So I'm coming up on a milestone here. Among my freelance gigs, I'm the site editor for a website called houseplants.about.com. I've been running the site for about six months now -- it started as nothing, with not a single word of content. This month, I'm within striking distance of 100,000 page views, or PVs in Internet-speak. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.
But, you know, it's actually kind of bittersweet. Here's why. About.com is part of the New York Times Company. It's a big aggregate website comprised of about 800 individual sites like mine, each on specific topics. I got houseplants because I've been writing about tropical plants for years, and houseplants are basically tropical plants grown inside. All told, About.com is one of the 100 most visited websites in the world, which translates into about 60 million unique visitors every month.
On my website, 100,000 monthly PVs translates into about 30,000 unique visitors (each click is another PV).
Here's the bittersweet part. One of the best-selling houseplants print books in the world is The Houseplant Expert by Dr. D.G. Hessayon. It's a pretty good book -- I own a copy myself. According to the cover sunburst, Dr. Hessayon has sold more than 1 million copies of his book since the first printing many years ago.
You already know where this is heading right?
The truth is, guys like me are putting guys like Dr. Hessayon out of business. I just don't see any other possible future. And that makes me sad.
But the economics of the situation are irrefutable. Check it out. Let's assume that Dr. Hessayon sold exactly as many books as I had unique visitors last month. Here's the math:
Total cost of user experience for Hessayon: 30,000 x $10/book = $300,000.
Total cost of user experience for my site: 30,000 x $0/PV = $0.
Zero dollars. I'm free. The whole dang Internet is free. All of it. Given away. For nothing. And I'm not just blowing smoke when I say that my content is every bit as good as Dr. Hessayon's. How can I be so sure? Because I do a competitive analysis against his book (and a few others) with every article I publish.
I can pretty much guarantee I'm not making Hessayon-like money off my site. I'm sure his first 30,000 books sold netted him a rather lot more money than my Internet revenue from last month.
I don't really know what the solution is for this. Content is king in today's media climate, but increasingly, content is free. In another two years, there won't be any need for new reference books on houseplants, because I'll have built a comprehensive site that offers all that nifty info for nothing. It'll be advertising supported, and I'll make a fraction of what the print authors make, even if I'm pulling in 12 million PVs a year (which is totally realistic). And how long is it until this trickles into novels? How long will it be before a Kindle file can be e-mailed around the web for nothing, just like an MP3 file today?
I hear a lot about the future. How authors will have to develop alternative revenue streams because books just won't make any money. Already, old-line media companies are dying -- and trust me, I have firsthand experience in this. When the Tribune company declared bankruptcy, I was one of the unlucky bastards they owed money to. This means I find myself tied up in bankruptcy court for a few measly invoices.
It's depressing. No doubt about it. But it's also a little thrilling ... And tomorrow, I'll tell you why.