By John Gruber
Plan your novel, finish your dissertation, launch a product. You need Tinderbox.
“I write for my pleasure, but publish for money.”
— Vladimir Nabokov
One could argue that this web site is disingenuously named: that there’s nothing “daring” about Daring Fireball whatsoever. That the entire thing is rigged by my having constrained it to the handful of topics about which I am certain I know my shit. That when I put forth an opinion, I know in advance that I am right.
Such is my nature. I tend only to play games which I’m already good at, and only to undertake endeavors which I feel certain will be successful.
Well, here goes something that’s actually daring, and which I have no idea how it’s going to turn out.
Starting today and running through the end of June, I’m asking you to support Daring Fireball in one of two ways:
Buy a Daring Fireball T-shirt. Available for $30.72 (USD) Price includes shipping. Everyone who buys a shirt also gets a 1-year membership.
Make a Donation. Contributions of any amount are both accepted and much appreciated. However, any contribution of $20.48 (USD) or more qualifies you for a one-year membership.
It is essential to note that Daring Fireball is and will remain a free web site. New articles and the complete archive are available to everyone, free of charge. This is a good thing — it’s the way of the web. Writers who wish to charge everyone who reads their work would do well to consider other media.
But then so what is a “membership”?
The idea is that while the articles and main content of Daring Fireball are free for everyone, paying supporters will have access to a few members-only features. The first of these is a full-content RSS feed. The way it works is that after your payment is complete, you’ll receive an automated email containing a unique “key”, which can be used to subscribe to the feed using a URL like this:
But please, I implore you, do not think of this as paying $20 just to get a full-content RSS feed. Think of it as a small token of my gratitude for supporting my writing at this site. It’s like when you pledge $100 to PBS and they send you a tote bag; no one does it to get the tote bag.
The straight truth is that writing Daring Fireball consumes an immoderate amount of my time, but generates what can at best be considered a hobbyist-level income. Google’s Fight Club-esque terms and conditions preclude me from disclosing details (“The first rule of AdSense is, you do not talk about how much money you make from AdSense…”), but suffice it to say that I made as much money writing a single three-page article for Macworld as I’ll make in an entire year of writing Daring Fireball.
When I’m grinding away on Daring Fireball, am I working, or am I “working”? Am I starting a career as a writer, or am I just dicking around?
Daring Fireball has effectively been running deep in the red ever since it debuted. Not because of the hosting costs, which have been covered several-fold by the AdSense revenue, but because of the opportunity cost of the time I spend writing this site. Those who know that I make a living as a self-employed web developer/designer/etc. often ask why I don’t advertise my services here. I don’t really have a good answer for that.
The best I can say is that I don’t want this site to act as a calling card for my “real” (read: “paid”) writing, or for my “real” work as a web nerd.
I want Daring Fireball to be my real work. No air-quotes.
I’ve been treating it as such as best I can, to the detriment of my income and career, and that course is simply no longer sustainable.
Asking for voluntary contributions from readers was my original vaguely-hashed-out plan for expanding Daring Fireball into a career as a writer. Which, as far as qualifying as a legitimate business plan, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the classic South Park gnomes-stealing-underware business plan:
It’s only funny because it’s true; “Step 3: Profit!” is effectively a nutshell description of the plans for hundreds of bankrupt dot-coms.
The difference with Daring Fireball is that I sort of actually have a step 2: build a reasonably-sized base of loyal readers who thoroughly appreciate what it is I’m trying to do here.
Plus, what I mean by “reasonably-sized” is many orders of magnitude smaller than the goals of a late ’90s dot-com. I’m not looking to get rich; I’m just trying to make a living.
The debut of AdSense last year gave me another option, which I took not so much because I honestly expected it to generate serious revenue, but because it allowed me to put off trying this (“this” being asking you, loyal reader, to support me directly.) As a hint as to how long I’ve delayed launching this endeavor, here’s a passage from “Independent Days”, the article I wrote a year ago when I first started displaying Google ads:
And so here is my plan. Next month will mark Daring Fireball’s one-year anniversary. At that time I’ll commence a brief fund-raising drive, asking for voluntary donations. Perhaps there will be T-shirts and other Daring-Fireball-logo’d tchotchkes.
In the meantime, the Google ads will continue.
Amazing how easily one month can turn into eleven.
It’s my guess that reader response will fall along three lines:
A small number of you will jump at the chance to support Daring Fireball. Perhaps it’s your very favorite site. Perhaps you’re simply loose with money. Whatever the reason, I salute you.
The large majority of you will neither buy a shirt nor make a donation. E.g., perhaps you’re just a casual reader. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can’t stand the thought of paying for something that many others are getting for free. That’s OK. When I say that Daring Fireball will remain free, I mean it. You owe me nothing. I’m glad to have you as a reader.
Remaining are the fence-sitters, those who are mulling it over.
I suspect the third group, the fence-sitters, far outnumber the first group, and the success of this endeavor largely hinges on how many of you end up jumping off on the membership side of the fence. The pressure I feel writing this, in the hopes of convincing you, is close to overwhelming.
Part of what makes me so anxious here is that the future of Daring Fireball is now largely out of my hands. This is not a threat — i.e. that if this funding drive falls short that I’ll pack up the site and turn off the lights. No, one way or another, Daring Fireball will continue. But if the income I derive here remains at the hobbyist level, I’m only going to be able to devote a hobbyist amount of time to it, which is significantly less time than what I’ve poured into it to date. In short, a hobby-level Daring Fireball will resemble much more a typical weblog — blurb-length posts, often only to link to articles elsewhere. No cat pictures, but still.
