Empowering Amateurs is a Good Thing

I’ve beaten the “economics of e-books” horse to within an inch of its life, so I’ll make one more point and then leave the poor horse alone. One point that tends to be missed when people worry about how writers or musicians will make money is that it’s far from obvious what the optimal number of professional writers or musicians is.

1126424211_cd61865831Consider baseball. There are tens of millions of people who play baseball and softball (I’ll just use “baseball” to refer to both for convenience). They span all ages, races, and social classes. And they do it for a wide variety of reasons. Some are kids who are doing it because their parents made them. Some are high school kids who do it to raise their status at school and become more attractive to the opposite sex. Some are college kids with sports scholarships. A huge number are adults who are doing it for the exercise or as an excuse to drink beer. And a tiny fraction plays baseball as a full-time job.

It’s hard to see any reason to be concerned, as a public policy matter, with the fraction of baseball players who play professionally. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a baseball fan complain that there aren’t enough games to watch. Indeed, the number of baseball games being played could drop by a couple orders of magnitude and it still wouldn’t be physically possible for a hard-core fan to watch them all.

You could make the same point about a wide variety of other cultural activities. Knitting and quilting, wine and beermaking, and cooking are all cultural activities that people perform at a wide variety of skill levels and with a wide variety of “business models.” They’re all “industries” in which the low end of the market is dominated by people who have entered it as a hobby, social activity, or retirement project. My wife reguarly buys $20 worth of wool and then spends 100 hours knitting a sweater with it. Obviously she’s not going to be able to sell the sweater at a profit, but that’s not the point.

3355674016_c291cac4daThere’s something perverse about the way the 20th-century book and recording industries were driven almost entirely by commercial considerations. There’s no reason book-writing or music-recording should be a primarily commercial activity, any more than ice skating, crocheting, or playing tennis are. But the limits of 20th-century printing, pressing, and distribution technology forced anyone who wanted to reach a large audience to employ a commercial business model. The vast majority of people who would have liked to offer books or music to a large audience didn’t have the opportunity to do so at all. The Internet is restoring a healthier balance to these cultural “industries,” allowing people like my former co-blogger Brian Moore to write as a hobby without necessarily expecting to ever quit his day job.

It’s hard to predict exactly how this will affect the number or compensation of professional writers or musicians. As a sometime freelance writer, I certainly hope that the market for paid writing will expand, and I suspect that will hold true in the long run. But it’s also not clear why this should be a matter of concern from a public policy perspective. If the market for paid writing shrinks, it will be because the amateur stuff is good enough to meet more of the demand. That’s bad for sometime professional writers like me. But it’s a good thing for the public as a whole—both because they get more stuff to read and because some of them get the satisfaction that comes from writing for a non-trivial audience.

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8 Responses to Empowering Amateurs is a Good Thing

  1. Rhayader says:

    Indeed, the number of baseball games being played could drop by a couple orders of magnitude and it still wouldn’t be physically possible for a hard-core fan to watch them all.

    Haha, I dunno, I think 1.62 games per year might be manageable. I can easily take in about 80 games or so per season between attending minor league games and watching the big leaguers on TV.

    Obviously this is not the point of your post, but as a proud baseball dork I feel the need to bug you about it.

  2. Rhayader: You’re missing my point! What about minor league games, college games, high school games, Olympic games, games in other cities, games in other countries, etc? Obviously, it would be silly to reduce the number of games each team plays by a factor of 100. But if you reduced the number of teams/leagues in the world by a factor of 100, there’d still be plenty of games to watch on TV, although it would probably be harder to get a ticket to a physical game.

  3. Rhayader says:

    Very true. I guess I effed up right off the bat by reducing the number of games pro teams play when you spent an entire post pointing out that’s just the tip of the icerberg, huh? Yeah, maybe I need another cup of coffee.

  4. Akusu says:

    This is basically a paradigm shift that you’re asking of the publishers/labels, and if they’ve already realized it they’re trying damned hard to prevent it.

