my writing doesn't want to be free

Okay, here's another one of those posts that requires background. Steven Poole recently described on his blog what happened when he decided to give away a book he wrote some years ago. He put a PDF version online and allowed people to download it, adding a PayPal button in case anyone wanted to contribute — which of course almost no one did. David Pogue linked to Poole's post in a recent post of his own explaining why he doesn't want PDFs of his own books widely available: they then become too easily copied and distributed and he loses sales.

It didn't take long, of course, for the freetards (as Fake Steve likes to call them) to ride into the breach, swords held aloft, slashdotting on all sides, to condemn these superannuated dinosaurs: first in the comments to the original posts, and then in counter-posts like this one on TechDirt by Mike Masnick. But nobody, least of all Masnick, is answering the challenge that Poole put forth with admirable ciarity.

If the breathless advocates of "the free distribution of ideas" are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don't think any such thing as a "professional writer" ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else.

All Masnick can do is to call Poole's little experiment the "give it away and pray" approach, and to say several times that that's "not a business model." But about a quarter of the way into his post Poole had already said, "Clearly this is not any kind of business plan." Poole has simply asked what a business plan, for him as a writer, would look like — and to this Masnick has no answer at all.

When Poole points out — in response to the surprisingly common argument that bands, say, can give away their records for free and make money with live shows and t-shirt sales — that computer programmers don't program for free and sell mousepads on the side, Masnick replies, serenely, that that comparison doesn't apply because programmers get salaries. Well, precisely. But rock musicians don't. Freelance writers don't. This is Poole's point, and David Pogue's too. They write for a living, so if they make their writing available for free, how do they pay the bills? That's what Poole is asking, and what no one is answering. Masnick says, over and over, "You give away the infinite goods, not the scarce goods. Your time is a scarce good." Well, okay — but it takes Poole and Pogue time to write their books. Who's going to pay them for it, if they distribute their books for free? And if they're not supposed to be giving their books away, then what are they supposed to be giving away?

(Of course, David Pogue works for the Times and writes his Missing Manuals on the side, sort of, which led more than one of his commentators to call him greedy. Apparently some people think that if Pogue makes a living wage from the Times he therefore has an obligation to work nights and weekends writing books to give away.)

Poole's view is that the recent online distribution of music by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails worked only because they had first established themselves as major acts under the traditional music business model. Masnick, by contrast, thinks that the real secret to those bands' success is the fancy boxed sets they provided for free, the downloadable music being a kind of loss leader. This strikes me as an insane argument, but even if it were true, Poole's question remains: so how does a writer do that?

By Masnick's logic, instead of writing a book on original sin for a mainstream publisher I should have made a PDF of it available for free — and do what to make money? Get a venture capitalist to bankroll a limited signed-and-numbered edition bound in vellum that I could sell for a thousand bucks a copy? Tell people who have downloaded the book that I'm available to do dramatic readings of selected chapters at fifteen thousand bucks a show? What? Poole, Pogue, and I — we're just asking.

UPDATE: I have just seen that Tim Lee has a post on this same topic.