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Money for service and your content for free

It's the big problem of the net: how do you make money if everyone can access the files you produce for free?

Earning money is not evil, it makes it possible to produce more art or information. It's a waste of talent to need a day job to support what you consider your real work.

In the old world it was simpler (but not easy): make a deal with a publisher, they will pay you for the privilege of printing (or publishing in some other way) your works, and their customers (perhaps with a bookshop or something in between) will pay them to get access to your works. Copyright ensured that publishers would have to make a deal with you, they couldn't just take your work as published by another publisher and copy it.

On the net it doesn't work quite that way. People are unlikely to pay for something if it is just data, and equivalent data is available for free elsewhere. And since the net is just so damn huge, there will always be someone who doesn't need the money and publishes his similar works just for fun, or even someone who infringes on your copyright and publishes your work for free. Because of the anonymity on the net it can be too difficult to track down the infringer.

Another reason that selling access to data to the general public doesn't work is that this never was what they were buying. When you buy, for example, a book, you're not buying access to its contents, you're buying the convenience of having it on paper and in your own library. You could also visit a friend and read the book there for free, or borrow it from him for free. In some cases the convenience of having your works you published on the net on paper (or another physical medium) can still be sold. Not many will print a work of dozens of pages at home, above a certain number of pages it becomes not only inconvenient but also expensive since printer ink is expensive. You might try a service like lulu or a traditional publisher.

Your works are too small to be inconvenient to consumed through the screen? Too bad. You might try getting them published in a magazine or something. Creative commons licenses could be useful to make clear by what rules you wish to use in case a traditional publication wishes to use your works. The value of copyright licensing on the net itself is limited, because copyright is hard to protect there anyway. With some luck those who copy your work will obey the license and not strip your name off your art, and share derivative works under the same license if you specified they should do that. This is a win, but only a small one.

It's time for the A-word: advertising. This is very problematic. On one hand it's best to have very targeted, on-topic ads around your work, on the other hand these may damage your integrity. Are you being creative to show the results to your audience, or are you just selling the products of others? A way to get around this is to let some other company (eg google) find the targeted ads to put on your work, it is less likely to harm your perceived integrity. On the other hand, most of the ad revenue will go to that company instead of to you. You'll indirectly be paying a lot for this service, I might even say "ripped off".

Untargeted ads will generate much less income, and if there are too many in order to compensate for that, your audience will start using ad-blockers to get rid of the annoyance. It's technically impossible to lock out someone using a sufficiently sophisticated ad-blocker, since there is no way to tell if the ads, even if they are downloaded, are actually displayed. What's worse, if too many other authors put too many advertisements on their works, your audience will be using ad-blockers even when you don't have an overkill of ads on your own works.

Small text link ads are a special case. These don't seem to draw much attention from your audience, and actually I think they should not be considered ads. What advertisers are really buying is a little of your PageRank. Gets listed high in the search engine results, if it links to another page then that other page will also move up a little. It's only a matter of time until search engines will find a way to discover they are being cheated.

Combining all this I don't think the web advertising business model will last forever. It's already on it's way down, stories like Firefox boycotted because of an ad-blocker are evidence of that.

What about donations? Well, does anyone know anyone who only publishes on the net and survives on donations? If you're lucky, donations might be enough to pay for your internet connection and hosting, if you're very lucky you might even receive more than that, but it will still not be much.

So what way is left to make money? I believe we should consider anything we publish on the web as an advertisement: promotion material, and only that. We can use this to sell the following:

  • pretty or convenient copies (maybe we will see the reappearance of the artful music album!)
  • signed copies
  • limited edition high quality copies (things one can proudly display on a wall at home)
  • time: live performances!

Please do comment Eye !


Interesting article. The new

Interesting article. The new world of business in the information / art realm is really increasingly not about selling something as an object, but selling something as a service. I think you're hitting it spot on when saying that the actual "product", this object, is just an advertisement, something to get people to notice you and your skills and premium offerings that you can actually sell.

However I somehow don't perceive the advertising business going down. With things like Google's unobtrusive ads being embedded in YouTube videos and perhaps phone services, the real shift may be in simply making ads more bearable, even maybe attractive in some sense, rather than an annoyance that people will want to block.

I think the only reason why there is a boycott of Firefox (by what I consider to be only few web publishers) is because too many people started using ad blockers, and rightfully so. And the reason why they did is because ads crossed the line, became too unbearable. So if the ads become bearable again ad blockers may see a decrease in popularity.

Of course this is not to say that ideally we wouldn't have ads at all and that all would be based on premium services. The problem is, not everyone that can put up some ads can offer premium services that would actually be bought sufficiently to cover the costs and compensate the publisher sufficiently. But that's something to be researched and discussed.

Just one more thing to comment on.


It's only a matter of time until search engines will find a way to discover they are being cheated.

I think they're already quite aware of this and I'm not even sure they really mind it, although I can imagine Google might like to crush that kind of market at some point, just to remove one competing way of doing advertising business. And objectively it really is not an ideal way either.

The problem is, however, that it's going to be rather hard to reliably discern which links on the page are payed for and which are normal since there is no link back (so googlebot can't treat it as link exchange) and the ads are totally genuine HTML hyperlinks embedded in a page. Googlebot could use some sort of a relevancy algorithm that would make it stop following links which he finds irrelevant to the rest of the content on the page, but I'm not sure this would be very reliable. You can't just pigeonhole a site like that. Sometimes relevant links will to a cold hearted bot look like irrelevant. Also, doing this would put some pressure on web publishers regarding how they link to anything which might cause some uprising.

And after all this, there would still be some space for selling text link ads that actually are relevant. It'd be harder to make money this way, but it would still be possible and people would still pay for high PageRank links.


Dear tbuitenh,

Interesting post. I discovered thank to you. I was wondering if this kind of assisted self-publication would work in the future. How could we get some statistics about the sells volume of this new strategies?

Hi ChickenFire,I don't know


Hi ChickenFire,

I don't know if Lulu and similar services publish any statistics, they might, but it's also possible they might be hiding those data very carefully. Right now I don't have time to look into that, I'm very busy writing a program that will in the future interact with Lulu or one of their competitors (what a coincidence huh). I'm sorry I can't provide any other info about the program at the moment, gotta be stealthy to be able to be the first to implement my business idea.

I'm not sure if I understood your question, but here's an attempted answer:

Services like Lulu will be most useful to those who can sell large quantities of their work, but not large enough quantities to make it profitable enough for a traditional publisher.
If your work is interesting only to a very small audience, then obviously selling paper copies using Lulu is not going to make you much money.

I'm afraid the statistics of sales volumes of other authors wouldn't help you much anyway. If some author doesn't need much time to produce something that sells very well, that's good for him, but there's no reason why you would have the same time investment/sales ratio.

In the end a lot of it comes down to how able you are to promote your work. Do you have a website that gets lots of visitors? Do you know other websites that would write something positive about your work? Are you a member of some kind of community that is interested in the genre or subject of your work?
The other half of it is of course quality.

By the way, welcome aboard! (after registering 1 year and 14 weeks ago!)

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