December 19, 2006
Scarcity and Plenitude: The Shifting Power Structure of the Publishing World

One concept that has definitely shaped the way we are thinking about the future of media and popular culture here at the Convergence Culture Consortium is a concept that is closely linked with one of our affiliated faculty members, Grant McCracken: plenitude.

Yet we are a culture that understands itself through scarcity, especially when it comes to policy for dealing with the mass media. The Internet, satellite and cable, and a variety of other technologies may allow for plenitude, but we are still locked into this scarcity mode. That struggle between defining media and publishing space as scarce and plentiful drove my interest in a recent commentary from the writer who identifies as "A Betterment Worker" on the blog "Working Towards the Betterment of Publishing." The article, entitled "What Scarcity?", questions the long-held notion that publishing was so expensive that free speech only extended to the few folks who could publish something to get enough copies out and make a true impact.

Before we explore this piece, though, it's helpful to explore Grant's concept of plenitude in greater detail.

Grant published Plenitude: Culture by Commotion in 1997, a book that is available online through Grant's site. In an August/September 1998 Reason article about the subject, adapted from his book, McCracken explains the concept as being derived from Plato. "But while the blooming, buzzing diversity that caught Plato's eye was a property of the natural world, our plenitude is a property of the social world. For us, plenitude is a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict," he writes.

In this article, he both cuts into objections to the nature of plenitude from the right and narrow conceptions of what plenitude means from the left. "But plenitude is a restless creature. It will not forgive fixity. It will not endure stasis. It will not allow identity politics to insist on certain orthodoxies because these are 'good to think' and variously clarifying of what the emergent group might become. Plenitude resists conformity, orthodoxy, conventions, and rules," he writes.

Also, see Grant's thoughts about how plenitude is creating a fat middle in addition to a Long Tail.

Now, back to "What Scarcity?" The author points out that the old mode of thinking was that "limited production capacity created a market based on scarcity," but now "publication has become so cheap that it is now cost-effective for smaller companies to subsidize anyone's publication--to the point where publication for the individual author is effectively free. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, this has largely removed the monopoly that the publishing industry held due to the scarcity inherent in the market."

Now, of course, the power of established brands with their distribution deals makes the reality of how these publications reach readers still lean solidly in the favor of big companies, but the ability to publish has become extended exponentially. The author points out that, "the industry has reacted to the loss of their monopoly by ignoring the loss and/or pretending that the scarcity has not disappeared. On those occasions when they deign to notice that publication is cheap, it is pointed out (at length) that the industry maintains a large collection of professionals who will work hard to turn a manuscript into a polished product. This is intended to be an incentive to maintain the illusion of the scarcity market."

Coupled with the rise of a Long Tail marketing mode, the author believes that, since "publishing is a gateway industry," "when the gateway is no longer essential, it must make itself important or it will not survive." The post goes into much greater detail and is worth a read. Aimed at writers, the gist of the post is that "the publishing industry cannot promise you sales, but more importantly, they cannot promise you publication. Self-publication will not change the fate of the entire industry, but it will give you an opportunity to take your fate into your own hands."

This paradigm shift from scarcity to plenitude and from exclusivity to the Long Tail has a lot of impact on the economic models of our country. Utopians who celebrate the complete freedom of the creator from publishing regimes are exactly that...utopian...but there is no doubt that the structure of power is shifting dramatically, and I think the traditional books publishing world is an important place to look for tracking these changes over a long period of time.



This is so true.

Once everyone can access the slushpile, everyone can be a gatekeeper, and the gentlemanly pursuit of finding edifying texts for the masses will be over.

When we can see the mistakes that are the slushpile, we can all become better producers.

For Pubishers' real power in cultural production lies in their slushpiles, regardless of the income streams from the backlist, long tails or fat middles.

Protecting that right to reject will be long fought.

The ability to reject is the real source of culture.

If this is taken away from them they may well all start to channel Henny Penny.

"The is falling."

That is, once they get over drifting along on Cleopatra's barge on that river in Egypt.

Where the new producer/consumer can reject on their own cognizance from the liberating slushpiles, plenitude will be founded on a rock.

Might take a while to catch up with the tech however.


Meika, very important aspect of gatekeeping that you bring up. Gatekeeping is as much about what is left out than it is about what is allowed in, which is an important point.