Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Patronage

Writing 4 min read

I was upset to read about the sad demise of the UK’s MacUser magazine, after almost thirty years of publication. MacUser was truly one of a kind, aimed at the curious, discerning professional who wanted to read Sunday-supplement-like, in-depth articles on various aspects of the creative arts as they pertained to the Apple platforms.

It was from MacUser that, variously and over the years, I developed an interest in typography, colour theory, video editing, and a host of other subjects. I’ve been a subscriber, a reader, and even a contributor, and the closing of the magazine is a great loss to the Mac community.

Last September, we also heard of the shuttering of the print edition of Macworld magazine. These two magazines aren’t the only casualties of shifting tastes, economic changes, evolving consumption patterns, and so forth. Things have changed.

I think there are echoes of the underlying issue even on the App Store, where free is the most common price, and long-term sustainability for the small or independent developer is something spoken of only in nervous whispers.

The problem, of course, is us. We’ve created a culture of expecting to get things for free, particularly what we dismissively call “content”. It turns out that you can’t produce content for free forever. Nobody’s putting their money where their mouth is.

As fellow writer, tech journo, blogger, and erstwhile contributor to the equally defunct Tap! magazine Craig Grannell said today:

If MacUser’s demise teaches us anything, it’s this: support the things you love. Pay for content you want, and it has a shot at survival.

He’s right. And just a shot, mind you.

We don’t have to look far to see where we’re all letting this happen. Think about it for a moment. Even consider this very blog.

How many times have you chosen to read what’s here? Just a rough estimate will do. If you read everything I wrote in 2014, that’s over 90,000 words, which is around six hours of reading time for most people. It’s also the length of an average novel.

If you’ve been reading since the first iPhone was launched (and many of you have), you’ll have read well over 300,000 words, or over twenty hours’ worth.

In all likelihood, there’s probably been no cost to you during that time. A very small number of generous readers have supported my writing, but the percentage is vanishingly low.

I have some financial costs - mostly hosting and bandwidth - but the greatest expense by far is the time I put into my writing here. I try to hold myself to a high standard (you’re entitled to your opinion on that, of course), and your continued attention seems to indicate I’m probably doing alright in that regard, but writing here is a resolutely loss-making enterprise.

It always has been; enormously so. I’ve experimented with methods of monetisation, including a single ad on the page for a couple of years (now gone), and last year with a single sponsored post per week. Neither ever came close to making the site cover its costs.

Of course, meeting costs was never what it was about - my goal has always been simply to write, not to make money. My mission statement is simple:

Interesting words, delivered in a way that respects the reader.

There’s a distinction, though, between making money and being supported in a creative endeavour. Likewise, there’s a distinction between paying for content (which you might feel is distasteful and - wrongly - somehow undemocratic), and being a patron of the creative works you most enjoy.

Writing is creative work. Music is too. Videos are. Apps are.

I hate the term “pay wall” as much as you do, but its very existence indicates a disturbing outlook: that we’re talking about some kind of toll booth; an arbitrary barrier to what already exists beyond. Like a border control station, erected capriciously in order to greedily extract money. A grab for surplus cash. That’s the assumption of the term itself.

The reality is that creative output involves cost - whether it’s at the professional end, with staff and materials and print runs or editing suites, or in the spare-bedroom office of the independent artist, where the cost is time, and what else might have been accomplished during it.

If we don’t support the things we love, with actual money, those things will go away. If we ignore the kickstarter campaigns, and block the ads, and read the content without supporting the author, and pirate the apps, sooner or later we’ll lose those things altogether.

And there will be new things, of course, to take their place.

New things from more eager and desperate makers, who will sell you out the first chance they get - be it via a change in a privacy policy, or a string of banner ads, or a new newsletter you never had the chance to opt out of - because it’s all they can do.

Their watchword will have to be simple survival, in the stripped-away, lean wasteland of free-to-play and build first, business plan later.

Their ethos will not include respecting the reader.

We’re doing this to ourselves, and the outcome is mundane and inevitable. The things we have now will wither and die. They’ll become collectors’ pieces from the past, rarer and rarer, to be coveted and traded by the strange few, as their newness drains like sand through the hourglass.

In the blink of an eye, they won’t have been new for years.

That’s no less true for digital content than for that final issue of MacUser, dropping through letterboxes even now. The abandoned blogs, and the lapsed domains. The web archive caches with so many broken images and download links. The code repositories whose last checkins will soon be from a different decade.

Human creative output has a value, both to its creator and particularly to those who benefit from it. We make things in the world. If you want those things to continue to exist, they must be supported.

Not necessarily paid for, as if a bill has been rudely presented while you were just browsing. Instead, something more like the tip jar, or the busker’s upturned hat, or open instrument case.

The internet has brought us global personal communication, and with it a renaissance of personal creative output.

If we can see our relationship with that work for what it truly is - that of patrons of the arts, and artists - then the voices that we enjoy today may just still be around tomorrow.