Adapting to the new world of being an author

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19 July 2006

Yesterday I posted about Paul Sheriff’s new subscription-based online venture. It is an experiment on Paul’s part, and it is something he’s put a huge amount of time and effort into building.

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Interestingly, there’s been a bit of pushback – at least in the comments on my blog – to Paul charging for his site. Of course this is an experiment, and so only time will tell if Paul’s investment in time and money putting it together, and his ongoing investment in building content will actually pay off.   But I hope it does work, and this is why.   It has been clear for a while now that the world is undergoing some major changes. While the Internet didn't transform the world like all the dot-com nuts thought it would, it really is having a non-trivial (if ponderous) impact as time goes by.   (for a thought-provoking view of a possible future, check out

Epic 2014).

  A few of us, Paul and myself included, are trying to figure out how to adapt to this new world. With book sales radically down and magazine subscriptions failing and technical conferences struggling, it is becoming less and less practical for a professional author/speaker to make a living.   Now it might be the case that free content will have the same quality as professionally created, reviewed and edited content. But I doubt it.  Some people can generate quality content without reviewers and editors, but most can’t. And in any case there’s no substitute for experience. As with anything, experience has tremendous value. If you look at any professional author’s work you’ll see a progression as they get better and better at explaining their ideas over time. Not that there isn't some great free content out there, but wading through all the random content to find it is very expensive. There’s no doubt that some people invest their time and effort in improving their writing skills for free, but over time it is hard to commit to that level of focus without some level of compensation.   I specifically avoided saying that some people do this as a hobby. Because I think that is very rare. People write to get compensation. In many cases it is financial – either directly, because they get paid to write, or indirectly, because they expect to get a raise, or to more easily job-hop into a raise.   Coming back to that sifting through the web thing though… Time isn't free. In fact I'm of the opinion that time is far more valuable than money for most of the people in our profession. Wasting hours sifting through random outdated, or just plain poor, content to find that one gem on someone's blog is really costly.   For some people it is worth that time, for others it is not. There's no way to pass a global value judgment on this, because different people have different jobs and priorities. If I can spend a couple hours writing code, I'm much happier than if I spent a couple hours reading random web content. Other people love reading and sifting through random web content and don't begrudge that time in the slightest.   One thing that I always keep in mind though, is that we (in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />US and Europe anyway) cost 4-7 times more than people in India or China. That means we need to be 4-7 times more productive to justify our existence. So that time spent sifting through the web needs to result in some pretty impressive productivity or it was just a very high cost.   I sift through the web at least as much as the next guy, don’t get me wrong. But not really by choice. If some web-sifter out there started a subscription-based index into content that is actually up to date and valid I’d pay for it. Google is great, but just think if there was a Google that only searched meaningful content!?! I don’t care about the vast majority of what people put on the web, there are just a few gems I’m looking for.   Unfortunately, thus far the idea of a paid index for content hasn’t proven to be a viable business model. And the web is undermining traditional forms of providing content. So the world is changing. But I don’t believe for a minute that the value of professional content is lower than in the past, I just think the delivery of that content is in flux.   So the question then, is how to deliver professional content in this new world? And in a way where the producers, reviewers and editors of the content are compensated for their effort. Time isn’t free, not for you as the reader, nor for those of us engaged in professionally producing that content.   We’ll all find out whether Paul’s experiment works or not over time. But he’s not alone in looking for ways to adapt to this new world, and you can expect to see some experiments from other people as well – including me – in the relatively near future.