Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Magical Content Tree

A long, long time ago books were very expensive. They were produced by copying them by hand, page by page, onto parchment, by very poor monks toiling in their monastic scriptoria, but the books they produced turned out to be expensive anyway. The aristocracy could afford them, and, of course, the clergy, but the laymen had little access to the written word.

Things were somewhat better in other, more technologically advanced parts of the world. The Chinese invented paper shortly before 200 BC, and by 200 AD lots of Buddhist texts were being mass produced using wood block printing. This know-how slowly diffused west, reaching Moslem Spain a few centuries later. By 1400 AD the art of paper-making made it all they way to the most backward of European provinces—Germany.

But then came a surprise: a German craftsman by the name of Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type: the ability to compose printed pages using reusable letters cast from lead. His legacy is still with us: the people who compose text for printing are still called “typesetters,” because once upon a time they physically set type, and the gaps between lines of text are still referred to as “leading,” because they used to be produced by inserting thin strips of lead. This innovation reduced the cost of producing books by orders of magnitude, making it possible for people of modest means to acquire a library. Gutenberg's breakthrough is one of the most important bits of disruptive technology to come around, along with the steam engine and the nuclear bomb.

But an even bigger disruptive transformation occurred with the advent of the internet, which entirely decoupled the act of reproducing a work from the act of producing it in the first place. In effect, by investing in computing hardware and by paying for an internet connection, everybody gets access to a printing press. Once the equipment has been paid for, the incremental cost of producing another copy of something is zero. The overall cost is, of course, higher than ever; there is a good reason why Microsoft made fantastic fortunes with their mediocre, buggy products, or why Apple Computer is the public company with the highest market capitalization.

If you look at cost versus utility, many families now spend hundreds of dollars a month on smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, e-book readers, internet services, cellular phone services and so on. Were they to spend an equivalent amount on paper books and periodicals, they would amass a fantastically huge library in no time. Some people also pay for content—they purchase e-books, subscribe to premium services and so on—but most of the “content” they “consume” is free, paid for by advertising, or by promises of future revenue or increased market share, or by some other intangible, or—the most important category of all—by nothing at all.

If an equivalent arrangement prevailed during the age of scribes toiling in scriptoria, most of the money would be allocated to the makers of ink and quill pens, and parchment would have to be free, with the scribes featuring as unpaid labor. During the age of moveable type such an arrangement would mean that only the press-makers would be paid well, with the typesetters and the pressmen working as slaves. But, odd though such an arrangements would have been, they would not have precluded the authors of the works so produced from earning something from their mental exertions, because the fruits of their labor would still be bound, in some tangible, immediate sense, to their physical embodiments, and because there would still be a stock-in-trade involved: a book, a column of newsprint or a section in a periodical.

But now, once an author clicks “post” or “send,” the work instantly enters the public domain as an ephemeral string of binary digits: anybody can republish it or circulate it free of charge. There are a few methods available for avoiding this scenario, but they all have severe limitations. Let's enumerate them:

1. Sell advertising. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate banner ads into a web site. On a reasonably popular web site, such as this one, this produces a few hundred dollars a month. Earnings seem to be in the neighborhood of $1 per 1000 impressions (ads shown) but results vary. But this scheme is rather limited, because a web site that publishes works by a single author can never be as popular as a web site that combines the works of multiple authors without paying them. For instance, I may get 10,000 reads on an article I write on this site, but when it gets re-published free of charge on any number of other, more popular sites, it gets read 30,000-50,000 times on each one, and the ad revenue (if any) goes to them, not to me.

2. Sell self-published books. The new technology has made this a relatively easy proposition, and a popular blog provides a good marketing venue for self-published books. But there is a problem here as well: many people are used to finding things they want to read without having to pay for them. Out of a thousand web site visitors, perhaps a single one will order a paper book.

3. Sign up with a publisher. This has a few advantages over self-publishing, especially for people who don't have experience with self-publishing, but the publisher gets to keep 90% of the revenue. In general, this makes sense only for extremely popular authors. I have tried this before, and I doubt that I will try it again. I just started Club Orlov Press, which uses a new model that leverages print-on-demand in a way that allows the author to keep 80% of the net royalties. Time will tell whether or not this is a breakthrough.

