Does Quality Always Win?

Jane Friedman at 2012 National Magazine Awards

Jane at 2012 National Magazine Awards (NYC)

I had the very good fortune of attending this year’s National Magazine Awards in New York City. Even though I’m not yet officially on staff of the Virginia Quarterly Review, I was able to tag along and see if any of the three nominations would turn into wins. (Sadly, not this year.)

The final award of the evening was given to Time, as Magazine of the Year. The editor who came up to accept said, “We will win in the long run. Quality wins.”

What did he mean by that?

I’m not really sure. Presumably “we” refers to the magazine industry, and magazines will win because they put out quality material unlike … who? Bloggers like myself? Online-only publications? Atavist? Salon? Huffington Post? Flipboard? Netflix? Google? Amazon? Apple? Wikipedia? Cable television? All of the above?

What comes to mind is a recent column by David Brooks. He has a unique argument to make about why we ought to move away from the “competition” mindset that’s prevalent in our culture:

Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too.

[We’re] talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. You’ve established a creative monopoly and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.

That probably hasn’t provided an ounce of clarity, has it?

But I sure would like to know why a magazine might feel threatened in such a way that it must defiantly insist, “Quality wins!” Would it not be more valuable, as Brooks points out, to establish a distinct market, niche, and identity? (Especially if you’re media agnostic about it?)

I hope everyone will discuss in the comments, especially your thoughts on whether quality always wins.


Upcoming Online Classes

Posted in Publishing Industry.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

Join the conversation

57 Comments on "Does Quality Always Win?"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Joe Bunting

Good article, Jane. Obviously quality doesn’t win. If it did, people would still be paying fortunes for handmade, hand-illustrated books made by monks. Instead, people pay a fraction because the technology (and, thus, business model) changed. I wonder how many monks couldn’t sell their beautiful, high quality books, and complained, “But my books are better quality.”

TNeal

 That depends on the item. Quality often involves few sales but excellent pricing. I have a cousin who paints gorgeous landscapes. He doesn’t sell many but, when he sells a painting (and he does), he earns a living. I don’t even ask his prices because I know I can’t afford them.

I read about a book that sold for $4,000. Who would pay that much for a single book? Collectors.

Quality can sell, even hand-illustrated books made by monks, if you know your target consumer and reach them.

Joe Bunting

Sure. I agree with that. I guess the question then is, what’s more profitable, quality or scalability? And of course, every artist strives for both. They have their originals and their postcards. 

That doesn’t seem to be TIMEs problem though. They’re scaled. They don’t have a signed first edition they can sell for a small fortune. Maybe they should.

Phil Simon

Joe is right. Case in point: Jersey shore. Quality sometimes prevail with the help of good fortune.

Catherine Johnson

Great analysis, Jane. I know a couple of small businesses that have really taken off with that mindset.

David YB Kaufmann

No, quality doesn’t always win, at least not when it counts. And Brooks’s comment doesn’t offer much clarity: creating a new market is competitive, and dominating it more so. (Consider the personal computer or tablets.) Sounds like the editor felt his status threatened. The discussion also sounds rather academic: some tenured professors turf-protecting, other professors – tenured or not – actually thinking they can positively impact students, students creating chaotic mazes intellectual and social, and administrations playing hardball moneyball. Ask a general, usually the hardest part of a war is creating and maintaining supply lines and chain of command. 

florence fois
Sadly Jane, I do not believe that quality always wins. I also believe that quality can be found in all of the choices we have in our modern world. There is a tendency to believe that the speed or convenience of our cyber world automatically translates into “easy” or “not as good as.” Nothing can be farther from the truth. Quality does not diminish based on how it is communicated. Has print journalism fallen victim to the mad rush for instant gratification? Perhaps, but there is still a great deal to be said for Glimmer Train and other lit magazines.… Read more »
Clive Strugnell

In my opinion quality is a valuable component of any product or service which adds to the value of that product. If the product is then marketed effectively using the quality component as one of the main benefits of buying or using it, it will successfully compete in it’s marketplace. Also quality is usually easily discernable through the performance and longevity of the product, and provides the most valuable sales promotional aspect there is..word of mouth endorsement.

WhtchplVampire

Ahhh…in this case, and this is solely my humble opinion without one shred of evidence, I think Time magazine may feel threatened because it has in many ways lost touch with the reading public. Is this true of magazines in general? I don’t believe it is, but as you alluded, there is a plethora of other sources for news, and a host of “niche” magazines. Time feels particularly threatened, I believe, because it has tilted too far to the left in its reportage and has shown its petticoats, so to speak. But then again, that is just my opinion.

