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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  1. Some writers have used the internet very well. Brian K. Vaughan, the comic book and now television writer, connected to new readers through MySpace, “friending’people, blogging, and messaging about several of his series Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways. He provided tips and information on writing, breaking into the comic biz, along with artwork and excerpts from his books, including his graphic novel, Pride of Bagdad, which went on to win numerous awards. His marketing paid off too, as he rose to prominence within the comic book world, was a Guest of Honor at New York Comic Con 2007, and is now a writer on Lost.

  2. Stephen King’s experiment was always doomed because he chose a really stupid metric for measuring success. Which would Stephen King prefer, ten people download The Plant and they all pay for it, or 10 million people download it and one million of them pay for it? I’m guessing he’d prefer the latter scenario, but by his own criteria he would have counted the former as a stunning success and the latter as an abject failure. The big problem that old media types seem to have with the new economy is that it doesn’t matter how many people are consuming your content without paying for it, all you need to target is the number that do pay.

  3. David Rothman comments about Stephen King’s experiment with e-books and says “Had the experiment truly succeeded, King would have continued it.”

    The experiment did succeed in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for King. His irresponsible and greedily malignant actions greatly damaged the e-book market at a critical nascent period. King maliciously cut-off readers in the middle of a book because his self-aggrandizement is only measured in megadollars, and he felt threatened by a payoff that was very large but not absurdly large. As penance King should write a novel about a miserable character trapped in a novel who must continual repeat the actions of the brainless horror plot until the avaricious creator of the novel finally finishes composing the work. Of course the obnoxious creator should end up trapped in the novel. 😉 I am not being serious here but King’s actions were irritating.

    David Rothman asks “Does anyone know of that many authors who have made serious money just through donations?”

    When the political controversialist Andrew Sullivan had an independent blog he was able to raise more than $200,000 through two “pledge drives”. His donation figures were the highest that I know of that have been revealed for a blog. Yet he still switched to working for “mainstream media”, e.g., Time magazine and The Atlantic.

    For another view of Radiohead’s actions you might wish to read the USA Today article Were Radiohead fans duped by the download?

  4. Septimus: Alas, the King example still reinforces my main point. Yes, he made money—but far from enough by his standards as determined by the usual market. Of course, I agree with you. He still should have gone through. Bad PR move to halt the series. As for Sullivan, it would be interesting to know exactly what he was thinking in switching to the MSM. Thanks for a great response! David

  5. I was just wondering that myself. Book publishing is definitely a different market and getting it to digital is not very easy. I think more authors could do this, but I think there is a snob factor underneath it more than an issue with money. Great summary and comparison.

  6. Unfortunately PW ate my (thoughtful) response on this. My experience with the tip jar is not promising. Then again, I’m as guilty as the next guy. If the musician wasn’t looking at me, watching me as I didn’t tip, I would probably tip them less, too.

    I think most people are comfortable with a model where they pay a set price for a defined good or service. Paying a vague amount under vaguer circumstances just doesn’t seem to work well. Again, at least that’s my experience. I think it’s also the experience of many in the shareware industry. If you want to collect money, you need to offer something extra to those who pay. In the book business, the free part is the excerpt and the something extra is the book. Works for me.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

  7. Mike Scott said: The big problem that old media types seem to have with the new economy is that it doesn’t matter how many people are consuming your content without paying for it, all you need to target is the number that do pay.

    I just don’t think this is sustainable. Long run, those that do pay are going to notice they’re not getting any more for their money than those who don’t pay. So they’ll switch to don’t pay and get the same amount of entertainment until the author eventually goes out of the authoring business. At which point it’s probably too late to get her back.

    I agree with Rob Preece. When it’s easy to get away without paying, most of us just don’t pay. And how many creators really want to be in the begging business, constantly haranguing their fan base to kick a few more dollars into the kitty?

  8. There are different methods to encourage charitable giving. One idea that has been discussed in the past on TeleRead is called the Street Performer Protocol. Chris Meadows wrote an interesting article about the successful use of this general idea to raise money for novels. The emphasis is on raising money and not enforcing payment collection from everyone, and I think that is complementary to the comment made by Mike Scott above.

    Yet Bryan makes an important point when he says “Long run, those that do pay are going to notice they’re not getting any more for their money than those who don’t pay.” This might be called the “chump factor”. Will a payer feel like a chump when he or she sees that so many others are not paying, and will this undercut charitable giving? Perhaps special limited editions of novels or CDs that are signed by authors or band members might be offered as premiums to those who provide sponsorship money.

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