I recently read the book, The Long Tail (Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More) by Chris Anderson (editor and founder of Wired magazine). Basically, it's about how technology (especially the internet) is changing the way markets work (including or especially cultural markets) by 1) democratizing the tools of production, 2) democratizing the tools of distribution, and 3) connecting supply and demand.
The first element means more and more types of products to be created. The second means that more of them can be more easily offered to the public. And the third makes it possible for the public to find and get what they want. By doing this, business ends up needed to rely less on having huge "hits" when they have a product and can make a good chunk of their money by providing products for niche markets. Think of Amazon, Netflix, eBay, Rhapsody, iTunes.
Ah, but what does any of this have to do about writing?
First off, look at how modern technology has affected the means of producing written works. Not long ago, it was pretty laborious to write a novel or play. Working with a typewriter is painstaking work, and even the old word processors took a fair bit of effort. Then the submission process to agents, publishers, or theatres took hard work and patience, even to handle the physical aspects. There were no e-mail submissions. You had to photocopy everything, not just run off copies on your laser printer. (Anderson talks a lot in the book about how easy it is for people to make short films or recorded music.) All of this provided a barrier to the creation of new written works. It wasn't a huge barrier, but definitely restricted supply. Now, however, it's easier than ever to write and send manuscripts. As it gets easier, more and more people are able and interested in doing it. Not only that, but in terms of publishing a novel, there are huge opportunities for self and POD publishing and distribution.
The good part of this is that more people are able to express themselves creatively than ever before. The bad news for writers who want to make a living at writing, is that there is a glut of material and people who are writing. Book publishers and play producers have less incentive to make good deals with writers than ever before, and less incentive to treat professional writers fairly.
Unfortunately, in his book, Anderson doesn't at all talk about the impact of the Long Tail on the creators of products. If companies shift to selling fewer copies of more items, it means that workers end up making less. Now writers need to write more, because niche marketing is going to demand more creations, each of which will have a limited market.
The possible upside for writers comes from his point #2, democratization of distribution. If, rather than relying on large publishing companies to select which books (or plays) most people are likely to consume, effective filters (through recommendations, search engines, social networking) are what drive sales, then creators can come out ahead, because even though they'll reach smaller audiences, they'll get a larger percentage of each sale. At the moment, that's not happening, because publishers are taking most of the money out of the middle of the sales chain (much of it for production). In the future, if more writers end up selling completely directly to readers, then that's a whole different ballgame.
The whole Long Tail effect seems pretty clear on book publishing, but I'm still trying to understand better how it relates to plays. I see its effect with regard to play publishers (look at the rise of publishers like Playscripts.com, with their strong online interface), but in the actual realm of producing plays, the long tail doesn't seem to come into play. Though technology allows for more plays to be written, it doesn't allow for more of them to actually be physically be produced. This bottleneck is harmful to playwrights (and there's not much we can do about it). Basically, it's a reminder to write plays if you love to write them, but understand that your chances of getting productions, especially decently paying productions, will continue to decline.
Indeed, the economics of producing plays is fairly dismal. It still takes the same number of people to put on a play now (basically) as it did a hundred years ago. There's precious little room for increased efficiency in the process. You can only reach so many people at a time in one small space. And although ticket prices for theatre have risen, but there's constant competition with mass mediums, that can operate more efficiently. As was pointed out in a recent issue of The Dramatist, royalty rates paid by theatres to produce published plays have scarcely risen in a generation. But playwrights have to pay rents, food prices and healthcare costs that have all skyrocketed in the past 30 years. And all of this has happened while public funding for the arts and artists has dropped dramatically. Remember when the NEA actually gave grants directly to playwrights? Big grants, ones that might help you live for a year or two. Playwriting isn't dying, there are plenty of people interested in writing plays, but the days of people making their living from it are over. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's a great thing for theatre, because it takes a lot of time spent both writing at home and rewriting in rehearsal, to mold great playwrights, and I think we'll see less ultimately development of professional craftsmanship with writers of theatre.
I used to think that playwriting classes and programs were mildly immoral, because they were teaching people to do something at which they could no longer make a living. However, part of this book got me thinking about revising that opinion. It's a good thing that lots of people want to pursue their passion and write plays. Good for them. I still don't think it's a good thing to charge them tens of thousands of dollars for MFAs, but I think it is actually a decent act to help people learn to write plays. Hell, maybe I'll even teach a class. Because I know why they want to do it. But I know (and have known) better than to expect to earn my bread from writing plays anymore.