This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Fast +/- Cheap +/- Good

Fast, cheap, and good: these are the positive attributes that services can have. It’s a popular economic meme. As a buyer, you get to choose two. Cheap and good will be slow (or very hard to find, which has a similar effect). Fast and cheap will be crappy. Fast and good will be expensive.

Fast, cheap, and good: pick two. Graphic by BJ Heinley.
Graphic by BJ Heinley.

Of course, the more competition in the market, the better conditions are for the buyer — if you want to purchase a well-written article, for instance, cheap and good won’t be that difficult to find, because there are a ton of smart, eager writers out there. (If you’re looking for on-the-ground reporting, the price goes up.) What I’m saying is that the “fast, cheap, or good” principle lacks this crucial caveat: “relative to the rest of the market”. Maybe that’s obvious. Anyway.

As a seller, you can also choose which segment of the Venn diagram you want to occupy. What criterion will you use to compete? And accordingly, which customers do you want to cater to? Being good and fast seems preferable to me, but there are fortunes to be made in every intersection. If you can nail the middle, you’re golden. Platforms like Amazon can accomplish this. One of the reasons that platforms are so valuable is that they can be fast, cheap, and good.

The Economics of Writing Online

“Failures in Self-Publishing” just went up on The Digital Reader, so now feels like a good time to post an elaboration on how to actually make money by writing online. (Scroll to the bottom for the other reason I’m putting this up now.)

As a person with many opinions but only moderate hustle, I’ve ended up writing for free a lot. Not just writing for free, but being published for free. I’m okay with that — I have a day job. I also understand supply and demand: personal essays aren’t scarce, so they’re not particularly remunerative. When I have been paid, the check was usually a pittance that amounted to minimum wage (and that’s before self-employment taxes!). I resented this when I was freelancing professionally, but now that I do it as a hobby, I shrug and tell myself, “This is what the market dictates.”

Price, after all — especially average price — is a number synthesized from the desires of the various players in a commercial endeavor. Customers want to pay less and merchants want to charge more. They agree somewhere in the middle, depending on which side has more leverage. Who is willing to walk away? Who is anxious to make a deal? If customers have many other merchants to choose from, the price is low. If merchants face a deluge of eager buyers, the price is high (*cough* iPhone 6s *cough*).

It’s not a new observation that this problem plagues digital media. Readers can easily jump from website to website without sacrificing anything. Publishers, on the other hand, need as many eyeballs as possible and therefore must be flashy and attractive, as well as careful not to alienate their audiences. Most website-owners are stuck in this game, straining to make a couple of advertising cents per reader. You can’t convince people to pay money for a subscription unless you offer unique, high-quality content, which is extremely hard to produce.

Writers have the same relationship to publishers that publishers do to readers — there are plenty of other fish in the sea, so unless you offer something very compelling that can’t be obtained elsewhere, you’re probably shit outta luck. Don’t get me wrong — there is money to be made in writing to entertain a general audience, but not enough for the amount of people who are trying to make a living at it. Incumbent media outlets and winning internet-age startups like Vox Media have flooded this territory.

There are several ways to deal with the evident economics of writing online. One is to be a typical professional from nine to five — in fact, being a smart and prolific blogger will get you a better job and a better salary than you would earn otherwise. It will also bring you surprising opportunities — I landed a copy-writing gig via Twitter recently. Good writing demonstrates key communication and analytical abilities, which are important to every kind of skilled labor. Does having a day job mean that you can’t devote most of your time and intellectual energy to writing? Yes. Such is reality. The other options are to 1) work for peanuts and write thousands of words per day or 2) develop expertise in a particular niche where there is a market for quality.

In closing, I would like to note that I owe a majority of the ideas in this piece to Ben Thompson of Stratechery. I highly recommend his blog and newsletter.

Additional note: I originally wrote this in late September and it was published on Samantha Bielefeld’s blog. I asked her to take it down because of this drama. Summaries of the situation can be found on Building Twenty and Analog Senses. I resent being duped and exploited, and I don’t want my name associated with someone who is essentially a fraudster. If you want to explore the whole brouhaha, you can read everything I’ve said about SB on Twitter (scroll down to September 25th and read upward) as an introduction.

Basic Economics = Wondrous

“Revenue follows user attention, not the other way around; unlike money, there is a finite amount of minutes in the day, and a finite amount of users. To put it another way, attention is a zero sum game; every minute spent in Snapchat or LINE or WhatsApp is a minute not spent in Twitter or Facebook or Instagram.” — Ben Thompson on Stratechery

money whirlpool
Money vortex by Patrick Hoesly; tinted by me.

Scarcity is the key to economic value. If something is abundant and easily accessible, it’s not valuable. If something is limited and hard-to-get, it is valuable.

The concept of supply and demand — the relationship between the two forces — is so fascinating to me. Simple principle, but I keep turning it over in my head.

Supply and demand pressures come from asymmetry. From lack of balance. If Billy has more oranges than Sue, he has leverage, assuming Sue wants oranges. If Erica has more information than Rohan, she has a different kind of leverage, as long as Rohan is interested in her information.

Essentially, the key to business success is persuading someone to give you money for an object or a service. You have the thing or the skills. They have the money and desire.

Again, I know this is all very basic, but thinking it through makes my brain happy.

old-fashioned typewriter
Photo by Martina TR.
The Greek Tragedy: A Labyrinth of Debt
Abstract art based on the Greek debt crisis, by Carlos ZGZ.

Sign up for my newsletter to stay abreast of my new writing and projects.

I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you).