4. Sell premium services. Once popular scheme is to provide a free teaser, but make people subscribe or pay per view to read the entire piece. This isn't necessarily a bad scheme, but it can't be the only scheme, because of a catch-22 problem: one doesn't become popular by publishing teasers, and if one isn't already popular, few people will want to pay to read the rest. I intend to do some experiments and see if I can make it work.

5. Run fundraisers. This, it turns out, is a viable option, but it only works in extreme situations. This is not a viable way of producing a steady income, or for getting paid for one's work. In my case, a few million readers translate into a few hundred donors. I expect that I will only resort to this technique exactly once.

And that, my friends, is the situation. I've discussed it at length with many people over the years, and there just isn't much to add. My friend Will came up with a good explanation for the shift that has occurred as print went digital and the work of writers became relabeled with the generic word “content.” He said that in the new scheme of things “content” is expected to grow on a mythical “Magical Content Tree.” “Content” just happens, and the internet, using “wisdom of the crowds,” will automatically sort good “content” from bad. Good “content” floats to the top while bad “content” sediments out, and all will be well.

But there seem to be a few problems with this plan. Again, let's enumerate.

1. The ratio of good, worthwhile writers to readers is perhaps a million to one. I believe that this is about the right order of magnitude for topics of general interest; it may be as low as one to a dozen in some very specialized domains, but these are special cases. The difference between writing and reading is about the same as between flying a Boeing 777 or an Airbus A-380, and sitting in an isle seat munching on tiny pretzels.

2. Nor is the average pretzel-muncher able to tell a competent Boeing 777 or Airbus A-380 pilot, who will get her there safely, from an incompetent or a mentally deranged one, who will fly the plane into a mountain. The ratio of good, worthwhile authors to readers who are capable of passing qualified judgement on their works is perhaps a hundred thousand to one.

3. The people who are supposed to pass judgement, allowing good writing to float to the top and bad writing to sink to the bottom, do not usefully sort themselves by their ability to do so in any manner. Instead, a completely different phenomenon prevails: those who are the most active, and the most vociferous, are usually the least clued in.

4. The venues offered by social media, where “links” and “posts” can be sorted by using “likes” or “up-votes,” are conducive to a general dumbing-down: worthwhile, original material that requires more effort to understand will not do as well as something dumb but transparent. For example, yesterday I looked at a linguistics blog, and there were two posts. One tried to explain why Russian is closer to Bulgarian than Ukrainian is due to the greater influence on Russian of Church Slavonic. The other claimed that all the Russian words that start with “ukr-” are of Ukrainian origin. The former is interesting but requires special knowledge to evaluate, while the latter is preposterous but, for the utterly ignorant, provocative. Guess which one was the most up-voted and the most discussed?

5. If discussions on social media are to play some sort of role in determining whether “content” is good or bad, then, I am sorry, but that's not going to work at all. You see, social media is a poor substitute for normal, healthy human contact, and a symptom of a generalized social sickness: people are alienated, and technology funnels them into these venues in search of something—anything at all—resembling human interaction, so that they can continue to feel that they exist. The people who float to the top in this environment are the sickest: the most alienated, the most insecure, the most adrift. And the people most capable of appreciating good, original work are the least likely to want to participate. People sometimes tell me that, most surprisingly, the comments sections on this blog are actually worth reading. My secret? The “delete” button gets no rest—and neither do I. My apologies to all the trolls, the passive-aggressives, the abusive, the crypto-fascists, crypto-racists and crypto-bigots, the alienated, the lonely, the depressed, the suicidal... But they do not provide good “content.” They are not writers, and they may not even be readers: some of them clearly only read the title of an article, and then see it fit to comment about it. Since many of my titles are puns or plays on words, their comments are sometimes hilariously wrong-headed.

But this is the new lay of the land; we can't change it, and we can't ignore it. And so, instead, I will be trying a few experiments. There is already Club Orlov Press, with a pipeline that looks healthy, which will take already worthwhile “content,” improve it as much as possible, and make it available in book form, with most of the revenues going to the author. I also plan to do some experiments with paid premium content and with featuring visiting authors. I can't promise that any of this will work as well as I think it should. But I can promise that I won't be running any more fundraisers.

