Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« Data and Darwin | Main | Four-year-old meets the iPad »

Why write when content is free?

Scott Adams clearly articulates a long brewing concern I've had about remuneration for content creators in his post The Adams Theory of Content Value. He posits:

As our ability to search for media content improves, the economic value of that content will approach zero.

Adams writes:

Now comes the iPad, which is destined to become primarily a criminal tool, and it will cause a change in society the same way that widespread illegal boozing caused a change in Prohibition laws. I'm not saying the changes will be bad, just inevitable.

The iPad has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. Once you have an iPad, the only reasons to ever buy physical books, magazines, or newspapers will be:

    1. You might want to read outdoors, where the iPad isn't so good.
    2. You don't want to break the law.
    3. It's still a little bit hard to search for illegal content.
    4. Kindle is cheaper than an iPad.

My guess is that the iPad will someday be easy to read in bright light, perhaps working in concert with your sunglasses of the future. And when Kindle owners begin to factor in the unnecessary cost of books, they will start to see the iPad as a bargain.

and concludes:

I predict that the profession known as "author" will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books - and good ones - for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won't exist.

Ester Dyson's seminal article Intellectual Value, 1995 and Kevin Kelly's pragmatic post Better Than Free, 2008 (among others) have predicted much earlier the fiscal devaluation of intellectual property and suggest how creators might still pay the mortgage when the Internet makes writing, music and other easily copied (and stolen) materials themselves of no monetary worth.

I've been thinking about Adams and this devaluation of the written word quite a lot lately since I have to admit that I've been in the writing doldrums. It happens.

While, like many people, I write for the simple pleasure of doing so and write "for the good of the profession," I ain't really all that pure. I like getting something back for my efforts.

The Blue Skunk offers enough feedback that my craving for attention that I've had since about kindergarten keeps me posting. The column and books generate some small beer money. I'd like to think that what I write and publish, either online or in print, generates speaking/consulting work, but who knows?

This year I am supposed to be revising one of my earlier books and I have an offer to write another book. So, my dilemma is: Should I write while there is still a market for print books or turn all my attention to online writing in hopes of generating income through alternate venues? I can afford to be some what risky since I still have the day job that pays the grocery bills.

Or should I just say "to hell with it," go biking, read trashy fiction, play Monkey Ball and enjoy the doldrums without guilt?


And just so I can find this again..

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you've got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75. Garrison Keillor, The End of an Era in Publishing

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (12)

The idea that the iPad presents an escalation of this threat is wrongheaded -- the App Store is the closest thing we've got to a functional micropayments system. Not that it is a huge difference, but I'd argue it is more of a marginal win for people who want to sell content than a significant loss.

I have a very difficult time believing that there are fewer professional cartoonists today than there were twenty years ago (and the decline in daily comics in particular pre-dates the web). I bet there is a Penny Arcade and an XKCD for every syndicated strip that has died. AND it is probably much more pleasant and interesting to be your own boss on the web.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

I don't currently have an iPad, nor do I have any plans to own one. I do have a Kindle. I also have an extensive paperback collection of fiction, as well as a good sized non-fiction paper book collection, AND a complete set of Franklin Mint leather bound classics. As I see it, there will always be a market for good writing, and people (or advertisers) will pay for access to good writing, both fiction and non-fiction. As a compulsive writer and musician, I adore the feedback from any reader or listener. Sometimes I get paid to deliver ideas, and sometimes I just like to share in an open format. I know APPLE would love to believe that they will be responsible for the death of paper books, but I'm not convinced they, nor any other corporation can do that. I don't see Chapters any less crammed with reading material, so there must be a market still. Heck, they even cater to the Kobo/Kindle/iPad market with accessories and cute covers. Any good business model knows how to provide service and to adapt to changing trends in the marketplace. I even bough a paper copy of David Warlick's book. I haven't bought yours yet, but I'm seriously considering it. Which one is most accessible to a non-librarian?

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Wandio

As someone who writes prolifically on the Internet as a hobby (I work on Aesop's fables, proverbs, mostly in Latin), not expecting that it will ever pay the bills, I have no problems with the increasing digitization of people's media consumption. If I were a mainstream author raking in the big bucks, I'd feel differently, sure... but as someone who would never have fared well in the traditional book world, I'm very happy with my digital existence (blogs, wikis, offering online courses - publishing the occasional book at Lulu for people who want to have a book in hand, but not making any substantial money that way).
It's your last paragraph that makes me optimistic that this could actually be a good thing: everybody CAN be an author in the new digital world, but if they prefer other things - biking, reading, Monkey Ball - well, then they won't have time to write. So, if the next generation of writers is motivated purely by love of the thing, by preferring to write for its own sake - not for money, and in preference to all the other freely available pleasures - then shouldn't we end up with all kinds of good writing? I think we will, and that is why I am optimistic about it, in the long-run.
Of course, I still need a day-job to earn enough money to live - but that's true for all kinds of folks who are passionate about their hobbies, writing among them. I do not write because I am paid, but I do have time to write because I chose a job that gives me summers off. YEAH FOR SUMMER! It is the time for biking OR gaming OR writing... ad libitum. :-)

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Gibbs

I vote for Monkeyball. Take a break and have some fun:)

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

Ha ha, as a recovering Zuma addict, I have to be careful with those video games. Luckily for me, at least so far, there's no Zuma available for the iPad...! :-)

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Gibbs

Doug, did you see that Apple has made it possible to self-publish through the ibook store. Maybe it is time to make the leap so you can write about it:)

June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

In answer to you trashy fiction ,ride the bike and play monkeyball. Then after you have explored this venue for a while there will be more to write about.
In thinking about content and it's value, it is interseing to think about as a teacher-librarian. How will WE know what to steer our teachers to? How will we know if we are stealing(borrowing?re-mixing) some one's work? it is a fine line and an interesting road we are walking down.

I love the quote from Garrison Keillor..He rings a certain harmonic in me..I admit it I am a Closet NPR listener...

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Billingsley

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for your observation - a good one.

My only question is: Why do you feel you must be a closet NPR listener? I don't think it's a behavior one needs to keep secret ;-)


June 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Another way to look at this is maybe if the profit motive is removed, what new writing remains might be more pure in content. Perhaps, maybe, it just could be that the content that rises to the top of the zeitgeist will be of better quality, more accurate, and created for a more meaningful reason than just to make money. Then again, what rises to the top might just be "Guy Getting Hit in the Nuts with a Football."

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarl Anderson

Hi Carl,

If film making is any model, I'd suggest YouTube veers more toward the latter!


June 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Closet NPR listening has become a habit so that my family (27,26,24,22 year olds) who don't "get it" will leave me in husband is too antsy to listen so he too has a pretty low tolerance of my (what he calls)"Talk Radio".. Personally I love it.. Saturdays can't get much better for me than working on a quilting project in my cluttered sewing room and listening to NPR (KUOW Univerity of Washington , in Seattle) from the car guys at 10:00am to the swing years and beyond at 7:00pm.. I love it!

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie B.

Hi Debbie,

My car radio has two pre-sets: the local NPR (MPR) station and the St Paul MPR station! My wife is the really big fan - it goes all day (esp Sat) at our house too!

Thanks for the explanation ;-)


June 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>