I was very happy to learn that Bart Ehrman has just recently started blogging. However, it’s a very unusual blog in that most of it will be behind a paywall, and proceeds will go to charity. It’s great that Ehrman is trying to raise more money for charity (he says he already donates a fair amount of money to charity), and I went ahead and signed up for a years subscription to the blog (cost: ~$25) because the list of charities supported looks reasonable. But I still don’t think this is the greatest idea.
Here’s the reality: paywalls are notorious for not working. With so much free stuff on the internet, when people are looking for things to read/look at/watch online, they’ll almost always choose the free option over the not-free option. There’s always room in the world for people who look at a trend, buck it, and are successful, and it’s possible Ehrman will be one of those guys. But it doesn’t seem likely. He shows no signs of having made a fully-informed strategy decision here. Instead, he looks like an old fart who doesn’t understand the internet.
If Ehrman raises a lot of money for charity this way, great! But if he had came to me for advice, I would have told him he’d probably have better luck doing what every other writer or otherwise creative type on the internet does: don’t sell digital content, sell physical stuff (whether that’s books, CDs, or other merchandise), and let the purpose of the digital content be something you give away free to build your fanbase, i.e. market for your physical stuff.
Also, Ehrman’s explanation for why he’s doing this strikes me as very much the wrong way to think about contributing to charity:
My reason for starting the Blog, though, is simple. I have long been deeply concerned about those who suffer from hunger and homelessness – even more, for some reason, since I became an agnostic, some 15 years or so ago. I give a sizeable chunk of my income to charities that deal with these problems, but I never can find the time to volunteer – for example, at the local soup kitchen.
And then it occurred to me at the suggestion of some friends that I could volunteer in another way, a way that makes particular sense for me and that can be unusual and distinctive. And this Blog is the result. I volunteer my time dealing with issues in my field of expertise and raise money for the causes I deeply believe in.
However, if Ehrman’s goal is to do good through the charities he’s supporting with his time and money, he should use his time in whatever way will help them the most. I think a lot of people find the idea of giving time attractive because it’s more visible and feels better, but again if you care about actually doing good AND you’re in a reasonably lucrative line of work, the better strategy is usually “work harder so you can donate more.” In other words, if the “give away digital content to boost book sales” strategy will make more money than the “sell digital content” strategy, that’s what Ehrman should do, and to hell with the fact that he doesn’t have a set of “designated volunteer hours.”
The other problem I have with this is that many of Ehrman’s responses to critics will be behind the paywall. For example, Ehrman has already written two responses to Richard Carrier, and one is available for free, but the other is behind the paywall. Unless they’re part of a larger print work, responses to critics strike me as the last thing you should be trying to make money off of. Seeing how well you respond to critics is a valuable way for people to try to figure out how credible you are, and decide if your books are worth buying. Also, making replies available for free maximizes the number of people who can get in on the discussion.