30 comments :

Spanish fly said...

A spanish writer said, more than a century ago, that "writing is weeping". He was quite right in the XIXth century...and still more nowadays.Good luck, Mr. Orlov.

Yuri Vega said...

This might actually exhort previously slapdash, shoot-from-the-hip wordsmiths (spoiled by instantaneous web publishing) to stretch out into even second draft craftsmanship or perhaps to initially write from even a crude outline. For this indolent crime I plead guilty.

I would encourage perhaps one more fundraiser though: a cargo prototype of your ultra practical Quidnon sailing scow design. Maybe some thoughtful organization (gasp.... government or corporation?) would blaze a pre-post-collapse trail and lay in a small fleet of said vessels before the fall. Or a consortium of such donors through a well crafted funding proposal. How grand to see a small shipyard churning out wind driven cargo vessels on a regular basis while the churning is good.

Howard Skillington said...

I sincerely regret the situation you have elucidated for us. As a musician I particularly empathize, because I see a generation of gifted musicians demoralized and adrift for want of any plausible way of making a decent living from their talent and hard work.

May I ask, though: should those of us who look forward to your blog each week, occasionally participate with a comment, consider ourselves better informed for having read your views, and purchase each of your books when they become available, feel like we are a part of the problem?

If each of us, your faithful and enthusiastic readers, simply bought your books, would that result in your being decently remunerated for your insights and effort?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Howard -

Thank you for a thoughtful question. The answers are No, and No. My blog and my books are there for people to read. The fact that there is no plausible way to make a middle-class living through such efforts is simply a fact.

And there isn't any conceivable way that this situation can be changed. What I do is simply not sufficiently counterproductive for it to be integrated into the counterproductive economy and be compensated for it.

But, moreover, if I did what I do for commercial reasons, that would inevitably corrupt my message. The fact that I can barely cover my costs leaves me free to say whatever I feel I should, since there is no financial benefit to fine-tuning my message. But if this were a profitable endeavor, then inevitably I would attempt to make it more profitable, and my writing would degenerate into the same sort of profit-driven garbage that the world is already full of.

My message to young demoralized musicians is this: do not expect to be able to make money with your music. Grow your own food, construct your own dwellings, mend old things instead of buying new ones, barter for what you need instead of relying on commercial relationships. And if once in a great while a dire need arises for some set amount of the necessary evil that is money, then consider holding a fundraiser.

Ric said...

My message to young demoralized musicians is this: do not expect to be able to make money with your music.

I frequently say to my artist friends, "Don't ask your mistress to pay the bills."

Conrad said...

Marshall McLuhan had a lot to say about the effects of new technology on peoples' lives and interactions. Virtually every change in our habits is due to the pressure of a technology. And a new technology which replaces an old one makes the old one a recreation e.g. the automobile replaced the need for walking, and now walking is a recreation. The use of the computer replaced lead type, so that printing flyers on a linotype machine or a platten press is now a curiosity and a recreation seen only at fairs and exhibitions. As to musicians being able to make a living with their talents - it's always been a struggle. Even when selling records was a viable possibility, only a few were chosen by the industry and exploited for all they were worth. There are tens of thousands of talented musicians across the country and the world who will never be heard of except on you tube. The fact is, talented people are not that rare and a platform for remunerating them doesn't exist.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Dmitry, I've been thinking for some time that I ought to pay-per-read for your exceptional writings. I read them religiously, every week, and publicise them, and you, everywhere I can, for their unique combination of truly unusual penetration of insight and piss-funny dead-pan wit.

I take your point exactly about remaining free from the contamination of the money-making mindset. But still, some sort of better reward than happens now is surely fair, even if it's only modest; that would be better anyway, of course.

I hope to god you don't ever lose the will to continue. Does the thought that you're earning a noteworthy place in the history of our time help at all?

BTW, I sent that increasingly useless piece of paper to you anyway, because I can't see anything else to do with it where I am. Be interesting to see whether in these universally corrupt and hyper-snooping times - within the USukisnato-axis - it actually gets to you. Let me know, perhaps? Cheers - and solidarity!

dale said...

