June 16, 2010

It’s pay what you can, not what you want

[Originally published June 15, 2010 at The Literary Platform]

We are living in generous times. I don’t mean that in a hippie, random acts of kindness sort of way. I mean that we are living at a time when sharing as a model of exchange is increasingly common.

Right now, our models of getting paid and paying for things are both up for grabs in fascinating – and potentially society-changing – ways. As newspapers fail, crucial experiments in how to pay for news – especially investigative reporting – are underway. Ebooks, creative commons licensing, and ever-more legitimate forms of self-publishing are challenging the book publishing industry’s way of doing business. As I writer, I’ve got a vested interest in what’s going to happen – and the open question applies to everyone who makes any form of culture, amateur or professional or anything in-between. One place to look for lessons is the open source movement, which began as a collaborative, distributed model of making software, and is fast becoming a pervasive set of values taken up by communities as diverse as open source sewing and amateur unmanned aerial vehicles development.

Notice that word, communities. Open source production and some of its consumption happen in communities. The model is most efficiently sustainable when most of the community respects the ethics of mutual sharing that open source is built on. That is to say they are freeloader-tolerant, and able to function when some of the participants are taking but not contributing. The point is, within a community, ethics are agreements, not abstractions. Within a community, generosity is a social contract.

When it comes to selling and buying culture, there have been some promising recent experiments in a model of comers called pay-what-you-want. This goes well beyond the longstanding tradition of pay-what-you-want museum admission—which is basically subsidized by very rich people and institutions paying what they want. In contrast, these are experiments in which generosity is offered by the authors to each member of the audience as an individual. For example, Radiohead released an album on a voluntary payment basis in 2007, and other musicians including Jane Siberry and Girl Talk have tried it out too. In January, there was a pay-what-you-want benefit concert for Haiti. Eidos’s game Championship Manager is successfully pay-what-you-want, and World of Goo had a profitable pay-what-you-want birthday sale in 2009. These experiments have been profitable financially (though freeloading was higher than hoped for, according to the data from Radiohead and World of Goo), and great publicity – for both their pass-along value and to some small degree for their values.

I like this model a lot. With one caveat. To my mind, it’s pay what you can, not pay what you want. Change the verb and you change the game. I know the phrase sounds very Soviet, and, significantly, it turns out it’s much harder than you’d think to evaluate for yourself what you can pay. I came to an epiphany about the distinction while drinking coffee in a Berlin cafe this winter. It’s a nice place, Cafe Morgenrot, where there’s a delicious buffet out all day and you can eat as much as you want and stay as long as you want. And you are asked to pay what you can.

They have to explain this to you. The menu lays it out. It’s not pay what you want. They tell you that the price you pay doesn’t correspond to how much you eat or how long you stay or how much you like the food. They are asking you to pay according to how much is in your wallet (in general, or at that moment). They don’t police their patrons, and overall it seems to work—which is to say, they’re still in business.

I believe in this stuff, and it was still fantastically hard to get my head around, and this is the lightning bolt that hit me. Pay-what-you-can requires a change in how we calculate value. It establishes payment as a mutual and ethical obligation, rather than a way of voting with your wallet.

As a maker of culture (specifically, stories), I prefer the can to the want model. Pay what you can is a radically different form of generosity that can only flourish in a community. It’s not an economic relationship between the consumer and the author. It’s a relationship between one book lover and another. Some people might want to pay a lot but can’t, and vice versa, and they’re all getting the same ‘free’ book. What’s happening is they’re subsidizing each other’s participation in a community of readers. Here’s the crux of it: I want to define cultural generosity as sharing (in both directions) and as paying what you can.

What would that look like? Well, none of this is going to work spectacularly in bestseller culture, but in communities of book buyers and readers who feel bound by a common aesthetic, politics, genre, the pay-what-you-can model has a fighting chance. Let me be clear. It’s not a question of teaching people that books are important to culture, and it’s the polar opposite of preserving the price point of the book-as-object in the face of digital distribution. Pay-what-you-can uses the possibilities afforded by digital production to change book buyers’ way of valuing and their motivation for paying for what they read. The key is that in an organic community, you can create a sense of responsibility. Doing so could change the way books (or any cultural products) are made, paid for, consumed, and loved.

And here’s an exciting example of a community that could build pay-what-you-can ethics into its structure from the ground up. Richard Nash’s new publishing company Cursor, and its debut imprint Red Lemonade, represent a radically new model (caveat: he’s a friend). Cursor is turning the making, buying and selling of books into a community business, driven by readers and writers. Nash describes it as “imprints that are communities, each based on a cluster of established and emerging writers and fans, in a given aesthetic, genre, or subculture. So, the community becomes both a place to create and collaborate and share one’s writing, and also an organ for disseminating the most representative and powerful of that writing to the larger world.” Cursor’s business model includes digital and mechanical editions, as well as limited editions.

What thrills me about this is that Nash is making the perfect laboratory for experimenting with pay-what-you-can—and I lay down the gauntlet for him to try it. As a participant in the community, you’re not just buying a book, you’re paying a share in supporting the community, the press/distribution mechanism, and the writer all in the same click of the “pay” button. You’re saying, I want this to go on, and I want it to be available to everybody who loves it the way I do.

The rise of pay-what-you-can culture could have significant social effects:

1)      The distinction between producers and consumers can become fuzzy in interesting, productive ways. This has been observed about the open source software community. In culture-making communities, it has the potential to break down a heretofore (relatively) closed, elitist structure of publication, distribution, and reputation.

2)      Sociable network membership is rapidly increasing in the US. The ethic of pay-what-you-can culture has the potential to transform some of these networks into rich, participatory communities, and to strengthen the network effects of existing communities.

3)      The financial model of pay what you can could provide crucial support for independent publishers and producers, keeping non-bestseller culture more viable and open.

So think about it next time you pay for a book, or a performance or a game or a record or a meal. If you think about how you assess their value – the way you spend your money on the things you love has a chance to change the world.

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