There’s a flip side, however: if this funding drive is successful enough that I can legitimately call this a career, Daring Fireball could get a whole lot better. Two of my favorite things to write are software reviews and developer interviews. But even though I’ve been writing this for nearly two years and have published over 200,000 words, I’ve only published a handful of reviews, and even fewer interviews.
When Daring Fireball debuted, I had planned for it to be chock full of both. But reviews and interviews — at least Daring Fireball-style ones — simply take much more time than I’d anticipated.
As an example of the type of review I’d to write on a regular basis, please recall my look at the public beta release of OmniWeb 5.
I wrote the OmniWeb review over the course of four consecutive days, morning to night. It’s not so much that the writing took long — but the research did. My goal with a review isn’t just to launch the app, click around, and describe the gist of it. The point is to live with it, not just to try it but to use it. To understand it, and then to describe it to you. That takes time — especially for anything other than the apps I already use on a daily basis.
I’ve been criticized occasionally for devoting too much of my critical attention to software from Apple, as opposed to from small independent developers. Guilty as charged, no argument here. But it’s not because I don’t want to write about indie apps, it’s that writing about indie apps takes so much more time. When I write about Safari, for example, I can safely assume that you’re already very much familiar with it, and I can cut to the chase and write only about a few specific features. Whereas with OmniWeb 5, the reason it’s so interesting is that it’s a very different browser than anything else I’ve ever seen.
At least once per month, some new app strikes me as being worth a detailed review. More often than not, such software is from independent developers. I simply haven’t had the time to write about them. But I’d like to.
Same for the interviews — which to date have been exclusively with individual independent developers. These interviews consume at least a full week of my time, probably more. (They also consume an awful lot of the subjects’ time, for which I’m quite appreciative.) First, they’re just plain long. But what also consumes time is the back-and-forth. Daring Fireball interviews aren’t conducted with an up-front list of predetermined questions. I start with a few openers, but subsequent questions are follow-ups to the initial answers.
I’ve been using a Mac for almost 15 years, and but I’ve never seen anyone write about the people who make the Mac world spin — the developers. Imagine if Rolling Stone only wrote about the music, but never the musicians. That’s what the nerd press does with software: you can read about the apps, but never the developers. No matter how lovely the ones and zeroes are, they’re never as interesting as people.
The implicit immodesty of the sentence to follow pains me, but here goes: I don’t think there’s anything else quite like Daring Fireball.
The OmniWeb 5 review was about 9 printed pages long; the interview with Tsai 14 pages, and with Simmons, 21. Page counts are not a good metric of quality, of course. What I strive for isn’t length, per se, but depth.
If you look at this fund raising drive as my asking you to send me $20 bucks so I can dick around on the Internet, well, I’ve already lost you.
But if you’re on the fence, there are all sorts of ways I can justify Daring Fireball being worth a $20 donation. E.g. that it works out to around $0.40 per week. Or that it’s less than the cost of a typical book.
The book analogy isn’t a bad one. Daring Fireball has averaged out to around 100,000 words per year thus far, which is roughly the word count of a several-hundred-page book. But perhaps this raises the question as to why I don’t just write a book instead, if I want to make a career out of writing. And that’s really where the analogy falls apart — because while it’s not inconceivable that I’ll someday publish a book, what I really want to write is this. This site. Fireballs. Which aren’t the sort of pieces that would work in a book at all.
And so perhaps a better analogy is to independent Mac developers. I.e. to think of me as an independent Mac journalist, and to think of your donation to support my writing as loosely equivalent to the registration fees you pay to support independent developers.
This feels right to me, but like any analogy, it’s not completely watertight. For one thing, very little professional software these days is actually truly “shareware”, meaning “please pay if you like it”. Professional software, even from the smallest independent developers, is licensed such that you must pay for it if you continue to use it past the demo.
That’s because the voluntary shareware model just doesn’t work as a means to generate a livelihood. What works are things like demo periods (“try the full app for 30 days”) or feature-limitations (“use the light version for free, pay to get the pro version with more features”). The idea is not to nag, but rather to provide an impetus to act.
Daring Fireball is a web site, not an app, so the idea of a “demo period” is not applicable. (Perhaps the members-only full-content RSS feed could be considered a “pro” feature, however.)
Hence, the limited two-week period for fund raising. This is not the sort of thing where I’ll be incessantly asking for donations year-round. Just these last two weeks of June, the money raised during which will determine where Daring Fireball goes from here.
Don’t conflate “journalism” with “objectivity”. Striving for objectivity — taking no sides, casting no opinions — has taken all the life out of modern corporate journalism. Daring Fireball is unabashedly subjective, but, I hope, never at the expense of accuracy or genuine insight. Above all else, what I’m going for here isn’t so much to be entertaining, or even informative, but to be engaging.
I am trying to write the shit out of this stuff.
Asking you to take notice of what it is I’m trying for, what it is that I hope makes Daring Fireball different, seems rather uncouth. That asking Do you feel it? is perilously close to asking Do you like me? That by even alluding to it, it breaks the implicit author/reader contract.
But I need to impress upon you just how serious I am about this, and I see no other way to do so than to step out from behind the curtain just this once to address you directly, author to reader, with nothing but 100 percent honesty.
No stagecraft. No artifice. Just me, your humble author, hat in hand, heart in throat, asking for your support.