Stephen King, the tip model, and the job market (Stephen King, Roger Williams, SourceForge, Kolab, JBoss)

In 2000, the well-known horror writer Stephen King conducted some interesting experiments in Internet publishing. Although they weren't Open Source projects, King clearly understood the dynamics between immaterial work and the Internet so well that there is much we can learn from him.

King made history in the spring of 2000 by publishing his novel Riding the Bullet in digital form only. It was the first time a well-known author had written a book not intended for printed publication. The vendors of various eBook solutions and programs made the most of this opportunity, and old news clippings remind us of all "the death of printed books' stories.1

The cost of publishing a book in digital form is of course far less than having it printed. This, and marketing reasons, allowed King's book to be sold for as little as $2.50. In the first 24 hours, an amazing 40,000 copies of the book were sold. I don't know what sales figures King is used to, but the press at least saw this as a huge success and the makers of eBook products pointed to it as proof of - what else? - "the death of printed books'.

However, it seems King wasn't altogether pleased with the experiment. Despite the fact that the eBook files had been protected with some childishly simple copy protection mechanisms, crackers quickly broke through them, and pirated versions of the book quickly spread on the Internet. Even though the webstores and Barnes& were, by this time, distributing the book free on their websites for advertising purposes, the existence of pirated versions seemed to annoy Stephen King enormously.

His readers weren't particularly happy about the various eBook formats, either. Because of the copy protection it was impossible to get a printout of the book from the eBook programs. It could only be read while sitting at a computer, which effectively prevented anyone from curling up on the couch or hiding under the covers at night to read King's latest exciting story. And there was a further irony to his use of copy-prevention techniques. Because there was nothing to prevent anyone from printing out the pirated editions of the story, they were inevitably more user-friendly than the official eBook editions.

The eBook hype has since faded away, and despite all the doomsday prophecies the printed book has not died, because it is still far more enjoyable to read a story printed on paper than it is to read it on a computer screen. Today, however, many people continue to work on creating more functional systems to prevent copying, apparently in the belief that readers will eventually want to buy books they can't read in the comfort of their favourite position.

Despite his disappointment, King had sufficient pioneering spirit to go ahead with a new Internet experiment the following summer. This time he chose to publish his work on his own website, thereby bypassing all established publishers. Coincidentally the story, called The Plant, was all about a murderous vampire plant striking terror into the hearts of the employees of a publishing house. Meanwhile, Stephen King's experiment struck terror into the lives of real publishers, who feared that if it succeeded it could undermine the very existence of the publishing industry.

After his disappointing eBook experiences, King intended to turn things upside-down with this book. He published the first two chapters on the Internet without any complicating attempts to prevent copying - this was a straightforward text on a straightforward website. However, the text wasn't free, as readers were asked to pay one dollar per chapter they read. If a sufficient number of readers paid up, King said he would finish the story, one chapter at a time.

King's idea was somewhat similar to the Kroupware pay-for-work model described earlier. He accepted that many people would read his work for free. That didn't matter to him, provided enough readers also paid. He reasoned that if people were willing to pay, he would do the work.

This foray into self-publishing didn't get as good a reception as the eBook experiment earlier in the year, but in the first week some 152,132 eager fans had visited the site and read the first chapter. Of them some 116,200 had also paid a dollar. This met the terms King had stipulated, so, to his own surprise, he had to write more of this horror story set in the publishing world.
By the time he reached chapter six, however, the excitement had waned. Only some 40,000 people had bothered to read the chapter, and half of them hadn't paid their dollar. So, all of a sudden, King dropped the project that had got off to such a good start.

Of course, the failure of The Plant is somewhat disappointing to those who seek an open Web community. If a popular writer like King couldn't earn enough from Internet publishing, who could?

But at least some of the blame can be laid at King's own door. The project might have done better had King had a greater understanding of the mechanisms of Open Source. As it was, his experiment resembled the practices of the Open Source community only by chance, as he probably didn't know about Linux and hadn't learned from it and the flourishing businesses growing up around it. For example, the Stephen King site used the word thieves to refer to those who read his story without paying. However, when it comes to marketing, abusing your own readers may not be the smartest thing to do. The experiment also gave the impression that although King didn't really mind that the number of paying readers had dwindled, he actively resented that a growing number of people were reading it for free. Also, at some point, for some incomprehensible reason the first chapter was removed from the site, which virtually guaranteed that no new readers would ever start reading the book. So, there was a sense of a certain lack of openness in the project, which may have influenced the readers and made them apprehensive.

One can't help feeling that King was never fully committed to the project. He had actually written the first two chapters, with which he'd started the whole process, some 20 years earlier. Apparently, he found his incomplete and unpublished text in the attic and published it on the Internet as an experiment. Only when he unexpectedly found that readers were willing to pay for what they'd read, did he bother to write another four chapters, but that was it.

Enjoying the view of hindsight a little longer, we can see that the book publishing project may have worked better if it hadn't been chopped about so much. It seems only natural that the number of paying customers would decrease after the first flurry of excitement, particularly after the first part of the book was removed from his website. It would probably have worked better if customers had been asked to pay a slightly larger sum up front, in either two or at the most three instalments.

