Can you create income with a typewriter?

In a fit of insomnia, I just read an interview with Jaron Lanier, author of You are Not a Gadget, who happens to be a personal hero of mine, in that he dares to question the trajectory of the internet and of technology toward the expectation that as individuals we freely produce information from which search aggregators profit, in the case of Google, and that technology can redefine us as consumers of paid-model content of a company’s choosing simply by changing devices and paradigms, as Apple has done with the iPad:

 “The Apple idea is that instead of the personal computer model where people own their own information, and everybody can be a creator as well as a consumer, we’re moving towards this iPad, iPhone model where it’s not as adequate for media creation as the real media creation tools, and even though you can become a seller over the network, you have to pass through Apple’s gate to accept what you do, and your chances of doing well are very small, and it’s not a person to person thing, it’s a business through a hub, through Apple to others, and it doesn’t create a middle class, it creates a new kind of upper class. … Google has done something that might even be more destructive of the middle class, which is they’ve said, “Well, since Moore’s law makes computation really cheap, let’s just give away the computation, but keep the data.” And that’s a disaster.” 

By contrast, I think of the typewriter (of course). It is a device in which you define and create the content, without influence from Royal or Olympia. It provides no options to serve up advertisements or content of Royal’s choosing, or shape in any way the kind of content you choose to consume and at what cost. It’s only job is for you to create writing of your choice, completely outside of the connected network of online expectations about the life of information and its uses. There is no function inherently built into the device compelling you to share your work for free with a click to be monetized by Google search; we have to drag out middleman technology like scanners, cameras, and computers to make that possible, and even scans of typecasts evade the search engine’s current requirement for digital text to parse. These things being the case, does the typewriter, by dint of its independence from this work-for-free system offer us the opportunity to profit from our work, in and of itself (and by means other than selling hardware on eBay, I mean, in the act of creating content itself)? Can you create wealth with a typewriter?

It would be revolutionary for one of us to show that it’s possible. I’m curious to know what your wild theories are about this. Mine is this: there is a certain type of person out there who craves authentic experience, not just ideas but the tactile manifestation of authenticity: a hand-bound book, typed or hand-illustrated information, on paper. Not just nostalgics but people looking to engage their mind and creativity not with online groupthink or aggregated crowds but with the real work and ideas of individuals and artists. If the content and the quality of these publications is sufficiently high, the market may be there.

 If you take zines as a case study of this kind of thinking, the problem of free reappears in the spectre of collectivism. Any group that functions mostly on the goodwill of people can tend toward this line of thinking, that profit is immoral and freedom is benevolence. (The typosphere itself functions on this sort of value system, in fact). The problem with this thinking is that people need to earn money, full stop. It has to come from somewhere. If it can’t come from, as Lanier says, “the products of our hearts and minds,” if the value of those things is agreed to be zero, except by large corporations that can mine it for advertising revenue, from where does the profit come for the creators? Are we not able to create a viable market between ourselves by agreement?  Must we give our work away to the aggregators for profit, but insist that we exchange it between ourselves for nothing?

Putting this to the test, if you had only a typewriter to work with, how would you create an income with it? (Consider this a variant on a common technology interview question, in which one is prompted to come up with a monetization strategy for 1,000 ping pong balls on the spot).


  1. Hey Cheryl! It isn’t like the first time I ever thought about this and there are a few people out there offering typewriter place cards and poetry for cash. The closest I have come to thinking (though not doing)is a bespoke letter writing service, using a typewriter proxy. You know, for those special occasions. It is an easy set-up. Just a web form and a paypal account, the rest is just fulfillment by the typist in the form of printing and mailing. It goes like this. The customer seeks out a type scribe and delivers (by e-mail, telephone or even long-hand) their copy, along with the appropriate payment. Let’s not call this User Generated Content, but that’s what it is. The typist then fulfills the task by typing on a chosen paper stock and stationery design (perfume?)and delivering the job by hand or the postal service – or even electronically as a ‘typecast’ by e-mail. Naturally, a good marketer would include with the message a means by which the recipient could reply to the originator of the message. If anonymity between corespondents was the game, that would work too. The typist would be a scribe-like go-between.

    One current practitioner is Silvi at The Poetry Store.

