John Birmingham’s private column – great read and a model for the future

John Birmingham is doing some interesting stuff, and I’m talking less about his writing than his way of making money from it.

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.

The first two columns have been fun and interesting and certainly worth 50 cents each. If you’re interested in subscribing you need to go here and there are sample articles here and here.

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.

3 thoughts on “John Birmingham’s private column – great read and a model for the future

  • January 12, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    I think this can work for a handful of writers that have amazing brands and sell highly differentiated stuff to an adoring audience.

    But there’s always someone trying to get to that point (having an amazing brand and an adoring audience). The more you cut out the middle man, the more intense the competition becomes. For every Birmo there’s a dozen 20 year old bloggers brimming with interesting ideas.

    On any given day, one of them might have a better piece and be about to hit publish.

    Competition is why the internet always seems to default to giving away stuff for free. (This has to do with a downward sloping marginal cost curve and it’s a slightly technical point. The thing to know is on the internet the marginal cost of supplying your content is always so close to zero as to be pretty much zero. You can normally get another 1000 readers without having to invest in scaling up, so aiming for low-price high volume is the best play. The equilibirum is a free-for-all.)

    You can remove that problem if you remove some of the competition. sometimes you need a middleman with a profit motive to help. Spotify is an example. Netflix is another. They’re imperfect but they point to the future. This is not a very popular or cool thing to say on the internet, but it is sadly often true: All but the absolute best content producers need middlemen to make decent money.

    • January 12, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      I had a similar thought even as I was writing. Netflix is a good example of an organisation that started as an disruptive aggregator, but has had to move to being a content producer to differentiate itself. It’s not hard to envisage traditional papers becoming, or having the same role taken from them, aggregators of freelance content who then over time have to get original content to differentiate and so go back to hiring journalists.

      That said with the publishing models changing there are new opportunities for novice writers and journalists to become known and to make money from their writing. Not everyone can pull it off but the opportunities are changing compared to even 5 years ago. And the traditional papers do seem more and more like dinosaurs that just can’t work out how to compete in the new environment. In my view continually cutting costs and quality in an effort to compete with startups whose entire model is about driving clicks is doomed to failure.

  • January 12, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    I have subscribed for a year the first money I have spent directly for content on the net in over 20 years. Can’t think of any other author I would have done this for but am hoping to find some via the medium site. Congratulations john for going wild. Hope it works.


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