Tips on Writing for Tips

bookforum.jpgThere’s so much free content online that it’s often hard for me to justify buying magazines. Critics like William Skidelsky suggest that the free blogosphere is leading to the slow strangulation of serious book reviewing. But I think the two can coexist–and I’m more likely to support the print publications that support the free blogosphere.

For example, I recently subscribed to two print publications (The Atlantic and Bookforum). I did so less to purchase information than to thank each. Here’s a few reasons why I think extending the Radiohead model to print might work.

Cheers

As for Bookforum, I’d never seen a print copy of their publication, and I was wary about buying it even when I heard about it online. But when I found they had the enormous good sense to sponsor Alfredo Perez’s blog (formerly known as politilcaltheory.info), I wanted to support them in some way. Perez has an uncanny ability to tie together disparate sources of information from all over the web into loosely themed posts. Sometimes there’s no theme at all, but every day he comes up with links to hidden gems.


The Atlantic is also supporting a group of bloggers, some very good. Furthermore, the magazine has thrown open some archive vaults dating all the way back to 1857. This is a real national treasure, and I’m glad the proprietors of the magazine decided to go for more of an advertising-based model to support it (rather than try to squeeze out revenues dollar-by-dollar for individual article downloads, ala The Economist).

Jeers

So now that I’ve praised two publications for their digi-friendliness, let me single out another two that have driven me away from the “pay printosphere” and toward free online publications.

First, though the New Yorker has lots of good content online, woe to anyone who tries to purchase its comprehensive collection of digitized back issues. I got this as a gift last year, and I’ve yet to extract a single article from this DRM-encumbered nightmare. I’ve tried it on three different computers, and was defeated every time. I’m sure everything’s on the 8 DVD’s somewhere, but the whole process has led me to really resent the magazine.

Second, though I find a magazine like Harper’s more edgy and interesting than the Atlantic, I’ll be linking to the latter a lot more because of its openness. Even for subscribers, Harper’s forces you to download pdf’s of articles in order to access them. . . and sometimes the text is grainy and hard to read. There’s no way for me to provide blog readers with the full text of what I’m quoting.

Conclusions

This may be descending into “what I had for breakfast” blogging, but I think there are some generalizable conclusions. For thoughtful outlets of opinion and criticism, the name of the game should be wide dissemination, not demands for transactional payment destined to become ever more futile and self-defeating in an age of information overload. The model is moving from payment for information to payment for convenience (no need to print out each Atlantic article one-by-one!) and gratitude. Writers, like waiters, will effectively be angling for “tip-like” compensation to supplement whatever ad revenue their sites can generate.

Though some may lament the loss of revenue here for writers, perhaps this model better reflects the contributions of the audience to the success of a work. The “market of ideas” involves investments on both sides–the “supplier” (writer) expends effort by producing a work, and the “demander” (reader) dedicates scarce attention to the work. A declining price for works effectively amounts to an inducement to readers to get them to pay attention. In the case of the Atlantic and Bookforum, I will be paying more attention in gratitude for that inducement (and their convenience). Despite their top-rate brands and insightful content, I predict Harper’s and the New Yorker will be getting a lot less attention from bloggers if they don’t get with the “openness” program soon.

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