What makes a publisher of information an information broker?
It's important to clarify that traditional publishers are not information dealers or information brokers. This clarification is a good place to interject a few standards for determining if a platform, company, or organization is an information broker or simply a publisher of information.
At its most basic level, information brokers are driven by big data. The data is more important than the actual information they make available. Here are the best rules of thumb for determining if an entity is an information broker:
- open system vs. closed system
- free content vs. paid content
- commodity vs. narrative
Open vs. closed is a reference to the application process for information to be included or distributed throughout the platform's network. Open means that pretty much anyone can access the network with no or little application process. Closed means the network is tightly protected by a vigorous application process.
Free vs. paid content is in regard to consumer access rather than creator access. If a consumer is able to access the majority of the content without a direct monetary charge, well, that's free. If a consumer pays a direct, corollary fee for access to content, you guessed it, that's paid content. Keep in mind that nothing is actually free. In a "free content" system the user is being taxed somehow. The vast majority of the time the user is taxed via advertising, but the advertising cost is paid for by the content creator.
Subscriptions can be a grey area. While a monthly subscription for internet access is certainly paid access to the internet, the content "feels free" when we are surfing the internet because the payment isn't directly corollary to our surfing. The large internet providers are certainly information brokers. They've just managed the sweet arrangement of being able to charge all their users for free and open leveraged content.
Don't get me going on why internet access should actually be free and how the crushing of net neutrality is sweetening the honey pot even more for internet providers by allowing them to charge content creators and business owners via "pay to play" advertising in order to reach internet users at the same time the providers are charging those internet users to access the content. (Information brokering can be pretty profitable when you are able to become a double-paid public utility!) Anywho, moving on...
Commodity vs. narrative deals with how the platform or company regards its content. If there is more of a concern for narrative quality this indicates less likelihood of being a broker. If commodification of the information is goal number 1, 2, and 3, well...broker they be.
So if a platform creates an open system full of free content for the purposes of leveraging that content for profit, then that system will become an information broker. Please understand that this status is not an indictment of evil. After all, no social media platform that I know of started out with the goal of "harbinger of chaos."
Big data is extremely valuable, and if a platform has created an open system with free content, then that platform will inevitable attract information dealers looking to profit from using data in an unscrupulous way.
Traditional Publishers are not information brokers...yet.
Traditional publishers are neither open or free. They are quite the opposite. Gaining access to their network is a very closed-off process that typically takes great effort to overcome. And the content traditional publishers disseminate through their network is almost always (and by "almost" I mean "most certainly") monetized directly rather than being indirectly taxed via paid advertising.
Perhaps some traditional publishers wish they were information brokers, but so far none of the major players (often referred to as the big five) have unlocked how to sell directly to their consumers or create any kind of open network that creates anything of value free for their customers. A couple of significant labels have made progress. I can think of two who stand out: Tor and Harlequin.
Harlequin has actually been selling directly to their readers for quite some time, and their website is rather robust. But, the rapid shift from print to digital hit Harlequin hard due to the smaller profit margin with digital content. As a result, they were forced to sell to News Corp and be brought under the HarperCollins roof in 2014.
One reason HarperCollins was interested in Harlequin was due to their vertical (direct to consumer) success. The big five publishers have continually shown interest in trying to duplicate this on a larger scale, but it takes serious time, energy, and authenticity to develop this kind of brand recognition and loyalty.
Tor has invested this kind of time and energy for years by providing its faithful readers with tons of interesting, free content. Their newsletter and blog includes reviews, re-reads (or re-watches), and thoughtful commentary. Personally, I remember thumbing across the spines of sci-fi books in the Half-Price Book Store of my youth looking for all of the Tor titles. Tor was the only publishing brand name that meant anything to me.
Traditional Publishing could still serve as a solution.
If one or more of the big five publishers where able to scale this kind of open community full of free content that has value to its consumers, that success could pave a path for traditional publishers to become information brokers in a manner beneficial to reading. By keeping the actual stories behind a paywall while creating an associated "fan" platform full of open and free content, it's possible publishing could find a win/win solution that protected the stories from would-be-information-dealers while providing an alternative retail platform to Amazon.
But this is a long shot. First, I'm fairly convinced the big five are not capable of scaling such an operation with enough authenticity to connect with readers. The people at the top of these companies have continued to amaze me with how disconnected they are from their own readers. You know, labeling people who read ebooks as somehow lowbrow is probably not a good way to connect with your consumers.
Second, it's likely that even if a large publisher succeeded in creating a direct-to-reader retail platform, they would probably screw it up by running ads inside the market place (rather than restricting them to the open fan space), thus repeating the same mistakes of the past. This leads up to my biggest fear for traditional publishers.