TNeal
I recently self-pubbed a novel, “Dark Eyes, Deep Eyes.”  A local journalist had already interviewed another self-pub author earlier in the week and, after previewing the book, she had no desire to give the book any newspaper space. She found any plausible excuse (meaning anything the author would believe) to not do a write up on it (we have a small-town weekly). She was pleasantly surprised to find my book engaging and well done (having an excellent editor on board helps tons!). In a short exchange during her interview of me, I learned the importance of quality. I know slack… Read more »
Bonnie Jean

No, Quality does not “always win” and it will continue to be increasingly  harder for quality to win until someone figures out what the magic button is for funding free-to-the-consumer quality content.(Insert shoulder shrug here, because I dunno)  I just had this conversation on Wednesday. A friend told me, “If  an article I want to read requires a subscription then I just keep surfing until I find the info I’m looking for, for free.”

The Career Builder ad should read:
Innovation wanted – Publishing industry
Whatta ya got?

Vanessa
Quality does not always win. We have 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight to prove that, along with most reality television shows and landfills filled with products that broke quickly so we’d buy more. I also didn’t read into it anything about the format of magazine vs. any of those other things you mentioned so much as I read that as content. To me, at least, and maybe it’s just that my entire mindset is that whether it’s paper or digital, handwritten or typed, on a kindle or in a library, it doesn’t matter, that’s all just a method of… Read more »
Jamie Clarke Chavez
Perhaps what the Time editor should have said is “A good product wins.” Or maybe “Consumer trust [which springs from a good product] wins.” Because I do think the news magazines—particularly if, as Jane says, you are media agnostic about it—do a great job of presenting important news without bias (unless it is op-ed!) while also helping readers make sense of it. I think they do help shape intelligent public discussion. (Personally, I prefer Newsweek to Time, but I grew up with Newsweek and have subscribed for 40 years myself.) I absolutely DO believe, though, that quality wins (in the… Read more »
Alicia von Stamwitz

Yes, quality wins, if by quality we mean by *excellence.* If all we mean is *superiority,* then anyone can compete and dominate. 

Cathy Day
If by “winning” we mean “being read 100 years from now” (which may not be what the editor of Time meant–it’s hard to discern what he means from that isolated quote) then I think that yes, quality often does win. I’m doing a lot of historical research about books, newspapers, and magazines published 100 years ago, and it’s interesting how difficult it is to find some of that time’s “best-sellers.” A hundred years ago, one of the best-selling newspapers in the country was the New York Morning Telegraph, but you can’t find it anywhere, not even at the New York… Read more »
Oliver Yeh

In the arts, quality is subjective, a moving target. And when we argue about quality in a specific art (e.g., literature), often the market speaks loudest (unfortunately).

Mary Tod
Does quality win? When under attack you can fight using traditional tactics, retreat and regroup for another day, deploy a flanking strategy or change the game entirely. I would argue that the ideas you’ve presented by David Brooks suggest a ‘game changing’ approach within the context of a competitive environment. Quality needs to be accompanied by a clear understanding of the market direction, not past markets but future markets. A friend of mine who works in marketing suggested that markets are bifurcating into high-end and low-end with little middle ground remaining. If true, this would suggest the need to decide… Read more »
John Wiswell
It is funny that you quoted someone from a major newspaper instead of bloggers like us, Jane. Then again, Brooks is often at least slightly better than his competition. Winky face. I don’t see why you interpreted the Times quote as being pro-magazine. Without the context of all of what was said, I’d interpret it as either 1) The Times will survive because it puts out quality work that people will pay for, or 2) That quality work will always find a market. Unfortunately I don’t believe either entirely, and there’s evidence that 2) is factually incorrect. Consider how no… Read more »
Anne R. Allen

Good point from Joe Bunting about the monks. People like cheap and easy.

If “quality” won, then seasoned, virtuoso musicians would make more money than the auto-tuned pop princess du jour.  What “wins” is what can be owned and controlled by corporate oligarchs. (Unless, perhaps we want to re-define “winning” as something other than financial success.)But I like Brooks’ argument, which might be seen as a corollary to the “long tail”: find a niche and be the best frog you can be in your little pond. 

