Our own Alan Jacobs is wondering how writers are going to make a living if content “wants” to be free. Here are some quick thoughts. I warn you, though, Alan: you’re not going to like them.
1. Advertising performance. The experience of going to a concert is very different from the experience of listening to a CD or an mp3. And so far as I know, nobody has said (yet) that concerts “want” to be free. One possible direction for the music industry to go (and it is already going there) is to have distributed music be conceived as an advertisement for live performance. That’s an inversion of the way the movie industry works – big-budget movies are, economically, advertisements for DVDs – but so what? Who said there was only one model?
In any event, writing could go the same way. I wonder how much Malcolm Gladwell earns from writing as opposed to speaking? I’d bet he earns most of his money from speaking. Other writers could follow this model, though rarely on such a grand scale. Of course, this would only work for writers who can also perform, or who write in such a way as is conducive to performance. If this become a significant part of the economic model for writers, it could change the types of personalities who are successful at writing.
2. Luxury branding. Why do legitimate actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow do ads for watches or perfumes? Because the very fact that they are legitimate actresses lends them class, and that class can be monetized by doing such ads. The same is true for writing. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly lose money. So why do they exist? Because they are the equivalent of luxury brands for writing, and add to the value of the Atlantic Media Group. A variety of talent – not only writing talent, mind you – will also be attracted to a luxury publication like The Atlantic who might not be attracted to a less-prestigious (though more profitable) trade publication. But this talent, once attracted, may be able to be monetized across the group. I imagine the same is true of publishing houses: there are both direct and indirect economic reasons to want to be associated with “legitimate” and “classy” writing, and not just with the dreck that actually pays the bills.
Can individual writers play the same game? It’s possible. Certainly writers who have established themselves as brands can monetize their brands in a variety of ways. But there may be a long-term model of various organs of publishing keeping a stable of writers who might break out into being high-end brands, paying them and losing money on them like a basket of options most of whom won’t ever pay off. And why not give these folks’ writing away for free? If the goal is to maximize the odds that one of them breaks through to a substantial audience, why limit the audience by keeping their writing behind a firewall? Again, though, this corporate branding model will have implications for the nature of serious writing if it becomes standard.
3. Writer as luxury good. Writing may be an ad for a performance by the star writer. Or quality writing may be an exercise in luxury branding for the corporation that keeps the writer in its stable of writers. But the writer him- or herself may be a luxury good, for a patron who wants one around. This used to be the way much of culture worked. We may be going back in that direction.
I just got back from the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (reviews forthcoming soon, I promise). One of the notable things about Stratford is that it depends very little on government largess. Rather, it gets its revenue primarily from ticket sales, and secondarily from concessions and memberships. And over time, the third category – member contributions – has steadily increased as a percentage of overall revenues. As a consequence, at the same time that Stratford is offering discounted tickets to draw new and younger audience members, it is also spending more time and energy thinking about how to please its most generous private contributors. Some time ago they built an exclusive lounge for members only, but it was getting too crowded, so they just built a second, even more exclusive lounge for upper-tier members. And so it goes.
The same model may apply to writers. It used to be standard for writers to seek the patronage of a wealthy aristocrat, whose patronage was valuable both directly (because it paid the bills) and indirectly (because association with the rich and well-born enhanced the writer’s own prestige, and got his work more attention from other worthies). Macaulay Connor says that the days of a writer depending on the favor of a Lady Bountiful have gone out, but they may be coming in again. And it’s not obvious to me that catering to the desires and interests of a wealthy individual is more demeaning or more dangerous to the independence of art than catering to the desires and interests of a corporate patron or a mass audience.
In any event, if one is trying to attract the attention of the wealthy and discerning, it is necessary to get one’s work out there. Which, again, means turning to the best model for distributing one’s work widely and getting it talked about. Which probably means giving it away.
These are only intended to be suggestions. The fact of the matter is that writing is, by and large, unnecessary. Generations got on just fine with nothing more than the Bible, the hymnal, Pilgrim’s Progress and perhaps the complete works of William Shakespeare to read. Some people give away their writing because they are trying to get paid work – but many will give it away because writing and, perhaps more so, being read provide satisfactions in their own right for the writer. So long as that is the case, the economics of the writing life will vastly skew towards the small number who can do specific kinds of writing on which a great deal of money depends – script doctors and sketch comedy writers and so forth.