I’ve liked Birmingham’s writing since He Died with a Felafel in His Hand came out. He’s funny, thoughtful and irreverent in equal measure and hits a tone that makes me, and I know many others, smile. Some of his more recent alternative history stuff is right up my street, although I admit I’ve not been captivated by it. What has interested me a lot though is his approach to making money from his writing.
Birmingham is one of the few authors to seriously work with social media, with direct mailing, and fiddling with DRM to get his stuff out there. He has a great newsletter email telling readers what he is doing and, importantly, giving them free early access to his work. On one level that free access looks like madness – he’s giving away his work to his most committed followers, the very people most likely to buy it. But they’re also the people most likely to tell their friends about the book, to review it, and to give it stars on Amazon – all of which lead to actual sales. He’s being doing that for a while now so it must be working for him on some level.
Birmingham’s latest venture is to write two columns a week which are made available only to subscribers. This private column is called Alien Side Boob and sees Birmingham write the sort of stuff that’s too opinionated or risqué to be published in a newspaper column. As he puts it: “The sort of thing I’ve long written for newspapers and magazines, but also… not.”
I often feel constrained and frustrated by the rhetorical limits of mainstream media. Plus, let’s be brutally honest, it’s a dying business. Anybody who writes for a living needs to have an alternative. The books you’ve been reading are one such alternative. Alien Side Boob is another.
A subscription costs $40 for the year (although you can sign up for a month or six months to try it out). For that you get:
For a buck a week—a lousy Australian buck too, not one of those big ass, fancy American dollars—I’ll write you two columns. One droll and witty to start the week. One deranged with fury at the world by the end of it. I figure that naturally traces the arc of my mood from Monday to Friday.
But leaving the content to one side, the interesting thing is the model. I’ve, ahem, made no secret of my frustration with the Sydney Morning Herald (eg here and here) and the only reason I continue to subscribe is the handful of brilliant columnists they have a lock on. But imagine if you could get the columns directly a la the Birmingham model. Would I subscribe directly to Ross Gittins or Peter Hartcher? In a flying flash.
This isn’t just disintermediation, it’s also disaggregation; and it could be that this is the model for the future. Not long ago I would have said that the papers, the media companies, have a role to play in quality control, editing, and providing journalists a living while long-form stories are investigated. But today that role is evaporating in front of our eyes as they get rid of sub-editors and insist on quick click-bait stories. Perhaps the future will be all freelance – but not freelance for a paper, freelance directly to us, the audience.
It’s fascinating to watch how the technology we use is changing the business models we have taken for granted. And in the meantime, while titanic shifts take place in publishing, if you want a good read go and grab John Birmingham’s Alien Side Boob column.