Over the last twenty years we’ve seen the slow crumbling of business models relying on paying for atoms carrying the real article of desire: information. Once, being paid for cassettes, CDs, newspapers, DVDs, copy-protected software, and password-protected services was how “content providers” (such a soulless term!) made money. These schemes are dying wherever and whenever the cost to the consumer of playing buy-my-content-by-my-rules is greater than the cost of downloading the associated bits that have had their copy protection broken.
We’re in the middle of this transition. For example, right now, the paperback version of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is outselling the ebook four to one, even though the ebook isn’t copy-protected and is half the cost of the paperback. So perhaps people still like physical books. I don’t expect things to stay this way for long.
A few years ago I got into a heated public argument with software freedom activist Richard Stallman about how I might be paid for the four years I spent writing my book. (At the end of his presentation, Richard complained that he had never spoken in front of a more combative audience. We took this as a compliment.) When Richard told us we should give our content away, I asked him why anyone would bother to spend four years writing a book. He told me, scornfully, that I should give the book away and make money in some related arena.
I have to admit that now, knowing the bald economics of writing, I’m more sympathetic to Richard’s point of view than I was when we sparred. If the book continues to sell at its current rate, it will take another year just to earn back the money (for editing, copyediting, interior design, cover design, and copywriting) I spent creating it. That’s before I start receiving any compensation for the time I spent writing it! Meanwhile, people are hiring me to design, organize, and facilitate conferences, and I have to sell many books to equal the income from a day of consulting. Richard, maybe you were right.
With the repeated demonstrated failures of attempts to copy-protect information and the rise of ubiquitous online content, I believe we are moving inexorably towards a time when content creation will be supported largely by the subsidy of patrons.
In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore how this shift to a patron economy will impact events.
Image attribution: Flickr user fernando