I’ve been watching Marco Arment’s publishing venture, called The Magazine, with interest and a little puzzlement. It looks like a high wall around writing, the kind of wall that was natural before publishing got cheap, first with laser printing and page layout software, then with the web and blogging.
When I started blogging, with DaveNet, in 1994 — people in the tech industry who read it thought for sure it was just a demo, and eventually I would charge a fee. Something like the $495 per year that Esther Dyson and Stewart Alsop charged for their tech industry newsletters. I told everyone that I would never do that, but they still seemed to believe I would eventually charge.
But I didn’t and I never would for this simple reason. I was having so much influence with the free and openly published email/web essays that it made no sense to limit the flow. I also never thought of my writing as my bread and butter, so in fairness, I could afford to give it away because it was a by-product of my real work, not the work itself, which was writing software.
So maybe I wasn’t so smart, just had my center in a different place. Whatever, I was sure I wouldn’t charge, and in the 19 years since, I never have.
Now Marco has changed his policy, and the articles appear on the web in addition to being in his iOS-based magazine app. It’s a complex scheme that allows readers to point to articles to share them on the web. But you can only read one article for free per month. I don’t see why this is a major difference from having an absolute and impenetrable paywall. One time, when I click on a link, I get to read the article. Every other time, I’ll get an ad to buy a subscription, I guess. As a linker, I wouldn’t like to send my readers to ads for a publication. I might read an article and think it essential for everyone to read, but wouldn’t share it.
I am the kind of person who, when I read an article, if I make it all the way to the end, I’m pretty likely to forward it to all my followers. I have this systematized, with software that makes it super-easy. I also will forward a link to articles that I want to remember to read. I figure if it’s important enough for me to want to read later, then it’s important enough for the people who follow me to get that link so they can read it too. My linkflow is a sort of memory system. I use it the way some people use Marco’s Instapaper, or Readability, or the way they used to use del.icio.us, or any of a dozen other tools that remember links to look at later.
But because sharing links is such a central part of my reading process, I almost never read articles that can’t be shared. It means I’ve never read an article that’s published in Marco’s Magazine. It’s not out of principle. Maybe he’s right. If so, eventually I may have to give in. I don’t subscribe to the WSJ or the NYT either, although I have at times been tempted to go for the NYT plan. If it were simpler and if I believed I could easily unsub I probably would.
Anyway, I’m still watching. I suspect he will find equilibrium with full sharing on the web. The pull is just too great. I bet that most good writers want to influence with their writing more than they want to be paid for it. Everyone likes a small paycheck, but if it interferes with the purpose of writing, that creates a conundrum. I think that long-term the desire to influence will win-out.