Now that intellectual content can be replicated at virtually no cost why would it cost something other that its being a grift, shakedown or pimped? A creator of content does it for various motivations and rewards, that people actually pay attention--which in most cases does not happen--is probably what is most sought and the most which could be expected. The surest way to debase content is to craft it as a commodity. That one would need a middle class income or whatever is another problem, stemming from that just about every aspect of our lives is a grift, shakedown or pimped. Does everything need to be in service of that? That being said, you deserve everything you ask for Dmitry. But as I am a very conscious drop out of the economic system, you won't be getting anything from me except my esteem.

unfrozencavemanguitarplayer said...

As someone with an engineering degree who left that more lucrative career path immediately after college to play music for a living, I can offer a few observations. I think I have an above average amount of talent, but also credit my ability to make a living to good musical taste and an abnormally low need to buy stuff. My biggest spending priority is healthy food. I shop for clothes at thrift stores and keep stuff until it is beyond worn out. Also, I have never had a high enough income stream to support a family, so I have no kids. My musical passion was traditional blues. It is a craft that I have taken time to master, and now bars pay me to do it because it puts people in the mood to stay in the bar longer and keep buying drinks. My band used to make some money selling CDs until about 10 years ago. People don't buy enough CDs these days to even cover recording costs. I'm wondering if, in a collapsing or post-collapse country, will anyone still pay me or give me food to make nice sounds with a guitar? Should I keep spending time nurturing this skill, or should I start learning how to grow my own food?

Rolnard Covzure said...

Yes, music and writing are both more fun and more honest when you're not second-guessing yourself trying to please (or worse, avoid displeasing) someone who has monetary leverage over you. The venerated tradition of the day job (which could be defined as survival work such as gardening, mending fishing nets, scavenging scrap wood etc.) liberates your art rather than crowding it out as I once thought. It also makes the art deeper & more interesting because go figure, you actually have a few experiences outside the studio.

But let's say you were going to try to make money from writing or music. That means you're now in a market, selling something. What does it take to sell something? Well, in addition to having people be aware of your product, you (via your product) have to be creating "wealth" for those people in proportion to the money being asked in exchange. What is wealth? According to LISP hacker and startup-funding-guy Paul Graham it is (as generally as possible) the satisfaction of some desire, for some number of people. This means (again in Graham's words) that you have to "make something people want." Since people are inundated in vastly more words and music right now than they could ever have time to read/listen to, and with supply and demand being what they are, I'm not placing any bets on either of those fields, even though I'm good at both.

Yet shouldn't the best still rise to the top? And all the more so when there is such a volume of stuff to choose from? You would think so, but as most of us here have probably noticed, the society at-large is currently fragmented and adrift in meaninglessness. So there does not exist a widespread or commonly-held set of criteria by which to evaluate whether a given work is good or not. Or rather, the criteria that remain are insipid, having degenerated to the minimum everyone has in common, a.k.a. the lowest common denominator. So here I might as well go for the hat-trick of Paul Graham quotes -- "We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest."

Veronica said...

I too am flummoxed by the paradoxes you present. I spend most of every day in some sort of volunteer work, but as a woman in my late 60's, with a small but adequate pension and a B&B keeping my husband and me eating and clothed, this is a viable choice. I recognize that, the way things are going, that pension may be TP sooner or later, and the B&B serving as extended family housing in a collapsed society, so the volunteer work is within a small community where we know and help each other. But you are younger and need to establish something equivalent in the way of baseline security so you can continue to write/think/analyze to your satisfaction and our combined delight and gratitude.
I fully appreciate your concern about the difference between writing "free" and doing so under an obligation to those who pay. Back before the pension kicked in, we were finding it very hard to make ends meet, and I approached those for whom I was editing and producing a magazine as a volunteer, for a small percentage of what the magazine was bringing in for their non-profit association. It's surprising how shirty some people can get, when you insert the concept of needing to eat, into their pristine plan of entitlement. On the other hand, I realized that the freedom to do the job to my satisfaction, and not be answerable to the priorities of those who "employ" me, is a supreme value. (In the end, I took a few years off, and came back to it when our pensions came on stream. I hope you can find a less disruptive solution.)
I don't know what your answer will be - no doubt it will change as circumstances change - but I would certainly join those who will be glad and grateful to contribute, without preconceptions or prejudice, to whatever it takes to keep your freedom to write "on an even keel". I can't tell you how much I would miss Tuesdays! Your acerbic wit helps to keep us sane in this weird world.

