Tip Jars: An Alternate View

tip_jar_sm[1]The other day Jim C. Hines talked about why he doesn’t use tip jars on his website. You might guess – from the coffee cups over there in the sidebar – that I like the idea of tip jars. But the reasons – and reality – of my experience are different than Jim’s in a number of ways. 1 Go read his blog if you haven’t already (it should open in a new window), and then read mine. As always, take what works and makes sense for you.

First: I agree wholeheartedly that tip jars should not be “conscience jars”. If you pirate a book and like it, buy the damn thing as soon as you can. (This was a key point in my pirate posting.) Jim makes the point that buying the book supports all the other people in the publishing industry, but I’d like to also add that buying the author’s books makes it more likely the publisher will buy a new one from them. Case in point: J.C. Hutchins. While his podcast novels were wildly popular, that didn’t translate to… no, wait. Let me be blunt: Not enough people who got the content for free bought his books. 2 The contract was canceled, and J.C. Hutchins found himself in a bad spot. Not only that, but it’ll be harder for him to sell his next books to a publisher. Even if authors don’t make a lot from each book sale, publishers gauge success solely by book sales, not by tip jars. But is this a problem for me? Not at this point in my career.

Second: People in different places in their career use the web and make money in different ways. I don’t have any books out there to sell, aside from a few small bits. Nothing like the six novels that Jim has, for example. While there’s a market-building and relationship-building aspect to these blogs (and my Facebook fan page, etc.), the reality is that I’m in a very different place in my writing career from Jim. I’ve gotten one-time payments for nearly all of my work that’s appeared, no matter how many people read it. He gets royalty checks. Therefore, the way I use this blog (and tip jars) is going to differ from his.

Third: I spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to make these blog posts useful in and of themselves. That is, these are not merely me blathering (though they have that role as well), but I hope that they’re actually useful as standalone bits. (You might notice that I tend to mention the tip jars with informative posts instead of opinion or just random blathering posts.) And really, that’s the main reason I have the tip jars. I’m taking a bit of a lead from Kristen Kathryn Rusch’s experiment with the excellent Freelancer’s Survival Guide. Donations are supposed to reflect value. Will I end up gathering some of these postings and essays and offering them as regular commercial work? Yes, at some point. In the meantime, if you’ve gotten some insight or value out of my posts on piracy, or web-fu, or any of the rest – drop me a buck or so.

Fourth: Writing is a business. Do I need money? Only in the “first-world problem” sense of the term – which means, “I’d like it but will survive without it”. Would it make it easier for me to write more? Probably. Since (again), I’m not in a position of getting regular royalty checks, getting a few bucks here and there to defray server costs and college loans would be a great boon. A while back, I ran a donation drive for my resource list and managed to pay server bills for several years, which was something I really couldn’t afford at the time. But y’know, this is a business. I’m working to make writing – fiction and nonfiction – a bigger part of what supports me and mine. Whatever works to further that goal is worthwhile to me. But…

Fifth: Tip jars usually only work if they’re coupled with active reminders to use them. This is why NPR’s model – the one I borrowed for the resource list – is comparatively successful. That’s why Escape Artists mentions donations at the end of every episode. Just leaving a tip jar up there and not saying anything about it doesn’t work well as a business strategy. Even mentioning it on a regular basis is vaguely annoying (though Escape Artists – especially on Pseudopod – do their best to make fundraising as entertaining as possible). So I don’t do it much. That’s my comfort level. While donations worked well for my fundraiser for the resource list, they don’t garner me a ton of money. I substituted the tip jars for the advertisements because I think it’s a less obnoxious model – but the ads weren’t covering a tank of gas either. Your mileage may vary.

Sixth: Tip jars often – but not always – result in price points lower than what you’d like. This seems to be the case across media types (games, books, music, video). I’m not sure why that is, but that’s the way it goes. Keep this in mind if you choose to use tip jars. They’re not the end-all-be-all of economics.

Seventh: Tip jars let those who don’t have a bunch of cash still partake. One of the broader eye-openers I’ve had during this con season was meeting so many people who manage to scrape and save and volunteer thier way into cons. People who just lost thier job, or are stuck in a minimum-wage job, or are warming couches in a friend’s apartment because they have nowhere else to stay. They were great people, and I know at least some of them are reading this. (Hi everybody!) Putting all of this content behind a paywall – even a dollar paywall – might mean that they’d lose out. Since most of those people I met are also trying to create writing careers, it’d be a major asshat if I profited off people who couldn’t really afford it. So, um, if you can afford a small tip, then do so. If you can afford a bigger one, then do so.

So there’s my additions to Jim’s well-thought out points. Read ’em both. Try different things and see what works. But above all, be true to what you’re comfortable with.

1 If you haven’t followed me or him for a while, you might not know that Jim & I are friends, or that while we sometimes disagree on methodology, we usually agree on principle. And even when we disagree on principle, that I can trust Jim to talk about it rather than react. Which is why I’m using him (when needed) as a counterpoint throughout.
2 Mr. Hutchins does not say this, by the way. He’s much kinder about it than I am. And it’s worth noting that I’ve actually never read – or heard any of it, FWIW. And as an aside, even though the content was legitimately for free, the principle holds for piracy as well. And even though I’m using publishing as an example, this holds for other content too.

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