Whatever the best way to do it may have been, there is at least one thing to be learned from King: if you write horror fiction, don't ever sell your readers half a book. Readers who were disappointed by King's decision not to finish the book were crushing in their criticism. For some reason King didn't seem to have anticipated that the thousands of readers - who by then had paid seven dollars for part of the book - would be angry when they were denied the end of the exciting story. The anger wasn't exactly dissipated by the promise King had made in the summer that if he ended up writing more than the first two chapters he wouldn't leave the book unfinished. So, the experiences of The Plant project may not be very encouraging, but they do serve as a warning: if you cheat your customers, they usually get angry.

Another interesting experiment in Internet publishing was that of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, an eight-chapter novel by Roger Williams. Unlike Stephen King, Williams was an unknown and unpublished author, who despite numerous attempts had failed to get a publisher for his novel. His solution was to publish it on the Internet. Although technically, his publishing venture failed to meet the criteria of the Open Source ideology, Williams' approach to Web publishing was rather more positive and open than King's had been. It was published in its entirety, and could be read and copied freely. Williams offered those who liked the novel the chance to give him a tip through the PayPal service.

Later on, Williams wrote about the experience in the article "The Tip Jar as Revenue Model: A Real-World Experiment'. He not only studied the financial side of the matter, but also stated that for an unknown writer like himself, just having readers was a big thing.2
But how did the novel fare?

According to Williams, some 5,000 to 10,000 people read the novel to the end. That's not bad for a first novel by an unknown writer! And he received $760 in tips. Although Williams was happy with his success, he did conclude that the tip jar didn't really cover his rent or groceries.

At the turn of the millennium, somewhat similar Open Source experiments were being carried out in relation to computer programs. But hey, what experiments weren't being done around that time? More than one company actually tried to bring makers and users of Open Source software together in a sort of virtual job market. Programmers could use such sites to publicise the sort of program they were currently developing, and interested people or potential consumers could use the site to offer financial support for a particular programmer. Any consumers interested in specifically commissioning software could use such sites to offer the sum of money they were willing to pay. After which other buyers interested in the same type of program could commit to the project by paying whatever sum they felt was appropriate. In theory, for a programmer looking for work, all the pledges would provide a nice sum of money once the software in question was finished.

Not one of these projects ever got beyond their initial start-up.3 Perhaps they were ahead of their time, but more likely the model itself was simply bad. For one thing, the job markets didn't seem to be of any interest to the hacker community. Hackers were already busy with all their existing projects. They preferred to do something they found really interesting without remuneration than to take on something they found boring for mere money.

In early 2004, by far the most popular host of Open Source projects, SourceForge, began offering programmers who used their service the chance to receive financial donations through the PayPal service with, of course, a percentage of the tips going to SourceForge itself as their commission.4

SourceForge's tip-model way of financing programmers of Open Source projects differs from the failed job markets in that their first and foremost aim is not to handle transactions of money. SourceForge's real business is to offer programmers the tools they need for their work together with providing a channel for distributing their programs. The chance to support the creator of your favourite software is just an added bonus, not something that lies at the heart of operations.

The success of SourceForge, as compared to the failed job markets, provides us with a good lesson, particularly for future entrepreneurs in the IT business. In the job-market model, the most important thing was money, with programming taking second place. On the other hand, new projects are started every day in SourceForge, and nobody says anything about money. Successful projects get some tips - some more, some less. The same thing is clear across the field of IT: there are those who have fancy business plans, and there are those who work.

What was true for Williams' tip-jar experiments also holds true for the tips at SourceForge: some money comes in, which is nice, but not enough to support oneself, let alone a family. So does pay-for-work really not work on a small scale, especially if one actually needs the amount paid to correspond to a regular salary?

There are some examples of the pay-for-work model being implemented successfully for clients smaller than Germany. Almost immediately after the completion of the Kolab 1 project, some companies started asking questions about it in the hope of realizing features that the Germans hadn't thought to order. The businesses that had originally worked on the Kolab project then pulled together the companies asking these questions, and the interested parties pooled their money to finance the next version of the project, Kolab 2. This may be the first time an Open Source project has been realized as a shared commission for a consortium of several smaller clients.

JBoss, the company that develops the Java application server of the same name, works in a similar way. The Java application server itself is such a big and complicated piece of software that there aren't many companies willing or able to single-handly pay for the whole thing. That's not how it's come to be either. JBoss has been available on the Internet under the Open Source principle for years, and has been developing over time. Clients using JBoss are usually happy with it as it is, but every once in a while somebody needs an added feature of some kind. When that happens, they can commission the JBoss company to write the code for it (or commission some other programming company to do the job, because the source code is open and available), and little by little this further develops the JBoss application server. So, horror fiction may not sell well piecemeal, but that seems to work fine for developing Java application servers.

Although the pay-for-work model doesn't seem to work at the small consumer level, it seems you don't have to be an economic power the size of Germany to make it work for you.

Verdict: The pay-for-work model is a beautiful thought, but so far there's been no evidence to suggest that it works for products aimed at the private citizen or other small consumers. However, it seems that it can work extremely well for medium-sized companies upwards.

  • 1Despite all that was said in 2000, three years later Stephen King's story Riding the Bullet was published in the printed collection Everything's Eventual.
  • 2
  • 3Actually, they failed so dismally that nobody even remembers the names these projects had during their brief existence, which is why this is an anonymous anecdote.
  • 4
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