My donkey said...

Unlike those who, for selfish reasons, want you to continue this weekly blog, I think it would benefit you AND your readers if you just quit.

Why not? What more is there to say? As an FYI to those who have never done it, writing a worthwhile article every week can be very draining. When the process becomes a pain in the ass, or when it feels more like a chore than something enjoyable, it's time to call it quits.

And to all the addicted readers who are concerned only with their own withdrawal symptoms, consider this: your blogging mother has given you all she could; it's time to stop sucking on her tit, let go of the apron strings, leave the nest, and make it on your own.

Take what you've learned and apply it. Stop reading and start acting. Get off your butt and get your hands dirty. As Voltaire said, it's time to cultivate our garden.

Besides, the act of quitting can be very liberating! The sayings "Never quit" or "You must not quit" are nonsense; quitting is sometimes the wisest thing to do, and probably should be done more frequently. Two of the best times to quit are:
1. when you're ahead
2. before you kill someone, including yourself
Unfortunately, history is littered with tragic stories of people who didn't know when to quit.

recision said...

A thought...
In order to get authors paid (something), then there needs to be a value proposition.
The content has to demonstrate value.
To the writer - and the reader.
But there isn't a valid marketplace yet, so there is no way to properly and effectively value/price it - currently.
However, I think there is a solution.
If I "buy" a subscription, for next to nothing, say $10.
And get access to a whole stable of content providers, who I then have unlimited access to (for say... a year)
Then that's a good deal for me the reader.
The stable would be managed by a "publisher" who is the portal to the content.
It needs a lot of authors and a lot of readers buying in to the system, in order to get a economy of scale.
And those authors who then get read the most, would garner most of the "royalties" from the subscriptions.
In a way, this isn't so different from an old line newspaper, or publisher, or even something like Wordpress.
They all aggregate content under their Banner.
But not on a big enough scale mostly, and not cheaply enough.
It has got to be next to free, because too much else IS free, so that's the de-facto standard.
In order to make a middle class living as a writer, then you need to be able to sell your content for a lot less than one cent - to millions of readers. And then there can be some money in it.
But it needs the right umbrella for everyone to work under.
An organisation who can pull in a lot of great (or even mediocre) writers, and also brand new writers no-one has ever heard of, and offer their work as freely browsable, for a small annual fee. Small being like a cup or two of coffee.
But it is a similar problem that Apple has trying to get TV content providers to make their shows available. Everyone want to be independently in control, and set their own prices. Well that is an admirable aspiration I am sure, but it doesn't work, and everyone losses. We know what consumers want... it's no secret.
Just like TV, the consumer wants to buy the content they want, and not get (pay for) the stuff they don't. The smorgasbord option. They don't mind the extra options, but really abject to paying for it if they don't watch it. People already believe they are getting over charged too. So charge less to sell more. It is the only scenario that can/will work.
Get used to it.
Aggregators like 'Zero Hedge' and 'Mac News Daily' get good traffic volumes. They have a good stable of content - and also a specific interest sector - albeit they are for free.
But while sectors are fine, a paid aggregator would need to offer significantly wider and vastly more numerous options, in order to make a very low subscription workable - scale.
Software App Store's work, so an Article Store should too. However, Apps continue to work repeatedly. While written articles are one shot things. Once you have read them they are done, so they need to be priced accordingly. How much is a single sheet of toilet paper worth...? Nothing after it been used, but a small, measurable amount beforehand.
So as long as no-one is getting greedy about it, we can make toilet pa... opps, written content, available under the right business plan.
Who is going to be the aggregator/publisher to first get the model, scale and price right?
It has to start with the middleman - the reader and the writer can't do it by them selves.

John Day said...

