The reality of digital content (lose the cookie, lose the fortune?)

A magazine with a million subscribers might spend more than a million dollars to deliver a single issue to its subscribers. A million dollars spent on postage, printing, subscription sales, fulfillment, ad sales, sub rights and more. I wouldn't be surprised if the freelance budget for the writers and photographers (the real reason people read the magazine) is less than 15% of the cost, perhaps a lot less.

The economics of this business are interesting. Millions spent, millions earned, and almost all of it goes to pay for the paper and the friction it brings.

Now, we fast forward to a world, our world, where the cost of delivery is zero and so we've removed 95% of the costs.

What happens to the writers and photographers? Where do they get their money now?

Without fortune cookies, are there fortunes?

See, Gourmet magazine or the frontlist at a midlist publisher were mostly wrapper. They were 95% fluff and overhead and only a sliver spent for the actual content. And now the wrapper, the cookie is gone.

The bad news: Conde Nast and Simon & Schuster and the other usual suspects are no longer going to pay decent wages to average writers. And average photographers aren't going to make a living shooting weddings when the guests can do almost as well and all the photos are going on flickr anyway.

The good news: There's a new job, but this job hasn't been filled yet. It's not stable enough for a publisher type to grab it. It's not boring enough for a bureaucrat. Instead, it's a job for someone with a writer's sensibility and awareness, but it requires entrepreneurship and organization.

What happens when the people with great ideas start organizing for themselves, start leading online tribes, start creating micro products and seminars and interactions that people are actually willing to pay for? It's possible that someone like (nsfw) writer Susie Bright is never again going to make a good living just writing. Instead, she could make a great living coordinating, organizing, introducing and leading a thousand or ten thousand true fans. Each of them will gladly pay for the privilege, because the connections and insights and benefits she brings are worth it. She didn't wake up this morning thinking of herself as a coach or a tour leader or a concierge or a leader, but that's the niche available to her.

The Grateful Dead spent thirty years without a record label that understood them, thirty years being their own boss, leading their own tribe, connecting people who wanted to be there instead of shilling for their tiny share of record sales.

If you want to write the fortunes for the cookies that don't exist any more, you may need to make your own organization, lead your own tribe and hire yourself.