The Slashdot Manifesto argument and teh future of teh writer on Internets, or, I CAN HAZ UR MONEY?

Steven Poole wrote a blog entry about how the hell us poor writers are supposed to earn a living in this newfangled “information wants to be free” age, characterized by what Poole calls the “Slashdot argument”:

[the Slashdot argument] says that books, music, films, software and so on ought to be freely distributed to anyone who wants them, simply because they can be freely distributed. What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can’t earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you’re one of those musicians who plays live),4 or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of “value-added” service.

You may recognize this logic as a variant, or corollary, if you will of the first line of the Toddler’s Manifesto: “if I want it, it’s mine.”

After the jump, a link to a funny cartoon!

As I said in my comment, on Poole’s blog, Cory Doctorow seems to have found a way to make a living under the new rules, but it’s unclear whether Cory’s Way works for anybody else.

Anyway this is a relatively old argument (where “old” is measured in Internet time, in which ten seconds equals a billion years), but Poole frames it well and about a hundred thousand people have made comments on the topic, so hop on over there if you want to get in on the donnybrook. (Feel free also to donate to this site or buy my books if you want to make a tangible point about how writers are supposed to get by.) (Oh! And check out the glowing (ancient) Slashdot reviews of my books.)

Ted Rall makes funny cartoon

At the convention of Dirty Fucking Hippies called Eschacon, Ted Rall showed this funny cartoon. Which is further discussed here.

For your convenience

What the heck, here’s the text of my own brilliant comment aforementioned:

Cory Doctorow is kind of the poster boy for the “new model” of how writers are supposed to make a living. It works if you’re Cory. Not sure how it works for everybody else. I had a long chat with him about this stuff. You can download the podcast (in three chunks of twenty minutes each) from my site wetmachine:

When business models change, it’s a bitch. I’ve been a writer, or a manager of writers for a computer or software company, since 1980. I’ve written software and hardware manuals, magazine articles, marketing copy, a novel, novellas, and so on and so forth. I’m currently working as a ghostwriter on a book about software process management. In real terms, my income peaked in 1992 or so.

I believe I was the second person, after Cory Doctorow, to put his or her novels under Creative Commons license. In fact it was that old gadabout Cory himself who convinced me to do it. They’re available at

I’m not rich yet.

My first job was with Data General, a giant “minicomputer” manufacturer. That company, and all others in its class are gone. Most recently I worked for Laszlo, makers of OpenLaszlo, a great, free, open source platform. I got laid off after 4.5 years. It’s hard to make money when you give away the product of your labor, whether you’re a person OR a corporation.

I’ve written a bunch of stuff for, a fairly well-regarded “new media” outfit. The articles did really well, in terms of how many people downloaded them. I made about $.05/hour for writing them, but they did bring a measure of attention to my books.

All of which is to say that I don’t have any idea how to make a decent living as a writer, but that’s what I’m going to keep doing because I’m old and don’t see anything else that offers a better chance of financial success. At least when you self-publish your books, you can keep selling them indefinitely. And there is always the chance, however slim, that you’ll have some kind of big break-out success, a la J.K. Rowling. Especially if you go out into the world and sell your books in person.

If you see me selling my books from the trunk of my car at a truckstop on the Interstate, do be kind and buy one, won’t you?


  1. The cartoon is awesome, thanks.

    Interesting re Salon, by the way. I always naively assumed they paid something like a decent rate. After all, they charge for subscriptions and/or show shiny ads.

  2. Steven,

    Salon probably pays some writers well. I wrote a bunch of stuff for them in 2003 when they were on the brink of going out of business & I agreed to work for cheap to get the publicity. I was even more mega-super unknown then than I am now, if that’s possible.

    I wrote my first story for, like, $50. The second one for $350 and the third for, like $750. They were very popular articles, and everything I wrote made the year-end “Editor’s Choice” list. So, my rate could go up a little, anyway.

    But my stories involved lots of research and lots more writing, so the hourly rate was pretty paltry anyway.

    I’m still glad I did it. It led to some book sales and some amount of credibility.

    You may be amused, however, by how I got snubbed by Salon editor Joan Walsh at a big Salon bash a few years ago:

  3. Give me a shout when you’ll be coming to a truck stop near Easton PA. I’ll spring for a book. Hell, I’ll even buy you a cup of nasty truck stop coffee . . .

  4. Hey bj,

    Thanks for the invite. I was through Easton not too long ago. Got some family members who went to LaFayette, too.

    I will of course be happy to sell you a book from the box in the trunk of my car, but don’t let’s be forgetting how easy it is to purchase them directly from me through this-a-here very website. Viz,


  5. I’m not sure that the /. argument is so much that things need to be free online because social justice demands that we get free shit. It’s because the collateral damage of trying to lock things down online is just not worth it. DRM is a huge pain in the ass and also, in conjunction with the provisions of the DMCA wreaks havoc on the compromises represented by traditional copyright law. The /. position is that technology and the Internet allow for a participatory culture that is, if not downright revolutionary, new and exciting and well worth exploring. DRM, if it actually worked, could destroy much of that potential. It’s not worth that price to protect old business models, particularly when there is no evidence that new business models can’t be just as successful.

  6. then something needs to change in the economic model. from what I see among musicians, for the most part touring pays little or nothing beyond travel expenses, but gives a venue where one can sell their CDs. that’s for small-timers like folkies. but even the big acts, like the grateful dead, who performed a huge amount, operated on a similar model for some time.

    if the musicians don’t have the right to make money off their albums, giving them no financial incentive to perform, that means no music except from the independently wealthy.

  7. Jon,

    I think you’re right & something has got to give. But one thing is sure: nobody can stop the tide.

    I think I’ll give an update on my views on how old-fashioned writers can approach this once my new book The Pains comes out.

  8. J.B.

    I think you’re right about the essence of the /. argument, and I more-or-less agree with it. There are some people who subscribe to the radical /. argument — not sure if that point of view will come to predominate & we move to Ted Rall’s T-shirt world.

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