    If I were any kind of a writer, I would be doing what was suggested earlier: make a website, blog chapters/sections of a book, then when finished, use the draft and offer a book either free, or for a nominal fee.

    Ideally, that would even put me on an update schedule whereby I can finish a book in a decent amount of time, and it would be good exercise in organization. Self-publishing is a good option, but I would be willing to use a publisher’s expertise to help me finalize the product, especially if they can help me secure it. Use them as a consulting service instead of a publisher, giving them a share of the profits and/or royalties as incentive to help me for essentially free. At that point I’d already have a demonstrable fan-base to reduce our mutual risk.

    Of course, I don’t have much interest in writing a book.

  5. Brian Moore says:

    I am the .100 hitter of amateur writing. 🙂

  6. Jim Crider says:

    Ah, so I was right: you do think that professional authors should be doing it simply for the love of creating, and don’t worry about that pesky eating or shelter thing: you can sell ads in your free ebooks and the ad revenue at $0.01 per view will allow you to maybe buy a cup of coffee once a month…

    So, how *DO* you pay for things, if you’re giving away your work for free, Mr. Lee? Trust fund? Lotto win? Grad-Plus student loans? Significant other with at least any two of these three: fat paycheck, deep bank account, and/or health insurance?

    I am not an author (aside from a couple of tech articles published 20-plus years ago in a car-club magazine — for which I got paid!), but the idea of toiling away at my job, as much as I love it, for just the love of the job alone, is a completely alien concept. Self-enjoyment of the creative process and a hearty atta-boy from the boss doesn’t pay my bills.

    From the beginning of recorded history, artists and performers have received compensation for their work: grants, retainers and commissions from royalty/governments/patrons, proceeds from the sale of their works, admission to performances (and sorry, a book tour signing appearance is not a “performance”. Writing is not usually a spectator sport, no matter what Monty Python might have done in a sketch), etc.

    I still have no idea how people who do this for a living are supposed to, well, continue to do this for a living under your economic model. Will we see street-corner authors with tables and netbooks set up next to a tip jar?

    Sorry, that dog just don’t hunt.

  7. Jim: currently I get most of my income from teaching computer science classes and doing computer programming in the summers. But before I started grad school, I made a living by writing articles for websites like Ars Technica and Techdirt. They paid me for the articles, put them on the web for free, and made money using ads or other methods.

    The idea of toiling away at my job, as much as I love it, for just the love of the job alone, is a completely alien concept.

    Right. The point is that in some (not all) cases writing won’t be a job. Again, my wife “toils away” making hats, socks, and sweaters, with no realistic prospect of making a living at it. This isn’t a problem because she considers it a hobby, rather than a job. Likewise, at the moment writing this blog isn’t my job. It’s something I do in my free time because I enjoy it (and because it might benefit my career in the future, but that’s not the only motivation).

    Now there are certainly some kinds of writing that I expect professionals can do better than amateurs. But there are other kinds (political punditry being one) where I think amateurs can do extremely well. The point is we shouldn’t assume that writing is always and everywhere a commercial activity. The mix of professional and amateur will be decided by market forces, and it’s not a bad thing if the amateurs dominate some categories–like blog comments. 🙂

  8. Brian Moore says:

    Plus, even back in the day, it’s always been hard to make money as a writer, poet, actor, musician and all of those other things. Only a tiny percentage of people who do these things do them exclusively, and only a smaller percentage make enough to support themselves. Even in the past/present with all the copyright stuff and non-zero marginal cost, it’s been hard. So from the perspective of the person who wants to write, your description of needing a supportive significant other, second job or trust fund is a pretty accurate description of the status quo, even 30 years ago.

    Yet over the past 30 years I think we’ve seen a major change in how all of those things are produced, and I think, for the better. There is more writing, art, music being produced, and it’s more diverse, however you measure that, because communication technology has enabled wider audiences. I don’t think there’s any possible scenario that’s going to make being a writer or artist a self-sustaining venture for more than a tiny group of people.

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