ShakirahDawud
I think this has a lot more to do with what the editor meant by “winning.” Because he clarified “we” with “quality.” I could stretch that to include my own content, but I think it’s pretty clear he was talking about his own industry. I can’t say I’m offended or feeling excluded or competitive because I could easily make the same speech when I accept an award. But the winning thing: If he meant “we (magazines) get the most money…” Well, time will tell, but it don’t seem to be swinging that way these days. If he meant “we’ll be read the most and… Read more »
Melinda VanLone
I don’t think quality always wins. I think it rarely wins. I’ve helped judge contests before, and I know from experience it’s such a fickle thing to win one. Or to be given any award. Everything from politics to mood swings is in play, and the one who comes out on top might just be because they have the biggest name in the room and someone didn’t want to piss them off. I saw it in my own career as well. Every day we let quality go in the name of cheaper/faster/good enough. The cult of mediocrity won. Not quality.… Read more »
cast29

Most of us like to think that quality wins, but I don’t think that’s always true.  Timeliness (no pun) is a factor, and with the quality of blogs today, I don’t buy mags as often as  I used to. (3 or 4 on a regular basis).  I don’t subscribe either.

Quality is subjective, and is better rated by the consumers, rather than people selling the product.

Laura
Quality wins in certain markets. I want quality when I purchase a car–the knowledge that the wheels won’t fall off. Quality in printed material is probably over-rated depending again, on the product. Comic books are entertaining, but haven’t always been the best quality. A blog post filled with information that is relevant to me may not be well written, but it’s the info I’m after, not the quality. I do expect that items I pay a certain price for have a certain level of quality. In terms of the printed word (especially from a magazine like Time) I would rate… Read more »
Josh Hogg

On top of establishing your own niche, I think it’s just as important to keep up with the times and allow yourself room to grow into the future, rather than holding onto an old business model. I’m sure many magazines are working on their online presence and moving towards virtual distribution, but unless you’re on the front lines of change, there isn’t much room to be innovative and establish your niche.

Wordbeeps

Damnit, Jane. You look that good- and you like bourbon. Goodness. I definitely have to attend a magazine awards dinner in future. (I have to admit I have to Google bourbon. I have NO idea what they heck that is made from. It sounds very flammable.) Oh, yes, the quality issue. Well. I think I’ve mentioned that quite enough for a few words. Cheers. 

Ernie Zelinski

Quality will win only if people “want” quality and are willing to pay for it. Apple has proven this.

Note that I said “want.”

People may need certain quality to better their lives, but if they don’t believe that they need it, it’s a lost game.

To be successful, you have to sell people what they want and not what they need. Walmart has become very successful at this even though they don’t sell quality. 

So stick to creating products that people want even though you think that people need certain products to better their lives.
     

Anthony Caplan

Depends what win means. In the end, history always wins. And whatever lasts. In the short term, winners tend to rely on hype and marketing to keep a competitive advantage. Tooting your own horn is a basic form of marketing we all understand. American as apple pie. But, here, and I mean literally here, in the virtual commons, is where we all win. That’s a space I think none of us fully understands yet. Speaking of the power of marketing and winners, see my blog post on The Scream: http://thenewremembrance.blogspot.com.

runebug
Tragically, quality doesn’t always win. Just look at the most successful books, films, and music for evidence. If you lose the marketing game, it doesn’t matter how great your work is. It’s not fair! The only recourse is that you can channel some of that creativity and quality into making an innovative marketing campaign. Other blogs I’m reading tend to say that creating a new market is a bad idea, because then you have no one to link to you. I guess a new angle on a pre-existing market is more effective. Of course, if you get too caught up… Read more »
DC Gallin
First we have to define quality, which is impossible as we all perceive it differently. Until enough time has passed to see if it will survive its test, contemporary art and writing  will always be judged in a personal way. Right now there are very successful authors who fill a gap in the market or follow a trend or are conveniently priced. The writing is entertaining, a means to escape. It’s a direct continuation of TV culture and has a sure market. But quality doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with pricing or sales, even though it can, of course! The problem… Read more »
Paul Martin
If quality always wins, Time Magazine is in trouble. The magazine has been getting thinner every year, with less content of any consequence. Most people I know have switched to The Economist. I think David Brooks has been reading Seth Godin. Godin has a section on this topic in his book, Linchpin.  The point is, achieving quality on any absolute scale brings you to a point of diminishing returns. Consider the violin student determined to become the best in the world, practicing 6-8 hours a day. Her accomplishment may be stunning, but at some point the average listener can’t tell… Read more »
Barbara McDowell Whitt

Sometimes quality doesn’t win, but of course it often does. I am glad you have  included David Brooks’ thoughtful commentary. His thinking on creating a new market reminds me of J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. Marketing expert Susan Gunelius has written brilliantly about that in her book, Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). 