I find myself in pretty much full agreement with the essay and the comments, and, as already observed here, that is pretty unusual in the world. I think it is getting more usual in formats such as this. The Automatic Earth is similar, and Naked Capitalism is similar. Zero Hedge is a bar-fight, with all types represented, a high traffic site.
My friend, Joe Roberts had a really good magazine for the small world of do-it-yourself vacuum tube hi-fi in the 1990s to early 2000s, Sound Practices http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/sound_practices/
The internet made content free, and killed his meager living from writing and editing a wonderful and insightful mag. He's an anthropologist as well as a tube-geek, ya'know?
Joe also turned me on to alternate content on the internet, and I now spend an average of 4 hours per day reviewing and compiling content, such as this article, for 250 people on my mailing list. It's like a blog without trolls. It is a public service I do. I also have a meaningful career, adult kids, a kitchen garden that used to be a back yard, and I don't expect each part of my work in this life to "pay for itself".
I am very fortunate, how can I be of broader benefit? This is not the prevailing attitude, but it is a manifestation of humanity, and it is not rare.
People are naturally inclined to work together for good. It is not our only natural inclination, but it is not gone.

Veronica said...

"my donkey" appears to be assuming that Dmitry wants to quit writing and can't say no, which sounds more like projection than analysis. My impression is that DO wants to be "liberated" from the engine problem so he can get back to doing what he genuinely enjoys doing. Writing regularly is very draining, yes. It's also addictive, stimulating, frustrating, euphoric, and more or less a calling. If burnout applies, it's to the nuisance of physical plant breakdown. My guess, anyway.

Rolnard Covzure said...

"My donkey" above - continuing a blog IS difficult, and as evidence look no further than the fact that most blogs reach a point where they suck. They've made all their major points, said everything they needed to say, maybe even in some cases got popular and repeated it all in dumbed-down form for the newcomers (much to the annoyance of the early adopters). Blogging is sort of a shitty format. When a book is done, it's done; you close it and put it on the shelf, maybe sell it or give it away. Newcomers acquire it, start from the beginning and read to the end. But a blog is expected to keep going, an undead zombie forever!

And yet counter to the above trend, this blog still seems to find interesting things to talk about, so I won't go so far as encouraging Dmitry to quit.

Jim R said...

Comments are turned off for the fundraising posts ... so I'll just leave this here.

I had sent you an email, saying bitcoiners are stingy, because of the small amounts. I had some BTC laying around, and decided you should have at least 0.5 of a bitcoin in the pot, so submitted enough to make it up to that.

But I'd like to amend that statement. Bitcoiners are having fun just playing around with this thing they've created. Your most popular donation amount seems to be 'pi' millibitcoins. About 78¢ at the current exchange rate of $250/BTC. Then later I noticed that the 'pi' donations are mostly from the same address. Someone is making repeated donations of that amount.

And now you have a bit more than 1 BTC, so never mind. Bitcoiners are not stingy.

Perhaps I'll go back over to indiegogo and throw some cashdollarmoney in the pot. Looks like it's going to fund.

As to how to monetize your creative work, ... I dunno. I don't suppose Gutenberg was that well compensated for his bibles, and probably had to keep his day job as a goldsmith.

Mark Miller said...

Hi Dmitry, I just donated $5 toward your new motor. A suggestion to those feeling guilty about receiving Dmitry’s work free: donate a few bucks to him for a new motor for his boat. Fundraiser sounds like the way to go for writers and artists in a pinch. To the musicians, writers and artists asking if it would be wise learn to grow food or other trades type skills……….yes indeed and don’t delay. After playing music for 40+ years I have the following observations: Young sells, old guys and gals don’t, no matter how talented you are. Some of the biggest name older acts play tiny venues for little remuneration these days. The competition is fierce for playing gigs. It is almost impossible to make a living performing music today. Teaching music pays but it is not nearly as satisfying. Recently while at Manhattan subway platform, I passed a very attractive woman playing the most incredible classical violin piece. Her case was open at her feet and she had, what appeared to be, under $30 in bills donated for her busking efforts. Sad. Thank you for the blog Dmitry.

Cam said...

The way I have used ClubOrlov is to read the blog posts for free and buy the occasional book. I assumed the blog posts were the testing ground for ideas that eventually made it into the books in more detail.

HousingWiz said...

Hi Dmitry, I just left you a small donation at your fundraiser. 20 years ago it would have been a large one, but scaling down has meant scaling down everything.

