A Dubious Approach to Podcasting
Obviously I'm talking about podcasting, but I could just as easily have been describing how the book publishing industry approached e-books and online advertising in the 90s. They over-reacted, wasted a bunch of money (or thought they had), and then dropped these two tech developments like a crashing stock to cut their loses. As it turns out, online advertising does make sense (always has) and publishers now recognize it. And e-books will eventually find their market, even if it doesn't mean the printed word will disappear (as was the popular rumor to incite panic a decade ago).
Now I see podcasting on that inevitable horizon of publishing mania. Chronicle has just announced it will offer a podcast twice a month to be produced by a company called Hear Now Productions. Chronicle joins Holtzbrinck, and probably others, in the move to providing additional audio content online (that is, additional to simply offering an audio book).
An article from Publishers Weekly today says, "The key in podcasting, according to both Chronicle and Hear Now, is to create original, compelling and consistent content.... Chronicle doesn't expect immediate results from its podcasting venture and is giving the program six-months to a year to build."
You know, I hope I'm wrong about this and Chronicle goes on to great success with its podcasting initiative, but this scenario sounds awfully familiar to me and seems to fit the pattern I mentioned earlier. Chronicle is investing some money and giving an untested, small user-base format six months to a year to work. I can't imagine it's cheap either. PW reports, "Chronicle solicited the expertise of audio producers with NPR backgrounds to help develop a program that goes beyond reusing audio book excerpts, but will feature an emcee, a theme song and produced segments that include interviews with the authors of various books." That's no small change, I promise.
My guess is that if they make it through a whole year, they will probably drop it for lack of consumer participation. I think this is terribly unfortunate because podcasting is a great new medium with exciting possibilities for book publishing, but it's stupid to throw a lot of money at it right now when there just aren't enough users.
I think it's instructive to compare blogging with this phenomenon of binging & over-dosing on new technology. Why hasn't blogging fit into the pattern that e-books and podcasts have? I could certainly name a number of publishers and publishing professionals who have taken up blogs, and probably even name a few who have already quit. But why isn't anyone saying that blogging doesn't work? That it's just a fad?
There's a pretty simple answer and it has everything to do with why I think Chronicle's approach to podcasting is dubious. You can't throw money at blogging. Think about it. You can't pay a firm an exorbitant amount of money to write a blog for your company. Why? Well, blogging technology is sufficiently user-friendly such that a person with a modest understanding of word-processing can publish a blog. Unless you want to hire someone for their writing skills, you might as well just write the damn thing yourself. And there are two important qualities of writing the blog yourself: 1. it becomes personal, has character, and is therefore more attractive to people than something "produced" and 2. it's free!
When it's free to produce, a blog can't fail because it has a financial cost to overcome. Maybe it fails because it's boring and no one cares, but it's not going to be weighted with the expectations that come with significant financial investment, those same expectations that make new technology so easy to drop when the returns don't show immediately.
I fear that Chronicle's approach is doomed because it is "produced" and professional, and costly. And it's disappointing to imagine that Chronicle probably employs a number of smart, talented young people who would have been eager to try a low-budget podcasting program. Kids all over the country are podcasting and vlogging (video blogging) -- it's not impossible, even if you don't know what you're doing at first.
With anything new and untested, it's always better to start small, minimize expectations, and let it grow into something bigger organically. The top-down approach of forcing new mediums to work is akin to telling people how much they will love New Coke.