This is a damn good article by Clay Shirky about why micropayment systems don’t work and won’t work: Fame vs Fortune: Micropayments and Free Content. The gist of it is that, while the monetary cost of acquiring content can get vanishingly small, the mental cost does not. There is a significant mental expense even to think about whether you want to buy content. Sifting through thousands of ten-cent online offerings trying to find a good read is headache-inducing at best. Since there’s a lot of really good free content out there, the obvious conclusion is that even a small cost will cause people to substitute the free stuff.
I remember having long email discussions about this with my Star Chamber co-authors back years ago, but I lacked the wit to say it as forcefully as Shirky puts it here. My argument was that we are all, all of us who create original content, going to have to get used to giving away big chunks of what we make, if we want to be successful. Here’s a good quote from Shirky about the paradoxical effect of the Internet:
People want to believe in things like micropayments because without a magic bullet to believe in, they would be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that what seems to be happening — free content is growing in both amount and quality — is what’s actually happening.
Free, good, and plenty of it… how do all these virtues come to coincide? As Shirky observes, when you give cheap publishing tools to a writer, you don’t get a publisher who writes, you get a writer who publishes. Publishers must have money, but a writer may happily substitute fame. Creators hunger to see their ideas in motion. This all raises the next question: where does the money come from? Surely writers must eat, or at least drink expensive coffee. My answer is that none of this means paid writing jobs are going away. I am not any less inclined to buy magazines and books now than I was before the Net came along. But my selections, my expectations, and my general information-space standard of living have all improved vastly. Micropayments can slip beneath the waves and no one ever need shed a tear.