McGraw-Hill published my first two books, in 1988 and 1991. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven: I was a published author by a real publisher. I was making very good money in my business at the time, so I expected the publisher to do all the work. They didn’t, and I didn’t; the books didn’t get the push they needed. While I made a few thousand bucks per book, they made tens of thousands and the books eventually went into obscurity; they’re still available as used books on Amazon, some sell for a penny plus shipping (I guess the profit is in the shipping).

I found out about Great Unpublished in 2001 so I edited my first book and published it there after the publisher didn’t want to publish a revised edition. After some ownership changes, Amazon bought Great Unpublished—I’m sure they bought just the equipment and the accounts. That book is still available at what is now CreateSpace, but some information in it is out of date and I’ll probably take it down at some point.

I got more serious about writing after I put my regular business in slow gear. I published my next book on CreateSpace (Amazon) in 2012 and did my first novel last year. I’ll publish my best book ever this year, also on CreateSpace. Am I getting filthy rich with my books? No. Are my books selling? Yes, some; not as many as the “real” publisher sold. Do I love writing and helping people with my books? Yes, and it is the most satisfying feeling I’ve ever had in business: My self help books have, and are helping folks. I have 50 years experience in my business, and young and old alike can tap into that experience for just a few bucks and a bit of reading time. I think I still have a dozen books in me, and will continue to write till I cross over to the next dimension.

I read your Five Stages of Collapse when it came out; it’s excellent. I found your blog and have been reading it every Tuesday. You’re an extremely brilliant, highly intellectual writer who deserves as much remuneration as the Harry Potter author; unfortunately, those of us who write to educate don’t make anywhere near as much as those who write to entertain; such is life.

I urge you to continue full speed ahead on your blog as it appears that you have a strong and intelligent following. Don’t give up on fundraisers. I’ve learned in my business that you can’t give up; it’s all a game of numbers, and even if only a few hundred donate to you, that’s a whole lot better than none. There will always be a few people who appreciate your work and will donate, even if only a buck or two.

I learned an excellent lesson when I read Robert Allen’s book, Multiple Streams of Income: Unless you have a job (which I haven’t had since 1970), you can’t rely on only one game to make a living; unless you happen to be one of the lucky ones who hits it big on one fabulous widget or a best selling book. What has been a big boost in my economic peace of mind has been that I looked at Allen’s idea and ran with it. Lots of little businesses make for a comfortable living. From your comments, and your publishing ideas, you’re on the right track. One thing might not make it for you, but add them all up, and you can sail with the wind on your back.

Your political ideas are dead-on right, and I look forward to getting more clear-headed information from your blog and books in the future.

Auriel Ragmon said...

I've been rather inarticulate on blogs and elsewhere for many years, (I'm now almost 80!) but I remember that back around 40 or 50 years ago I had the compelling thought that we were headed for an age of feudalism where major corporations would have corporate serfs working for them, and would take over sovereignty from the nation-states. I never put this thought into a coherent format, but it stayed with me through the years. Well, now I've been vindicated, on the cusp of the whole shebang falling apart with peak oil and the decline of industrial civ. I guess I was an unsung and unspoken prophet in the old days, and no one would have listened to me then anyway. I should have taken up blacksmithing instead of social work as a career!
Jim of Olym

Tony Sturtevant said...

