Pay Me for Before, or Pay Me for Later
This is a story about making a living writing software in the new millenium. The first thread in the story was the recent FLOSS Weekly interview where I whined about not knowing how to make a living from open source. I have some constraints:
- I travel with my family, which limits my time away from home
- I live in rural southern Oregon, which means no local business and little local talent
The second thread comes from my study of economics. Actually, “study” is too strong a word. I listen to EconTalk while I’m doing chores. At first I was fairly lost, but now I can predict what people are going to say a fair percentage of the time. One of the first things I learned is that one social purpose of markets is to allocate scarce resources in spite of uncertainty.
The third thread came when I heard about the recent kerfuffle regarding the reuse of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye character Holden Caulfield. The part that caught my eye was that Catcher was Salinger’s only novel, published in 1951. It’s sold 65 million copies since then. So basically Salinger has spent 50+ years cashing royalty checks and contributing back very little (at least on the scale of another widely-studied novel). That makes no sense from a resource allocation perspective. Catcher was a significant societal contribution, but society has had little payback from its subsequent investment (must be tens of millions of dollars) in Mr. Salinger.
I don’t wish to pick on Mr. Salinger. What he’s doing makes sense given the rules of the game as they stand. For many, payment in arrears (for work already done) works just fine. Patrick O’Brien or Arturo Perez-Reverte put out long lines of worthwhile books. In their case payment in arrears results in reasonably efficient resource allocation. Maybe Mr. Salinger’s case is just a hiccup, but it got me thinking.
The final thread of this story came when I found a download site listing 20,000 downloads of my latest book, Implementation Patterns. I like lots of people reading my books. I work with my publishers to increase unit sales, even at the expense of royalties. However, as I looked at those download numbers I thought, “Don’t they realize that if they don’t pay for my last book I can’t afford to write my next book?’ It seems to me that society is not well served by the breakdown of the in arrears payment model. Yes, they get everything I’ve already done for free, but I (and millions of other producers like me) don’t have a source of capital to make the next thing.
I need to get paid for my work (college and retirement loom). Currently I’m not getting paid for what I’ve already done and I’m not getting paid for what I’m about to do. Getting paid for what I’ve already done doesn’t make sense (from the Catcher in the Rye example). So, here’s my proposed deal. Y’all can have everything I’ve already done for free-as-in-beer if I get a steady income for the work I’m about to do. I’m even willing to forgo the chance of winning the lottery in return for security.
I’m not sure who I’d sign such a contract with or how I’d negotiate terms. The whole idea may be impractical. Getting paid in advance has its own risks. What if I take the money and run? What if I produce, but not anything valuable? These are serious issues and I’m not sure they can be overcome. However, if I’m going to try to make the in arrears model work for me, I’d rather do it with my eyes open, acknowledging that getting paid for what I’ve already done is just a heuristic.
P.S. Looking at the above it strikes me that an alternative to getting paid in advance and in arrears is getting paid for what I’m doing right now, kind of like what I did for James Taylor Friday night. I (and a thousand of my closest friends) paid him to sing right then. What kind of business would make “pay for now” a source of revenue for me?