    There was another US based person offering a whole envelope practically covered in low denomination stamps with a bespoke typewritten message, but I’m blowed if I can remember the website.

    Right then, just need to rustle-up a market for this…imagine, tax deductable typewriter ribbons!

  2. First, you articulate a point that scares the hell out of me but nobody around me seems to care about. The Mac App store will ensure in about 3-5 years that you no longer own a license to software an that all the tools you THINK you bought can be taken away in a blink. Your music, your blogs, your Kindle books.. all of these are not owned by anyone except giant, central corporations who can make you invisible to knowledge at the whim of a keyboard operator or a billing clerk. Yet, we happily hand over more and more of ourselves to the “cloud” for FREE

    It has long been a dream of mine to buy a small printing press and create hand-crafted books. I think there will always be a market for one-of-a-kind hand-crafted art, whether that is a book or a sculpture or pottery. There is value in human touch and the more and more we get digital with nothing really being real, the more we will crave the tactile. Give it another decade though…. I think.

    This guy is doing it Check it out…

  3. …and a brilliantly creative typospherian in Scotland, Hamish.

  4. The concept of an organization trying to create a proprietary experience and then profit from it is pretty old, I think. Back before The Great Exhibition was opened in London in 1851, there wasn’t even a standardization in bolt sizes. Think about it: you bought a harness for a carriage or whatever, and for as long as you owned the product, you had to return to that same producer to acquire hardware. It took a massive project like the Crystal Palace to bring a series of disparate hardware sizes in line with one another.

    Kind of a roundabout metaphor, sure, but it speaks to the issue at hand as one that has occurred since time out of mind. That said, there was a time, once, when I shared your concern about proprietary formats strangling creativity. Then, years ago, I bought a Sony PSP.

    The games were abysmal, the hardware not well thought-out, and all of it prohibitively expensive. I began to regret my purchase right when the first round of homebrew exploits came out. Soon I was loading NES ROMS and torrented sitcoms, and life was good (note: I am not advocating copyright infringement here, k?). And life was good because a dedicated community of hackers decided that the provided standard was not good enough for them, and that they would be the ones to change it.

    i-devices are the same way. If I had a nickel for everyone I met with a jailbroken i-phone, I’d have like eight nickels. Wherever proprietary schemes rear their ugly heads, so too will there be those to seek to smite it, those who are willing to rip a big wet bite out of the corporate pie and smile with it dripping down their faces as the corporations struggle to outmaneuver them.

    Or something.

    In any case, I too am working on a way of making money off my typewriter, although I will be feeding my output into the corporate machine in order to glean profit from it. Would that our society still had an artisinal nature, that an artist could access the public easily and on a large scale. Or better yet, a patronage system. I need to get me a Wriothesley. No, not in that way.

  5. Well, wait, of course one can access the public easily and at large scale now, because of the internet. This is one of many reasons why traditional publishing is falling apart.

    I think the right book and the right writer in no way need the traditional publishing industry to succeed, and increasingly the industry expects the author to do most of the work it once provided anyway (promoting oneself, building an audience, editing).

    The paradigm that traditional publishing is even needed to legitimize a work of art, to give one permission to be a real author, is fading away daily. It is *a* route, but a highly unlikely and rigged route to success. Publishing houses are now actually chasing after successful self-published authors more and more.

    Sir Speegle, I know we differ on our esteem for the machinations of the traditional writing industry, that’s just my thinking on it.

    Hmm, a bespoke letter writing service! That’s intriguing. And certainly Hamish is a model for what I think publishing ought to be.

    Rufus, you don’t see the digital burnout happening now? I do. I think that’s what the recent wave of typewriter interest was about. I think now is the time to act on it with creative ideas. For some reason people seem to think the route of selling typewriters as machines is the right way to ‘monetize’ the trend, but I am not convinced. None of us made the typewriters, and reselling them without making improvements in function and appearance is just sort of cynical, not really a creative act. (I know many of you who do this work on the typewriters and improve them, for which I have total respect, and have bought a few of these improved typewriters myself, really the only way to go in my opinion, since I don’t trust ignorant typewriter sellers. (The “I think it works fine, looks great” types).

