I think my favorite of all the business models I’ve come up with over the years was the one underpinning a project called Exiles.
Exiles was an email publication that I sent out every two weeks, and each issue contained five essays. These essays fluctuated in length, usually falling somewhere between 500 and 1,500 words, and generally had a more narrative tone than a lot of the other writing I was doing at the time.
I went through all my old blog posts recently, adding updated thoughts and messages to them, and the impact this project had on my writing back then was immense. On one side of the divide I was offering a lot of prescriptive advice and my work was formatted like most other blogs you might have read at the time. On the other side, post-Exiles, my work had a more narrative flavor. I began telling a lot more stories, pulling a lot more insight from my experiences on the road, and analogizing in a way that made the topics I was writing about a lot more interesting, comprehendible, and mentally sticky.
This project was also economically significant for me. I had no idea if the concept would work, because I’d never seen anything quite like it, but the pitch was that if subscribers paid $5 per month, they’d receive this twice-monthly missive, plus they’d get all the books I published for free. What I wanted to do was cut out all the middlemen and build my own patron-based model, where people could essentially sponsor my work for a low monthly fee, benefitting from the fruits of my labors (receiving the end results of my work in book form), but also seeing the interstitial evolutionary pieces. The thoughts and ideas that would eventually help shape those more substantial publications.
I started Exiles in August of 2011, and published the final issue at the end of October of 2014. Part of the rationale behind moving on was so that I could improve upon the model — it wasn’t by itself a successful enough sub-business to cover all my expenses, and I was anxious to spend the time I was putting into the project into some new ideas, some new potential models that I wouldn’t be able to properly invest myself in, otherwise.
I still think something like this might be feasible, and even desirable for some types of work and some types of people. An email I received in response to that final issue back in 2014, was from a reader telling me they’d initially subscribed to it not because they necessarily needed more to read, but because they were trying to figure out a way to give me money. The value they had derived from my blog and from my books, they said, was greater than what they paid for the books.
I’ve had that same feeling more than once about work produced by other people. I wonder if someday we’ll have micropayment capabilities built right into our browsers and apps which will allow us to, without muss or fuss, send a dollar to someone who wrote a particularly valuable blog post, or contribute directly to the artist every time we listen to music streamed on our smartphones.
Right now we have somewhat clunky options for this. I’ve been using things like Paypal and Venmo to allow listeners to contribute to my podcast, and have recently started a Patreon page to do the same, with a few added bonuses for those who do so. But these are all still indirect bridges between creators and consumers. Little by little they get better, and give us more capabilities in terms of supporting work we care about, but they still require clever business models, rather than being predicated on technologies that are so intuitive and widely available that we needn’t even think to use them; so that we can focus completely on the work.
Maybe someday that’ll change, and the distance between creator and consumer will be reduced.
In the meantime, we make do with the tools, the bridges, we have available. It requires a bit of intentional action to turn our love for things into the support they require to exist, but that these bridges exist at all is a step in the right direction.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter.