Last evening I reviewed a book by Charles Stross. Today, I’d like to encourage you to read his essay The monetization paradox (or why Google is not my friend). It’s got me thinking about how we can ensure that writers still write books. And also measuring: I discovered that, since 2003, I’ve written 1.22 million words in this space. Yow.

The problem of how we pay for journalism is hot stuff right now, as current business models seem pretty well done for and we don’t have replacements in sight. Stross broadens the question: How do we arrange to pay writers to write? He drills down and does some numbers, with specific reference to Google’s business model; I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced by his analysis, but I’m glad I read it.

Among other things, he’s pretty unhappy about the Google Books settlement. So, now I am too. I’ve assumed, based on history, that anything a traditional-media-company executive says about the Internet is stupid and wrong. On those grounds, I’d ignored the publishers’ whining about Google. But if it’s going to damage the business model for people like Stross, then that’s a problem for me personally, because I enjoy reading his works and would like to be able to go on paying something in the range of current book prices in order to do so.

Stross is also negative about Kindle, even with the recent royalty adjustment from Amazon; I think that’s premature simply because we have no understanding yet of what the business impact is going to be of having moved from dead trees to downloadable bits.

We really need an economic structure that incents writers to write, or there goes one of the best arguments for having a civilization at all. On that basis, I think it behooves more of us to get real excited about this.

I have exactly zero expectation that the traditional publishing business is a good source of ideas on how to build the next one. But to start with, do please go read Charlie’s rant.

I may have a very personal motive, as well. Stross’ remarks about how many words he can write per year motivated me to wonder how much I have, so I wrote a little Ruby script to run over the XML source files for ongoing and count ’em. The actual number, not including this article, was 1,222,909. It’s inexact, not including titles and image alt texts, but including some documents I’ve copied-in, not actually written. Close enough. By the way, the average piece here has 355 or so words.

So I was actually thinking, in the not unlikely event that I find myself between jobs real soon now, that I should combine some blog mining and heads-down writing and try to produce a book. I even have a title picked: Life Online. Because I’ve been living that way since the Eighties and have written a whole bunch about it and think I could be amusing on the subject for a few hundred pages, while providing some useful advice.

But you know, just like Charlie Stross, I’d like to get paid for it. Any publishers reading this?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Michael (Jan 21 2010, at 16:05)

Tim, the essay basically says "well, Google wants everything to be free, and I don't like that". There's one throwaway sentence about the Google Books settlement, and there's no supporting documentation.

Furthermore, opting in to the settlement appears (to my reading) to allow the author to withdraw his books completely.

Check out the info at and make your own decision. It's not clear that Stross has.


From: Eric Larson (Jan 21 2010, at 16:38)

It is interesting to me that you make the obvious personal identification with books and see it as a characteristic of civilization. It is not that I don't agree, but rather, I think it is sad that while authors seem to get a break in terms of sympathy from readers as their business becomes cannibalized via the web, musicians are asked to just get over the fact that no one pays for music.

I'm not suggesting that you're advocating pirating music or have done so in the past. Rather, I'm just pointing out my hope that someday more people make the same realization that unless people to help finance records, you'll never get that fantastic song you can't stop listening to all summer.


From: Jon Renaut (Jan 21 2010, at 16:59)

I saw your comment on Charlie Stross' post. You may not have seen mine, since it was maybe 200 comments ago, but there are publishers thinking about how authors can make a living now in ways that will still work when the majority of people read books on something other than paper.

We have to start from the author and go from there, not start from the publisher. I think the way the publishing industry works right now has to change really drastically, and thinking about how publishers need to change instead of what authors need is a mistake. You'll arrive at a very different destination if you start from the publisher, and I think that will be to the detriment of both authors and readers.

Anyway, is starting from the authors. We're launching very soon, and we'd love to help you publish your book.

Jon Renaut



From: Mike (Jan 21 2010, at 21:00)

Yeah, he's a bright guy. So it's how he misunderstood the Google settlement.

If he opts out, Google doesn't put his books online. If they somehow screw up through a clerical error, you just point it out to them, problem solved.


