Get Ready to Pay for Content

Between 1975 and 1995, the average academic journal price rose from $39 to $284 in the United States, almost twice the rate of inflation. In 1995, Forbes magazine stated that “It’s hard to imagine a sweeter business than publishing academic journals,” reporting that Reed Elsevier, a leader in academic publishing, had pretax profits of 40 percent on $225 million in journal sales.

This is the dirty little secret of the information society and economy. While technology is reducing certain production costs for content, the overall costs of quality content have, in fact, spiraled. Can this increase in costs all be laid at the feet of publishers who are creaming off fat profits? And, if so, why hasn’t competition had some impact on keeping prices at a more reasonable level?

Those who run a professional Web site have some understanding of why publishing quality content is such an expensive process. They quite likely have discovered another dirty little secret — this time from the technology industry — which is that technology invariably overpromises and underdelivers, particularly when it comes to content. We have all suffered the Silicon snake-oil merchants who promised that for $1,000 you’d get up on the Web and reach a marketplace of millions.

In academia, the cost of getting a quality article ready for publication can range from $2,000 to $4,000. Think about it. That report sitting on your desk could have cost more than the computer it sits beside. People simply don’t realize how expensive it is to publish a quality article. The Web certainly reduces some of these costs by allowing for more efficient publishing processes, but it can never eliminate the central cost. Quality people create quality content, and quality people don’t come cheap.

On the Web, we live a great illusion. We have become drunk on free content, believing that the party will never end. Well, a lot of parties are over, and the free-content party will soon be over, too.

The reason why so much content is free on the Web is because it is leeching off the current high profits in print publishing.

As a result of the content price explosion, libraries around the world have seriously cut back on the number of print journals they subscribe to. Personal subscriptions have dropped even more dramatically. The economic model for print is simply not viable for increasing quantities of content. What is even less viable is a model whereby both print and Web versions are published, as this adds to, rather than reduces, production costs. This situation must change; otherwise, more and more members of the information work force will be denied access to vital content.

Over the next five years, what we will see is a major move to Web-only publishing for specialized content. (Newspapers, however, will remain print focused because they need to have a very broad reach.) Paradoxically, this will mean the end of much of the free Web content, as publishers drive revenue through their Web publications.

Like everything else in this world, content will have to pay for itself, either through advertising, driving sales of related products, or subscription strategies. Because quality content is so expensive to create, viable business models will very often require a combination of all three.

Get ready to pay for content!

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