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220px-Radiohead_Berkeley,_California_23-6-2006 Radiohead‘s experiment with a tip jar reportedly bought in an estimated profit of some $10 million in a week—supposedly an average of $8 donated per downloaded album. Will the tip jar approach work for writers, too?

Could Stephen King use it, for example, and cut out the evil middlemen (sarcasm alert)? This isn’t so hypothetical an issue. King experimented some years ago with an online serial called The Plant. As summed up in Wikipedia: “The idea was that if enough people paid up, more parts would be published in the same way. The limit was set at 75% of payers versus downloaders. The rate of paying customers decreased over time, but at least the first parts were over the set limit.” Notice the key words, though? “Decreased over time.” Had the experiment truly succeeded, King would have continued it.

Writers vs. musicians as tip jarians

In the end, I suspect, this is a case-by-case situation, dependent not just on the quality of the work offered, but also on just how closely the performer or writer can bond with fans.

Just as importantly, I wonder how much bonding potential exists in one medium compared to another. Will writers have more problems bonding than a rock group whose voices you hear and whose faces you see before you for prolonged stretches in concerts?

I fervently believe that like musicians, writers can use virtual communities to build sales and, without even trying, reduce piracy while better understanding their readers. The question is whether a community-related tip jar can ever succeed for writers to the extent it can for musicians. Does anyone know of that many authors who have made serious money just through donations?

Another author’s tip jar experiment

Oh, god, the talent of some of the people who’ve experimented, and I don’t just mean Stephen King! I love John Scalzi‘s Agent to the Stars, and he is justifiably proud of the $4,000+ his fans online contributed for five years before he said he’d made enough, but I doubt we’re really talking about a sustainable business model. Scalzi himself ended up using the online project to promote other books, as well as a limited edition, which, in a leather-bound version, cost a very, very mandatory $150.

Again, let me make it clear I’m not opposed to the tip jar for people wanting it—for example, writers who have trouble finding the standard commercial market for their work, as John Scalzi once did in the case of Agent. Great! But imagine the tip jar idea applied as a standard business model, inside or outside the creative arts. Perhaps my dentists, instead of suggesting that I undergo $1,500 worth of gum work, should just get on with the it and politely suggest that I set the fee, assuming I want to pay.

Something else to ponder: Radiohead’s forced tip—the cost in time and privacy

Meanwhile Bob Russell at MobileRead has pointed me to Nate Anderson’s Ars Technica article headlined P2P Radiohead’s ‘free’ Rainbows: why P2P can be a hard habit to break. It seem fans would rather download via P2P to avoid the hassles of giving out “a number of user details that go beyond the e-mail address needed to create an account.” Not only that, users must “retrieve the download code, and such a process will put some people off at any price.” In other words, far from being free for those not interested in paying, Radiohead’s offerings require a tradeoff in time and privacy—just like the New York Times’ ad-supported site.

Of course, regardless of the leakage, Radiohead is still making money and thereby justifying the experiment. This is something to ponder not just about the group’s tip jar approach but also about the conventional pay-per-book model if implemented online without DRM. It isn’t the leakage that counts, dear readers. Rather it is the bottom line.

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