when there will be too many low-quality, cheap books and the novelty of $2.99 will wear off due to buyer’s remorse. And I believe, or hope at least, that we’ll eventually see a reactionary trend toward quality. What kinds of filters we’ll develop to distinguish between low and high quality remains to be seen. Maybe the publishing house will be able to reclaim that role for a wider audience. I’m being optimistic, I know. But hopefully I’m not far off. Quality may resurface as a priority and I, for one, will be relieved when that trend sets in.

P.S. It is Mike Shatzkin’s blog post called “Publishers better start using their scale to price better, and soon!” along with the news of Demand Media going public that inspired this piece.

In looking for the CBC show I has been listening to, I came across a documentary by Ira Basen on Demand Media.