I have come across a funding platform called patreon, which focuses on getting strangers who like your art to kick in something monthly, compensated with rewards of the work you produce from their funding ( hence the name). Looking at some of the rather mediocre artists who seem to find a following willing to support them to the tune of many thousands of dollars a month, I urge you to take a look at it and see if you could not make use of it.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Some years ago I was at the National Archives in Washington DC installing a software demo on one of the archives' computers. My tour guide, one of the archives' IT guys took me deep into the bowels of the archives where the computer lived that I was to install the software on. Along the way he pointed out some metal racks containing files of paper. Civil war service records, he said. We also walked past some shelves holding reels of magnetic tape. Problem, he said. They had to keep an out of date tape player going to read them. Also, tape deteriorates so they had to read the tapes and transfer the data elsewhere. Whether that effort was ever funded I don't know. In any case seeing paper records aged approximately 150 years old perfectly readable vs. digital data 40 years old and perfectly unreadable made a lasting impression on me.
The digital revolution and internet publishing has significantly shortened the lifetime of any information published exclusively in a digital format. Even if the data storage medium has a lifetime as long as paper, it is doubtful that the data extraction device for that specific data storage medium will still be around in 50 years.
So publishing books on paper still has a purpose, namely, that if you care whether anyone can read what you wrote a hundred years from now, publish it on paper.
My own experience with publishing is limited to having written one book and having it published by Ragged Mountain Press, now defunct. The book, The Aleutian Kayak sold roughly 5000 copies which netted me about a dollar a book over a period of about 5 years, obviously, not enough for the middle class lifestyle.
But there were some other advantages to having written the book. Even though I wrote it at a time when I knew very little about the topic, having built exactly 3 Aleutian kayaks, the book made me an "expert" on the topic. Like it or not, the effort of taking the time to write something down and having it published, validates the information in the eyes of the reading public. The idea is that if you went to the effort of writing something, it must be important. Why would you have spent all that time otherwise. The written word has a degree of importance that is not attributed to mere speech.
There is another aspect to publishing your writings on paper, namely, that your published work becomes part of the historical record. History is written by those who write it, not by those who created it. The more time passes, the less physical evidence there is for what happened in the past. History, if we care about it at all is recorded in the written record. By saying that writing is history, I mean that anything written that is preserved becomes primary source material for future historians. If your book survives and somebody elses doesn't then your ideas survive and in some unknowable way impact future civilizations, presuming they can read.
So there is some value in taking the effort of writing down your thoughts even if it doesn't pay the rent, even if it seems that writing down your thoughts is an ego trip, that your thoughts on a topic are more important than those of someone else.
Publishing in the digital domain is another matter. As Dmitry points out, you are competing against dogs playing the piano, a contest which a mere writer is bound to lose. What I do publish in the digital domain sometimes is read. As Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, every writer needs at least an audience of one. So maybe that is the best a writer can hope to get from the internet, that it can deliver an audience of at least one reader.

ANNA TULCHINSKY said...

I tried to donate but my credit card info gets rejected for some reason. I need to call them..ahahh..what a bummer..

I think, Dmitry, you can do both, have your cake and it it too. Here is an example http://www.goldenjackass.com/ - Jim regularly publishes some very interesting podcasts and free articles but he also has a paid newsletter, to which many people subscribe. Perhaps, you can do something similar? Maintain your free blog with high quality info the way you've been doing it for years (i.e. a "teaser) and sell subscription as a service to subscribers who would be interested in your more in-depth treatises? Given the number of readers you already have, I bet you will acquire a good number of paying subscribers, I know I will be one of them.

There is also an option to sell "objects" (even shiny ones! - an SOS syndrome, a shiny object syndrome is iniquitous) that relate to the subject matter of your expertise, for example, some items for sustainable living, water purification units etc. Here again, your faithful followers will buy them from you rather than from somewhere else because we would want to support you (and because we know that you would make your best effort to provide quality things - so our trust and "customer loyalty" will be the main reason why we would buy something from you at a higher price). Apart from books and ebooks, I buy many things online, including my coffee. I don't know if there are many others like me, but perhaps a hybrid drop-shipping "pilot" project might be worth a try.

onething said...

Well, there are a couple of very strange comments here, is all I can say.
My book collection is worth a lot more to me than toilet paper.

Daro said...

The issue could be solved with an embedded micro-payments add-on service in browsers. I'd happily pay 1c per article I read. 10,000 views and you've got a $100 for the article. It's the time and risk consumed in clicking and paying for stuff online that drives people away, not the actual cost. The micro-account could have a maximum balance limit of $5 per day topped up by automatic bank transfer. Too small an amount to justify hacking. Extend this to movies and songs and Netflix would be dead. As would cable and probably cinemas.

xxancroft said...

Moses Asche the creator of the Folkways Music Collection had a saying which is relevant to the discussion about financial reward for the efforts of ones creativity. "If you are prepared to work for very little - there is virtually nothing you can't do".

Howard Skillington said...

Off subject: we're glad to see that your new boat engine is now provided for.
Happy Father's Day, Dmitry.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thanks, Howard! I am indeed a happy father on this Happy Father's Day.

beetleswamp said...

I can tell you have needed some restoration in your faith in humanity lately, specially with Americans. We're not all crazy, selfish, and blind ideologues.