There was a time – from memory, around the turn of the century – when the phrase ‘content is king’ was popular with conference speakers. Any publishing executive, when asked a difficult question, could wing it by telling the audience that ‘content is king’ and conjure an impression that something impressive had just been said.
That this is no longer so is simply because ‘content is king’ has become a commonplace. “‘Content is king’, you say? Oh, we all know that!”
But is it true? In one sense it certainly is. That is, publications that don’t provide any content aren’t going to be very successful. There are, of course, companies such as Moleskin that publish blank notebooks – but these aren’t publications. In fact, a publication without content is simply a contradiction in terms.
In this sense, ‘content is king’ is true – but utterly trivial.
Is it true in any other way? Often the phrase has a missing term implied, namely ‘ownership’: ‘ownership of content is king’. Where used strictly, this implies that ownership of copyright outright, as opposed to mere licensing, confers an advantage. So it does, in that the owners are free to exploit the content in whichever formats they wish, whenever they wish – without the need for consultation or negotiation with its originators.
Yet this advantage is diminished by the very fact it is so obvious: that is, originators, or their agents, frequently recognise the value of ownership and so demand a premium price for parting with it.
At other times there is an alternative hidden term, namely ‘extant’: ‘extant content is king’. The argument here is that it is easier to schedule the publication and re-publication of content that already exists: one does not have to wait for creative (i.e. unreliable, mercurial) types to write the stuff.
This indeed is true, though the advantage can be offset by the fact that content is often perishable – or, rather, its value is, as content can go out of date. But even when content retains its value, there is a problem here, which is that, generally, content is no good on its own. That is, it needs always to be embodied in some way. It is here (even with digital publications) that the traditional book crafts – design, typography, indexing, and so on – come into play,
Take, for example, Madsen Pirie’s book, How to win every argument – a book that I was pleased to commission. It has, I’m glad to say, proved successful on both sides of the Atlantic – much more so that Madsen’s earlier book, The Book of the Fallacy. Yet the content of the two books is almost identical.
What explains the difference in their fortunes? The new title helped and so too did the design – a smaller format, which sits more easily in the hand, and a jacket design that ahs a clean, fresh, feel. Here content wasn’t king (though of course, the content needed to be strong): if anything was king, it was design.
The fact that content always needs to be embodied – and the process of embodiment requires skill, judgement, resources, and time – helps to explain the point that John Thompson notes in his Merchants of Culture (Polity): the vogue for media conglomerates to buy publishers – in the expectation of exploiting their literary content through other media – has often failed to produce the anticipated harvest.
The cliché ‘content is king’ will probably live on: somehow propositions such as ‘the ability to republish extant materials offers some advantages, provided other parts of the publishing mix are put in place’ don’t have the same ring. But the truth is, it is a phrase with little force behind it.
PS I noticed a post taking a sceptical line on the idea that ‘content is king’, from a content marketing perspective. The post, on King’s content, is here: http://jkconsultancy27.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/is-content-really-king/.