Show me what they really want (and don’t assume it’s the money)

Langdon and Poli
There’s been much written and said about Radiohead’s decision to let punters name their price when downloading their new In rainbows album. While some of this heat and noise as been quite sensible, much has been predictable tripe about how stupid and naive the band has been. There is some evidence, however, that the band wasn’t so daft, and that their monetary take may have indeed been not to far from what they (as the band) would have seen through traditional marketing channels.

More importantly, though, I think most of this blather totally fails to grasp the more central question: Most bands (artists, writers, open source programmers, etc., etc.) aren’t in it for the money. If you take out the handful that make a fortune (can we please take out the reformed Spice Girls? please?), most people who do this sort of thing aren’t looking to get rich, and many don’t even expect to pay the bills (hence the term “day job”). For them, the value is often much more in being heard (or read or whatever).

As a concrete example, Bill Langdon, Riccardo Poli, and I are considering expanding a chapter we’ve (in fairness, mostly they’ve) written on genetic programming into a full on book. The traditional model would be to find a (science) publisher (which we could easily do), and then have them produce and market the thing. It would sell a few copies, and we’d make a few bucks along the way. That kind of book is never gonna sell 10M copies, however, and we know going in that we’ll never make very much monetarily. But that’s not why most academics write papers and books; if it was we’d be the daftest lot on the planet. (No, don’t go there…)

What we’re after is, in a crude sense, references. Since we’re not going to get rich, we’ll settle for famous (at least in our circles). So we want as many people to read, use, and reference our book as possible, for that’s really the currency of the realm where we live. (And, in truth, that currency converts back to hard cash in complex and indirect ways, through pay raises, increased odds on grant applications, invitations to give talks and tutorials, etc., etc.)

So our intention is to follow a model not so far removed from Radiohead’s (although we’ll probably not get nearly as much press). Our tentative plan is to self-publish using one of the many print-on-demand sites, so there will be a printed, bound copy people can buy; we’ll keep the price low, because we’re more interested in volume than immediate profit. We’ll also give the book away, probably in HTML and PDF formats, to encourage people to check it out, use it, and refer to it, regardless of whether they ever actually buy a copy. We might have a PayPal donation button, sort of like Radiohead’s download for free and pay us what you think makes sense. Or we might not; that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there. We’ll do most of the marketing, taking copies to conferences, getting it mentioned on the relevant web sites and discussion groups, and hopefully picking up a fair bit of word of mouth along the way.

I don’t expect we’ll ever see much money on this deal, but I’m quite optimistic that the three of us can put together a book that’ll get used, and that’s the point for us. Similarly, Radiohead’s made enough money on their music that I doubt they’re deeply concerned about a few dollars here or there. They want to be heard and talked about, and they are. Hopefully we can have a somewhat similar experience.

I should also be clear that just because people like Radiohead (or struggling new bands) choose to give away their music, we shouldn’t just write them off as fools and rip them off at every opportunity. We all benefit from their passion, and it’s in our collective interest to support that when we can. That’s part of why I do my darndest to avoid giving money to bands that are already making a ton – they don’t need my support. I prefer instead to spend my money on the zillions of cool, but virtually anonymous, acts that can really benefit from a few bucks.

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Making an unexpected difference

In general I’m a pretty crap citizen of the websphere. I produce in my spastic little way, but I don’t read or discuss or contribute much to the community of the thing. Or if I do, it’s really scattered and unfocussed. This is especially true in the blogsphere, if less so in Flickr space.

So I blog, but erratically and without any real focus. You’d hardly guess that I’m a computer scientist by profession, or that I’m deeply interested in evolution and evolutionary computing. I keep fantasizing that I’ll write all these cool reviews (esp. music, but books as well), but that rarely happens in practice. I post photographs at random intervals, but not with any focus or arc.

Worse, I’m a truly terrible reader of other blogs. And there are dozens, nay hundreds out there that I know I would find useful, interesting, enlightening, fun… But reading is slow and I’m busy and scattered, so it doesn’t happen.

Every now and then I worry about it, but rarely for long. I occassionally fantasize about being some significant figure in the blog universe like my friend down the hall. Then I think about how much of his life he has to put into building and maintaining that status, and I know it will never happen.

And I’m usually OK with that.

Sometimes I think I need (not necessarily want, but need) to write a book or record an album (or seven). How else can I really make a difference? Leave my mark?

But that’s mostly illusory as well. Even books that top the best sellers list are usually forgotten in a few years, and a few decades wipe out nearly every semblence of significance for all but the tiniest fraction of authors, painters, musicians, etc. And lord knows, I’m not Plato or Da Vinci or Godel.

While a rare few get to place some rocks, or even boulders, on the beach of human experience, most of us get a few grains of sand if we’re lucky. And it really has to be that way; if everyone got a rock, then rocks would just become the new grains of sand. (But we can never understimate the power and importance of lots of people pooling their sand; 59 million U.S. voters dropped their sand in George W. Bush’s bucket in 2004, and look where that got us!)

So I muddle through, trying to balance my family, and my teaching, and my music and photography and writing and gardening and whatever, knowing that I need it all to be me, but that I’ll never “Be all that I can be” at any of them because I’m so distracted by the constant buzz of the world. But still trying to put my grains of sand in places that do some good, if in small ways.

Now and then, though, fate drops a penny in my bucket to remind me that sand counts. Sometimes it’s a former student writing back to say how valuable something I did turned out to be for them. (And I promise that every teacher worth sending something like that to treasures every such note they receive.) Sometimes it’s an unexpected thank you for something you didn’t even think was terribly significant at the time, but which meant a lot to that person.

And sometimes you find out you helped a near stranger break an addiction.

I posted the following about two months ago, both here and on Flickr:

We're thinking of you

This was mostly just part of my response to Dad’s illness, and something I knew would make Mom cry (in a good way). But it was also my small attempt to bring some attention to this issue, and how the decisions we make can have consequences, not just for us but for those around us.

I was very honored by the very supportive responses I received both here and on Flickr, and shared many of those with my family. We were all very grateful for the support and help, both from long-time friends and from people I only sorta-kinda knew from the on-line world.

And I figured that would be the end of it.

Three days ago, however, just as I was scrambling to get course stuff together and drive the 14 hours south to spend a few more days helping my folks out before having to come back for classes, I got a most unexpected comment on this photo on Flickr. csharp_gal has a wonderful eye for gorgeous landscape photography, and was also apparently addicted to nicotine. After describing her addiction first to cigarettes, and then to nicotine gum, she went on to share:

Then, one day I saw this photo and I read about what’s happening with your Dad. I left a comment and started thinking about it. That day, I went off the gum. It’s almost two months and no gum.

Just wanted to let you know that this posted picture helped me to end my almost relationship with nicotine in any form. It’s very important to me, former nicotine junky. I will always think about your Dad while being nicotine free.

I just about cried. It was so unexpected, and so positive, and just so cool! Huge thanks to csharp_gal for sharing her story, and best wishes in her fight against that nasty beast.

I know I’ll never be some giant of the blogsphere, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to writing a book or making an album or whatever. Regardless, I’ll have surprises like this, and my amazing family, to remind me that some of my sand ended up in a good place. And that’s pretty damn cool.

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