kat magendie
As (co-) Publishing Editor of an online journal, while attending panels (which I don’t often do), I hear the “paper vs online” thing quite often, or the “we have a gamillion readers-what do you have?”. Yeah, Rose & Thorn is a small online journal, but we  present quality prose, poetry, art, and honor our readers and submitters–we also pride ourselves on publishing unknown/never-before-published authors/poets/artists along with those who have been often-published, and we never look at a bio to make our choices. It’s an insult to our writers, poets, and artists, and our readers, to brush us off as if… Read more »
Oliver Yeh

There’s that word again, “quality.” I think it should be mentioned that (and if I don’t speak for you, please chime in) no one here commenting is looking for a demise somewhere. We’re in essence trying to help define what may or may not be definable and what it might take for magazines, journals, papers and other media outlets to survive in this ever-changing environment. There’s value to be found everywhere in differing flavors and intensities. I think the consensus that’s forming is there are pockets to be served and focus on quality is on a sliding scale depending on your consumer.

Sakuntala Gananathan

Jane, why do I get reminded of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes whenever I read some book reviews? Any writer who can afford a substantial marketing campaign gets rave reviews even before the book is published. How come? Because some big wig has given the nod and the media repeat the accolades parrot-wise. No, quality does not always win. Pray to the goddess of luck to smile upon all of us writers and poets who have to Scream to be noticed, Well, the Scream reminds me again of the Emperor’s New … Let me bid you bye before the art world comes chasing me!

Bharti Kirchner

I am not sure if quality always wins, although I’ll always hope that. The only thing you (as the creator/originator) can expect is personal satisfaction. Case in point: I spent an enormous amount of time on my latest novel (a mystery this time)Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. The print version will hit the market soon. This is the first time I am not writing mainstream. Do I worry about the book? Yes, I do. Mostly though I am happy that I’ve sweated over something entirely new for me.

Nina Amir
My degree is in magazine journalism, but I see magazine’s struggling as much as any other type  of print publication. They must focus on marketability. Just as books are evaluated for marketability, every article must be evaluated that way. And look at Newsweek–quality, there. But it has shrunken down to almost nothing. A sign of the economic times. Many a magazine, like a blog, can make it in a distinct market or  niche, by developing a strong identity–and by providing quality content. This draws readers even if the market is small. But to some extent, the publication must focus on… Read more »
Lorraine Devon Wilke
No, quality doesn’t always win, not by a long shot. Quality SOMETIMES wins; not always and not often enough. When I first started my career a bazillion years ago I was in an acting/writing class with a teacher who’d assure us that “the cream always rises to top” (a lactosial version of the “quality always wins” bromide!). Now, years later, I look at some of the most talented people in his class who worked really hard for their success only to NOT “rise” only to see others who who were clearly not “the cream.” But they were hot, they were… Read more »
Lorraine Devon Wilke

BTW, this -“I look at some of the most talented people in his class who worked really hard for their success only to NOT “rise” only to see others who who were clearly not ‘the cream.'” is supposed to read: “Now, years later, I look at some of the most talented people in his class who worked really hard for their success only to NOT “rise,” while others who were clearly not “the cream” did.” (had a trigger finger there! :). 

Clive Strugnell
Lorraine highlights the fact that the quality, in this case of novels, does not always rise to the top… The point is someone marketed the books that got to the top better than some of those that didn’t make it. However, if quality is part of the original product, it does give the marketer an advantage over someone marketing an inferior product. The end result is determined by how well the book was marketed. You can be the best looking, have an incredible personality, write fabulous stories and have the best connections, if the right people don’t know about you… Read more »
Dr Liz Alexander
What David Brooks is talking about is also known as “Blue Ocean Strategy” — there’s a book with the same name written by a couple from INSEAD, the top European business school, and always makes sense in terms of being #1 in a marketplace of 1 if you can manage it.  For me it’s not a case of quality “winning,” but that high quality is such a core value that everything else is pointless in comparison 🙂 My friend Rajesh Setty wrote a post about the rise of mediocrity: http://www.rajeshsetty.com/2011/10/25/7-reasons-for-the-rise-of-mediocrity/. I have no issue with trying my best and failing, although… Read more »
Kbuuk

Dr. Alexander beat us to the “Blue Ocean Strategy” comment.

Anyway, we think value more than quality always wins. And value is subjective to the individual. So when TIME magazine stops delivering value to masses of people, they’ll stop winning.

Michael LaRocca

it still wins in my world. The population shrinks daily, but we’re not extinct yet.

wpDiscuz