Thinking out loud about the attention economy

For those that have not been paying attention (which would be most of you, because it really doesn’t affect you directly), diamond comics distributor has raised the sales limits on the books that it will allow in their catalogs. This is huge, because diamond is the only distributor for comic books in North America, period. The new rule is that if a book does not get $2,500 worth of sales, the solicitation will get pulled.

what this does, in all practicality, is destroy direct marketing to comics shops as an avenue for small print-run publishers (like myself). As it turns out, I really wasn’t counting on diamond distributors as a sales avenue in the first place. But even if I was, the door has closed.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that if people like me want to get noticed, we have to get creative. Which is where the attention economy comes into play? I was struck by this yesterday, when I went to the webcomic list and saw how much noise there was on the page – how many different kinds of comics there were competing for my eyeballs and my attention.

My first thought was that in this environment, advertising revenue becomes a kind of closed loop, where the money gets passed from people seeking to advertise to people who want to keep their visibility up. Getting into that ecosystem is worthwhile to a point, but what point?

I have this refrain running through my head – “abandon all hope of profit, ye who enter here.” essentially; this refers to the fact that small print publishing is not an inherently profitable enterprise. For this reason, the people who do it have to work for the love of the medium without regard for eventual reward. It’s a crazy thing to do, but the whole point is that if you are not compelled to do this, you probably shouldn’t.

Another phrase that this brings to mind comes from the Tao of Steve – “be without desire.” in this case, I modify that slightly into “be without concern for profit.” in the attention economy, money is not just a distant concern; it is almost an unachievable goal. Once you realize that it’s not attainable, it becomes easy to be unconcerned with it. And by disregarding money as the goal, commercial concerns go out the window as well. All of which can become enormously liberating, from a content point of view.

Going back to the Tao of Steve, I wonder if the rest of the tenets from that philosophy have any relevance in the attention economy. Number two is “be excellent.” as it turns out, Scott McCloud’s four tenets for up-and-coming comics artists (learn from everyone, follow no one, watch for patterns and work like hell) dovetail perfectly here. So, yes. Do good things and produce good content.

On to number three, which is where the Tao of Steve becomes problematic. “Retreat, for as Heidegger says, ‘we pursue that which retreats from us.'” it would not be wrong to point out that I’m still parsing this one, because it is so massively counter-intuitive. I want people to notice what I have produced and, ideally, to read it as well.

Obviously, one of my favorite approaches to problem solving is to find other viewpoints and match them up to the problem at hand in the hopes that someone else’s answers might inform my own. To this end, Kevin Kelly’s concept of intangible generatives that cannot be reproduced at no cost come in very handy. Of these, the concept of findability – where “being found is valuable” – is the most relevant. And retreating, in this context, seems like a very bad idea. It is absolutely the worst thing to do in this situation.

But this is the Tao we’re talking about. The inherent paradox is what makes it worth considering. And, in an age where broadcast becomes synonymous with spam, I’m starting to wonder if the idea of exclusivity – content that is only available to those “in the know” becomes more attractive.

I don’t know. But I’m thinking really hard.