  6. Very interesting discussion. I have to say I don’t see a way to make a significant income by typewriting. Even in India that’s becoming harder. Yes, one could cater to people who want a little touch of that “authentic” nondigital communication — but is it authentic if they didn’t type it themselves? And if they really want to invest in such things, won’t they buy their own typewriter?

    The income potential in our area lies in repairing, restoring, and remodeling typewriters, not in typewriting. Typewriting performs a (sub)cultural rather than an economic function: maintaining a small but living dynamic of thought and communication that operates within the digitalized universe but does not wholly belong to it.

  7. I was going to be facetious and say a holdup or ransom note. Then I started thinking, the typewriter doesn’t provide the content – in my case it merely makes bad content legible. Where does neatness count? Applications and forms. A table of standard machines at a job fair? Long-term rentals at medical offices?

  8. Oh and Richard, I remember being utterly terrified of a “false positive” for plagiarism (given the dry, pedantic style of my papers) and wondered if typewriters could be used to double-check that by having the student come up with an essay on it and comparing with the suspect piece. If proving it’s one’s own work can be done with a non-digital machine, that may be another way to monetize them.

  9. There’s a small but valid use for typewriting in business, for one-off envelop addressing in places like banks, and for legal documents in law offices, documents whose paper copy is the actual document and can’t (easily) be handled electronically. Of course, both of these uses are typically filled by electric typewriters like IBM Selectrics. I know of at least one repair shop in my town that stays in business mainly through Selectric repairs and service.

    I am intrigued by the idea of (especially a manual) typewriter being used within the context of secure document origination, where nothing electronic can be trusted. A secure room, a typewriting person who’s been vetted, and a manual typewriter with perhaps one carbon paper copy underneath. The client dictates (in person or remotely?) and the copy is handled manually. Hypothetically useful when (or if) the day comes when computer viruses and spyware are so prevalent that reverting to gen (x-1) of writing technology would prove to be more secure. Also useful during and after the Zombie Apocalypse, presuming no electricity is available.

    I’m also thinking that in order for manual typewriters to have a niche market of usefulness, they have to fill a need that can’t be handled by, say, computer-connected printers, or even electric typewriters. Mechanical printing on paper, by hand, without electricity, is their specialty. Find a market that caters to that specific set of capabilities and you’d have a business model.


  10. Actually Strike, I think that we may come down on the same side of the line philosophically. I’m just playing devil’s advocate and trying to make it look like I was paying attention in school.

    Also, I do find myself appalled by the proprietary direction technology is heading in, but I also really really really want to get published one day. Sad and tawdry, but true.

  11. I would have to agree with Richard here. Typewriters, by dint of their relative abundance, inexpensiveness, and ease of use, are quite accessible to anyone who wants to create texts with them.

    The value in repairing and restoring would come from very rare/ obscure models; I know I have raised many an eyebrow at vendors selling “refurbished” typewriters at $500 or more, when those same models may be found in working condition elsewhere for much cheaper (Olympia SMs, Olivetti Letteras, Hermes 3000s, etc).

  12. @Adwoa: But some people, such as Tom Furrier of Cambridge Typewriter, make a good living repairing common machines. One thing about a typewriter is that people tend to get attached to this particular machine. If my Remington Noiseless no. 7 broke down and I couldn’t fix it, I wouldn’t buy another for $30 on eBay; I would rather pay $100 to a professional to have it fixed.

    [Word verification: careness. Typewriters invite careness.]

  13. I disagree that the only income potential is related to hardware/repairs, but I do agree that practical applications of the typewriter (forms, etc.) are too limited for income potential.

    I am thinking entirely creatively, as in, using a typewriter to create content (books, art, correspondence) in concert with other supplies (bookbinding, paints, collage, etc.) and selling that as a product, its form factor and physical quality part of its appeal (the content would also, of course, have to be of high quality). Now, I think it would take a person with significant skills in writing, document design, art, and self-promotion to make this work, so most people could not. But there is a market in the mainstream world of design, literature, and crafts for hand-bound things, ephemera as a design element, and playing with the form factor of books, especially since books are becoming increasingly formless and free of aesthetic value as e-books. That alternative market is there, the evidence is ample. If I had 72 hours in each day, I would give this a try myself, despite the fact that I don’t have the full list of skills I just named as a prerequisite. Perhaps I would crash and burn, but I suspect that there’s potential there.

