04 April 2012

Reinventing old (and useful) wheels, and forgetting etymology

If you collect old books, particularly specialist ones, you'll have noticed that many of them have something called a "subscriber list" at the start.  It seems a bit odd to us.  I've subscribed to several publications, and I never expect to get a credit in the magazine itself.  But some book editors even went as far as to write prefaces praising the subscribers for their support.

A subscriber wasn't someone who just bought stuff regularly but someone whose money was directly responsible for getting the book published in the first place.  I recently heard the Gaelic translation of the term: "fo-sgrìobhadair".  Literally "under-writer", which is etymologically the same word as "subscriber".  It's one of those moments when you want to slap yourself for having missed something so obvious for such a long time.

Essentially, the subscribers of old made sure there was enough money to compile eg. a dictionary and do an initial print-run.  This took the risk off what would otherwise have been a very expensive, low turn-over item.  A subscriber was, in the traditional sense, a patron of the arts.
It's an idea that died out with the increasing corporatisation of publishing.  Why would anyone give charitable donation to a commercial publishing operation?
But every good idea will be had several times, and subscription is back with a new name: "crowdfunding".  A lot of people don't really get it -- they want to look at it as an investment, but it's not.  It's people putting up enough money to ensure the product gets made, with the product itself as the only reward (well, actually, many crowdfunding operations have a sliding scale of rewards, but these are often just trinkets like stickers etc).

This crowdfunding model has been used for everything from industrial design and manufacturing to software development.  It's even gone right back to where it started and been used as a way to get funding to set up a new printrun of out-of-print books.

It's an idea that certainly has its benefits for the language world.
One company put up an adventure game project and said that it would be translated to other languages if enough money was put up.  Unfortunately, the platform they were using didn't let you pledge on the grounds of a specific language.  There are several languages that would have got me to pledge my money (I have never come across an adventure game in Catalan, for instance, and I find adventure games quite a good way to practice language -- although that's a matter for another post) but in the end I didn't pledge.
One of the questions that keeps coming up on the internet is "if you love the language, why don't you teach me for free?"  The answer is quite simple: because I have to make a living.  If I spent a lot of time putting together an effective course then gave it away, that would be several years of my working life out the window, with nothing to show for it.  But if people are willing to stump up the dough up front, there's no problem, and that's what the guys at languagehunters.org are doing -- they've raised cash via a Kickstarter campaign to fund them filming a set of videos teaching the Irish language. Now I'm not convinced by their teaching methodology (regular readers already know what I think about the notion of learning like a child, and I'm not a fan of excessive signing), and most of the methodology is really no different from what millions of teachers around the world are already doing, but the idea of funding in this way certainly appeals to me.

Except that the figures don't really add up.  The Kickstarter page says that they'd spent 400 man hours before even opening the pledge drive -- that's already worth more than the £3820 they asked for, so they're still going to have to get a lot more money later down the line.

Wouldn't it be better if they could raise enough money to make it completely free, available for posterity?  Which all ties into what I was asking last time: to what extent can we justify having the individual pay for and/or produce language materials for others (possibly including corporations) to use later down the line?

I now find my asking myself what language projects I could propose where I could sell my time in advance via Kickstarter.... anyone want me to produce a free Quechua course?  I'll need a plane ticket to Peru, somewhere to stay for a few months, a few classes in the language, some time to write the course............

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