The Worst Case Scenario for Traditional Publishers
The vanguards of old have weakened. Whether you cherish the days of old or wish them good riddance, it's undebatable that traditional publishers safeguarded storytelling from excessive sensationalism, misinformation, and scams for over one hundred years.
While these companies have lost control of the industry, they have not lost their power. My biggest concern is that financial pressure will lead to one or more of the big five being entirely co-opted by an information broker. To have a once trusted publishing label attached to bilge titles pitched to consumers via flimsy, friction-filled marketing tactics could prove extremely destructive for reading. Companies such as News Corp, AT&T, Google, and Facebook jump to mind. The last thing we need is further leveraged commodification of story.
There is still much to be lost when it comes to how much we trust the information we read in books. In a recent survey, 35% of those participating stated they trust the news they read on Facebook. The rest of social media faired slightly better at 39%. Newspapers came in at 63%, radio at 66%, and TV at 70%. Magazines ranked at a surprising 80% trustworthiness! Too bad print magazines are slowly dying out.
The survey didn't rank print books, because they are not often a source of current events or news. But I can promise you books are still trusted at a much higher level than social media. Part of this is due to the image traditional publishers have preserved--the perception that books (nonfiction and fiction) are high-quality, professional endeavors.
High-quality and professional aren't synonymous with expensive and snooty, mind you. Comics can tell high-quality, professional stories. The same goes for pulps, graphic novels, and genre fiction of all sorts. For the most part, over the last century, when we've picked up a book we've expected it to be a professional product. We were confident it would be original art. We trusted it to be well thought out and to be professionally packaged. We didn't suspect it of being "fake" or being a "scam."
This kind of consumer trust has been earned, and it can be lost. Reading is already suffering enough pressure from mobile gaming and other immersive forms of entertainment that have adapted to modern technologies and lifestyles much more readily than narrative fiction. As Pirate Authors, we need to strive for protecting the trustworthiness of narrative fiction, nonfiction, and storytelling in general.
The Evolution of the Information High Seas
In today's information high seas, traditional publishers have lost their former glory. But they still have power, and they still have value. Gatekeepers, or in this case Port Authorities, have a valuable purpose. Traditional publishers are evolving in an attempt to become more lean and more relevant port authorities for the information high seas.
Over the next decade, new port authorities will emerge with the help of smart pirate authors. It is my personal belief that at least a couple of the big five traditional publishers will evolve successfully enough to remain relevant. They will become important pieces of the new publishing industry as it settles around whatever new structures emerge to safeguard storytelling and the written word.
As an author, to owe one's blind allegiance to any single port o' call or to fly exclusively under the colors of a traditional publisher even at the expense of your audience no longer makes sense. The modern day pirate author should have the awareness and wherewithal to shift their allegiance and fly whichever flag ultimately benefits their storytelling, their brand, and therefore their audience.
This is the sort of author I am advocating set sail upon the high seas of today's publishing industry. I'm openly advocating for the era of Pirate Publishing. Pirate Publishing is the best hope in our fight against the fear-mongering of the Information Dealers.
Should Pirate Authors use traditional publishers?
Yes. When your story and your goals align with the advantages of traditional publishing, then traditional publishing is absolutely the way to go. Flying a publisher's flag will sometimes come with benefits such as protection, prestige, distribution through vast trade routes, entry into diverse ports, etc. But there are always trade offs of which the author should be aware.
When flying your own colors, the Pirate Author is beholden to no one but the reader. There's no escaping the reader, unless you have no commercial aspirations. The value of your cargo (your story) on the open market is always decided by the reader. A story told and published under a pirate flag has a much keener chance of being pure--of being true to itself.
Of course, without any authorities insisting it remain in dry dock, that story is also free to suck and therefore sink in shark-infested waters. These are among the live-and-learn experiences of a Pirate Author. It's while stranded on a desert island we are forced to rethink our strategy. We barter passage on a tramp steamer, we gamble in a few seedy pubs, we do the hard and dirty work until we find ourselves once again sailing the high seas (even more determined to not capsize and sink).
Today's publishing high seas aren't what they were fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. What used to require the assistance of a publisher and the power of their flag for a story to successfully navigate to readers is no longer the case. What used to be a few mapped portions of the ocean has now been blown wide open to include the entire diverse ocean of readers.
The few safe trade routes have multiplied into hundreds. Available niche audiences and genres have exploded in number. Sailing vessels have technologically advanced. In other words, flying the flag of a major publisher is no longer necessary for an author to deliver a good story to an eager paying audience. But in some cases, it will still be advantageous.