From: David Semeria (Jan 22 2010, at 00:35)

Tim, why would you give away your code but want to be paid for your words?

What's the difference? BTW, I'm not arguing your expectations for books are too high, rather those for software are too low.

It's all your IP after all.


From: Jonathan Hartley (Jan 22 2010, at 01:20)


I don't understand why more writers don't seem curious about the idea of, instead of hiring a publisher and getting paid a small percentage of sales, instead keeping 100% of sales and using the money to hire a publicist. Making books available in as many electronic formats as they can sensibly convert them into. Charge $5 or less for the electronic versions - and accept happily that there is also going to be lots of piracy, but that this serves the role of promotion, for this book and future books, as well.

Presumably someone with more balls and experience could also look at hiring a printer too, to produce actual hard copy. Presumably this is hard because it requires up-front capital and involves the risk of printing too many.

Presumably an editor would have to be hired too, especially for less experienced authors.

My intuition is that these people could be hired, freelance, for less than the 85% of sales that a publisher takes. Maybe I'm wrong. I know nothing about writing or publishing - Perhaps the numbers simply don't add up. But I'm curious why we don't see more people at least talking about it, or trying to find ways to make it work.


From: Dwight Gunning (Jan 22 2010, at 02:26)

+1 for writing and publishing a book!


From: Joe Ganley (Jan 22 2010, at 05:17)

I won't claim that I am typical, but there is certainly another side to this argument. A book available for free online will never prevent me from buying a book if it is available. And a locked e-book ecosystem actually gets the writers more of my money than paper books: I just bought a Kindle, and I find myself buying a lot of books on it that I would normally have gotten from the library. Cory certainly asserts that making his work available for free does not cut into its sales; if anything, just the opposite. Case in point: I just discovered a writer (Robin Sloan) with a bunch of work available online for free. I'm reading a novella I found there and loving it. I will surely pass some money that author's way in the future, and were it not for that freely available text I would probably never have discovered him.

The calculus is obviously different for news, which is both shorter and more time-critical, but you and Stross were talking about books. I'm not convinced that Google Books is going to cost authors revenue.


From: Harald (Jan 22 2010, at 06:41)

The existing writer / publisher / bookstore model is broken, as we've seen with the carnage in the Midlist. The challenge for authors is trying to navigate the complicated, chaotic feedback loops between consumers and the rest of the system. Authors want to write good books, and readers want to read good books, but they often disagree on the definition of "good", and the publishers / bookstores in the middle hurt that negotiation instead of helping it.

I think the answer will be the Internet's famed disintermediation. Getting publishers and booksellers out of the way is probably going to be the long-term solution, because it will reduce the chaos and uncertainty around connecting writers and readers. I don't know if Google helps or hurts that process, unfortunately.

(Someone above tried to drag the music industry into this argument. The music industry is a textbook example of how publishers ruthlessly abused both their artists and their consumers. The resulting backlash against purchasing music from the "Big 4" will, hopefully, cause the same change to music - disintermediation.)


From: Mark (Jan 22 2010, at 07:20)

Overall, Charlie's post seems whiney. What I read was (paraphrasing): "I want to do exactly what I have done the past 25 years with no change or impact to me, despite the changes and evolution going on in the world. I don't want to market, I don't want to speak, I don't want to write anything other than what I like to write, in the format I like to write it, and I want a model which will pay me to do that, the same way it has over the last 25 years."

I hate to rain on Charlie's parade, but the world doesn't work that way.

I'm sure there is some old programmer who was comfortable writing COBOL, and thought himself and artist at it. There was some CPU architect who felt he should be able to stay in the world of 100,000 transistor dies and MHz speeds.

We are in a changing world, not unlike the dinosaurs after the comet struck. But the truth is, the world has always been dynamic and changing and impacting some of us. We just have ignored such changes when the aren't directly impacting us.


From: gvb (Jan 22 2010, at 08:09)

<rant> I am incensed by the pseudo word incent. </rant>


From: Dan Connolly (Jan 22 2010, at 09:00)

I hope we'll get back to patronage as the dominant mechanism of funding art.