  14. Ohhhhh…now I see where you’re going with this.

    Fo’ real, if you figure out how to make money of typin’, lemme know.

  15. I think one business model is what’s being described here, using the typewriter to create content and the content is generating income.

    But another model, which I think Richard starting to touch on, is a business model around an experience. Something like a “typing bar”, basically a coffee shop (obviously, there is profit in those) that offer the use of many typewriters, paper and stamps. People come in and write letters, poetry, whatever, generating traffic and income.

    Now, its not exactly the typewriter generating the income, but its the atmosphere and the typewriter could be the center of it all.

    One person with one typewriter, is a much harder concept to monetize, because then it just comes down to quality of content. If the content is that good, unless the creator is limiting it (which kind of goes against the idea of monetizing it, as you really do need volume in our marketplace), then the content is just as good regardless of source.

    Which is kind of tangent to the discussion of publishing, oddly enough. I know people that are self-published and fit right in with the “published” crowd. Some turn their nose up to self-published or micro press, but when you read about someone being published with a large house and selling less than 100 books, it makes you think, that it doesn’t really matter. Is it any different if I get 100 readers of my work on my own or through a publishing house?

    Again, I think this all comes does to content, especially from an art perspective. I think its a lot more likely to generate income with a typewriter as part of an overall experience vs. it being the producer of content.

  16. This is a very interesting thought experiment. Just a thought: even when typewriters weren’t obsolete, they were usually part of a larger ecosystem. Journalists banged out their articles on typewriters, but then they turned them over to a compositor to typeset that into a newspaper format, and that’s the item that was sold, not the original typescript.

    Our digital scanners and blogs have replaced Linotype machines and newspapers, but there’s still an ecosystem. Put a typewriter into the right ecosystem, and the whole package might be monetized somehow.

    [Word verification: “namishe,” which is what the drunk yoga instructor said…]

  17. Doesn’t Retro-gram do something like what we are talking about here? You give them the message, then they send out a, well, letter in the format of a telegram. Could be done by type writer, too.

  18. Paul, I do think there’s room for the typewriter in the production of print products somewhere. Another impractical but compelling format is mimeograph (I posted a very lame mimeograph video on youtube and it got a bazillion hits, people seem fascinated by the things).

    Martin, I haven’t seen Retrogram. Isn’t our own typospherian, Matt Cidoni, offering a service kind of like this? I think a nice touch to this sort of idea would be to incorporate mail art details into the letters (decorated envelopes, etc.)

    Deek, I would not say the content is independent of the format, in the scenario I am describing. That the content is good is a requirement (or should be), but part of the appeal of the product is that it is typed, or has other hand-created features. I had a conversation with Justin Hocking of the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland some time ago where we talked about this, the future value of hand-created books, which will become, when contrasted against mostly digital offerings, their own kind of market.

    I do think a typewriter bar would be a brilliant concept for a coffee house, I’d love to see people do more creative things with the coffee shop idea, although I know all anyone wants to do at a coffee shop is stare at their iPad/laptop/smartphone.

  19. rn

    Fascinating thread.

    1. I’m a writer who uses typewriters. I don’t need to use typewriters, but I do, and they work for me. I could, I suppose, publish my various works as typescripts. But, as much as I love writing with a typewriter, I prefer reading a book or a magazine. The lesson here is that, at least for me, the important creative experience involves using the machines (though the typescripts are interesting, because if you save them, you see how far your writing travels over time).

    2. Opening a typing bar strikes me like creating a pop-up old-timey newsroom, a la Miss Lonelyhearts or The Front Page inside a tavern or coffee shop. It’s likely that the typewriters would be an add-on: you’d make your money on the coffee and booze, and the typewriters would be a schtick to bring people in the door. I’ve been thinking of grabbing a sturdy school table and setting some of my machines out on the streets of Brooklyn on the weekends, billing them as “Free Speech Machines.” I wasn’t thinking of it as a money-making enterprise, but …. who knows.

