All this hullaballoo about Movable Type's new licensing structure is just another example of one of the Web's enduring issues: how to make money on the Web when users are accustomed to free lunches. It's not just an issue for developers either, it's as bad (if not worse) for writers.
But before I address that wider issue, if you were to ask me does Movable Type's announcement make me regret my recent transfer from Radio Userland to Movable Type - the answer's an emphatic no. Admittedly one of my reasons was Radio's US$40 per year fee, but let me re-state the context for that. I've got no problem paying for a publishing system like Radio Userland or Movable Type, but there has to be some forward movement in the product in terms of functionality. And that's where Radio failed me, for there hasn't been a decent upgrade to the product in 2 years (as I explained in full here). Movable Type meets my needs currently and probably for the foreseeable future, even though I'm a bit concerned when someone like Mark Pilgrim makes a good case for switching to an "open source" product like Wordpress because its future is more certain.
For all the griping I've read on the Web about MT's announcement, Jason Kottke summed up my feelings the best. He advocates an MT licensing structure that provides "freewheeling personal use of MT". He rightly points out that this "is an investment that will pay off handsomely in the future." Movable Type's developer community is their most precious asset, so I join Jason in urging Six Apart to look after it. You only need to (sadly) look at Radio Userland's developer community, a shadow of what it was 2 years ago, to see what may happen to MT if they're not vigilant.
(update, the next day: Six Apart have since loosened the restrictions on number of authors/weblogs in the free version of MT, which will help appease the wailing masses. I applaud Six Apart's quick action on this. That's the sign of a company that listens to its users and wants to keep its developer community happy. Good on ya!)
I mentioned in the beginning of this post that writers have it worse than developers. If Web users have a hard time ponying up cash for software, they are even more reluctant to hand over money for content. Just ask all the newspapers and magazines that are trying desperately to adapt to the online publishing model (if you want to know more about that, check out Poynter E-Media Tidbits). How does all this affect me? Because of my goals and aspirations and how I have to balance those with my duty as a breadwinner for my family.
You see, it's my goal to be a writer. Writing is in my blood and I love doing it. It's every person's dream to earn a living doing something they love, right? Well it's my dream to earn a living as a writer. So how can I do that? This weblog is a start. It's a space for me to experiment and practice my writing. It's my own personal publishing house. It's a lot of other things too (a way of meeting and interacting with like minds, etc), but in terms of my writing dreams it's the center of my universe.
You may've noticed I've signed up for Google Ads and they are placed fairly prominently in my new weblog design (on the right, on individual entry pages). But I have to tell you that I don't expect to make any real money from those ads. Actually I just now checked my click-through rates, for the first time, and I see that I earned $5.12 in the first month (see what I mean!). The Google Ads are an experiment and I'd be grateful if they ended up paying my annual web hosting costs - but I don't expect any more from them.
So weblogging for me isn't about making money. Hmmm, how else then can I earn a crust as a writer? How about writing a novel and trying to get it published, I hear someone shout from the wings. OK, good suggestion. I've written a novel already...but I haven't attempted to get it published. Firstly, because I'm not sure it's any good. Secondly, even if it was good it's not mainstream enough. Thirdly, only Stephen King makes any money writing novels right? Well OK, lots of other "mainstream" novelists earn a living writing novels. But you have to admit the mainstream isn't what it used to be. Our culture doesn't value novels much anymore. Television, movies, and now personal computers have all eclipsed the humble novel in entertainment value. What room there is for novels in the mainstream is taken up by formulaic and unoriginal legal thrillers and novels about serial killers.
The other issue is that the opportunity costs for writing a novel are high - I'd have to forgo my career as a Web professional and the steady (if unspectacular) income that goes with it. When you have a family to support, the risks are pretty high. So trying to write fiction for a living isn't really an option for me.
How about making money writing articles and such for paper publications, I hear some wag suggesting from the back row. Yeah I'm onto it. Well, I've made a start. I've got my second Computerworld article coming up, about RSS in E-Government. But I'm not getting paid for this, just as I didn't get paid for the Marc Canter interview in Computerworld.
I didn't really expect to get paid for the first couple of articles I submitted to Computerworld. My initial aim is to make a name for myself, get my writing out into the wider world. But eventually I have to consider: well I'm putting in all this effort, staying up late to do research and write these articles, spending lots of time on the computer when I should be spending it with my family. So I must be doing all this for a reason, right? What's the reason: recognition for my writing? A bit. Creative satisfaction? A bit. Learning new things to enhance my career as a Web professional? A bit. Money to help pay the mortgage? That would be nice, eventually...
To clarify, I only want to be paid (eventually) for the "professional" writing I do. This doesn't apply to articles I write for non-profit publications such as Digital Web Magazine, which I will gladly contribute to for free because they are run by and for the community that I belong to.
So non-fiction writing is a goer. If I'm to ever earn a living as a writer, it will probably be writing non-fiction. Unless I strike it lucky and one of my novels gets made into a Peter Jackson movie ;-)
It's all about the Whuffie
Whuffie was the term coined by Cory Doctorow in his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It means reputation. This weblog is enhancing my reputation (I hope) as a writer, and likewise any articles I write for Computerworld or Digital Web Magazine or any other publication will enhance my reputation too. If they're good articles. One day I might've accumulated enough whuffie to actually begin to make some money. If enough people read what I write and like it, then I may become marketable as an author/writer. That's pretty much what happened to Cory Doctorow himself. He has a hugely successful blog, Boing Boing, and that together with his earlier short stories and novels gained him enough whuffie to help him make it big with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
It's the same with web development. Ben and Mena Trott, and now Anil Dash, have put in 2-3 years of hard yakka to get Movable Type to the position it holds now: number 1 weblog system in the world. Movable Type has enormous whuffie. Now they want to get paid for it, which is totally understandable from the point of view I've laid out in this post. I'm sure people like Mark Fletcher of Bloglines (currently free) and Dave Sifry of Technorati (currently free) are thinking along the same lines. Both of those products have huge whuffie with the Web community. Sooner or later they will reach for the golden ring. Just as I will with my writing.