The "you'll never get those great songs if you don't pay royalties for recordings" argument doesn't wash, for me. I suppose it takes a huge up-front investment to make Avatar-sized movies, so if we want those, we need "studios" (funny how far the meaning of that word has stretched, huh?) as risk-aggregators. But people can and do make books and songs with no funding at all.

Here's an idea for your book: use . You just decide how much you want to make from writing the book, tell, point your readers there, and let them throw a few dollars in the kitty. When the goal is met, the deal is struck.

Then you can sell paper copies thru or the like and keep ~80% of the sales price.

I'm sure you have enough contacts to hire your own editor.


From: JulesLt (Jan 22 2010, at 10:54)

I didn't find Charles post whiny, and you have to take some of it with a pinch of salt (he's pretty good at marketing online, and does paid conference appearances) - the question is whether these are skills we particularly want in authors, or how we want our authors spending their time.

(Ditto with music - I don't want bands that concentrate on creating a brand in order to sell T-shirts. I want something like the Trembling Bells or The Family Elan, who create recorded artefacts of mystery and beauty).

The problem - as I articulated on Charles blog - is that a lot of the new models are based around a 'fan' relationship - about engaging a passionate audience. But the reality is there is a huge audience of people who are not 'fans'.

I think the answer is relatively straight forward - the 'purchasing MP3s and ebooks' (in DRM free form) is the least worst option in terms of connecting money from readers to authors.

There are lots of systems out there (most European transit systems) where the users can easily exploit them, and the poor/young or criminal often do, but the system hangs together because most people believe in it, and know that if most people didn't pay, it would fall apart.

They do not presume that the city tram network should be funded by a small group of fans buying T-shirts and a visit from a tram driver - or some other such things which actually have little value to the vast majority of users.

We just make not paying a social gaffe, along with fare-dodging and tax avoidance - a sign of someone avoiding their contribution to society - taking more than they give.


From: Bill de hÓra (Jan 22 2010, at 12:54)

You and Charlie Stross might be interested in this


Can that work for books?


From: Jack (Jan 23 2010, at 12:15)

It's scary that "current business models seem pretty well done for and we don’t have replacements in sight", but you're absolutely right. It's going to be very interesting to see how the industry evolves to support authors over the next few years.

The shift from print to digital as the preferred method for book distribution is right around the corner, and with it comes the same piracy problem that music has had over the bast 8 years. A lot of music industry people seem to think that a subscription service is the answer, but I'm not sure how well that will play out with books. There's also the Anjuno 'let everything be free and your readers will still support you model', but that is untested. It's going to be an interesting next few years for books, and I hope you do find a way to get paid for what you write.


From: Gerard (Jan 23 2010, at 13:45)

Somehow I don't think people will stop writing just because they don't get paid for it. There has always been art and there always will be.


From: Phil Varner (Jan 23 2010, at 18:55)

I'd sure like to work with you a lot more than read a book you wrote :) Should you find yourself unemployed anytime soon, involuntarily or otherwise, check out Jive Software.


From: Brad Ackerman (Jan 24 2010, at 09:09)

JulesLt: Your assumption about transit systems is that entry/exit barriers make fare evasion impossible, which is not correct.

I haven't used European transit systems that much, as I live in the UK[1], but when I was in Berlin recently my ticket was checked once in a week. It's hard to draw much conclusions from that, but if you can expect a 1x/week ticket check with a fine of €40, that's more expensive than buying tickets at €32/week[2] and quite a bit more expensive than a monthly or yearly pass.

[1] Everything other than intercity service is gated; also, all of the public transit does stupid things like having a Sunday schedule that's a fourth of Saturday's for no reason whatsoever. Outside of London and maybe Edinburgh and Glasgow, everyone has a car if they a) can afford it and b) aren't medically precluded from driving.

[2] ABC fare zones — everything in Berlin city limits and then some. Yes, that's quite a bit more reasonable than Boston's or DC's for much better service.


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