    3. As for selling typewritten texts:

    –if it’s mass production you’re interested in, the typewriter probably isn’t the right tool–though you could pack as many copies of carbon paper as could fit between your platen and feed rollers, pound away, and see what your machine can do.(This is reminiscent of what composer Alvin Lucier did in his 1969 piece I am Sitting in a Room, in which he taped himself and then taped the tape as he played it back in the same space and again and again and again until, in theory, what he wound up with was not a tape of a spoken text but a recording of the reverberation of the room as he spoke and the distortion caused by the tape recorder.)

    –if limited production is what you’re proposing, the practice already exists: the production of poetry and fiction chapbooks. These home-made booklets were often written on typewriters, on paper the writers made themselves, and bound with strings and awls wielded by the writers (though that dread electronic compiler of knowledge, Wikipedia, notes that “the genre has been revitalized in the past 40 years by the widespread availability of first mimeograph technology, then low-cost copy centers and digital printing.”)

    Oh, well: technology worms its way into everything.


  20. Great discussion!

    My mom worked her way through grad school typing manuscripts on an Olympia portable.

    Just wait for the electricity to go off.

  21. Jae, ha! We are all set after the apocalypse. Nanowrimo writers, there’s a subject for you: a cabal of typists after the apocalypse.

    RN, I had not considered chapbooks at all. That is pretty much precisely what I had in mind, although also I was thinking of a book merely typwritten instead of digitally formatted, but then copied en masse.

    Is that how you spell en masse?

  22. Great discussion.

    I’m about to find out if I can do something with my typewriter: I’m starting a monthly print newsletter/thing, sort of an addition to the stuff I do on my site. It’s going to be nice to actually reach people in a different way than updating my blog (though the web has been very, very good to me).

  23. Bob, I think print projects are completely great ancillary outlets for some percentage of everyone’s writing. Silent Type taught me that the format has currency.

  24. …just when you thought this thread was done and dusted. I remembered the typing transcription service I was beginning to think I’d just dreamed about. Richard mentioned it over on Writing Ball. It is called Universal Babel Service. Woefully poor SEO on that site, but they seem to use typewriters as a go-between card and letter writing service. Whether there’s an money to be made, who knows?

  25. I am currently working on a novel whose content relies on the fact that it is typewritten, and when presented to the reader must also reproduce a typed page (again, it’s part of the content… the book is, in small part, about typing on manual typewriters). I am considering mass duplication (color copies, I use black and red, one of the appeals) of the typewritten pages once I’m done, with hardcover binding of the 8.5×11 pages.

    I have no thoughts on a distribution model yet, but I was halfway through writing it when I realized that typewriters, typing, and the typed page were integral to the plot.

    This is a one-off concept. I don’t currently envision another writing project that relies upon the machinery of its creation as an essential part of the content.

    Excellent question, Strikethru.

  26. TT

    It’s simple, I think. David McCullough writes everything on a typewriter…and I think he makes some money with it.

  27. With the kids grown and gone, I have been given the green light to take the front room of our house and convert it into a micro-museum for the history of light, optics, holograms, and general 3D (I have a 20,000 piece collection). I am also going to go back to a typewritten newsletter, similar to one that I began in 1983, which ran through 1994 (when I went online). I already have a very nice base of subscribers around the world waiting for the first issue in 2012. While it will not generate income directly, it will allow me, in a very unique way, to remain on the radar. This is becoming increasingly hard to do with all the background noise online today.

  28. K Jones

    I only ran across this site and item today, long after its posting, but here’s a thought on how to make an income from typing.

    There was an article in Time magazine a few months ago about “old skills” coming back into vogue, and people being willing to pay for them. It included skills such as handmade shoes, farming and tailoring, but more topically, hand drawn calligraphy. People are paying for it because it’s not generic, not just another font that you can see elsewhere.

    One-time documents with permanency would be a good place to start soliciting clients for typed documents. Title deeds from city hall or diplomas from small community colleges come first to mind. They might want something “older”, more established and more human, and not mass produced.

    Or if you can speak French fluently, go there. All formal business transactions in the country are still handwritten and typed, not produced on printers.

  29. Anonymous

    I usually browse blogs and never comment but felt this was the one time to do so.

    I think the best way to make $$$ from manual typewriters is to make crafts. I’ve made crafts over the years and sold them at bazaars, stationary stores, festival booths, through community newsletters, neighborhood block parties, holiday event shows, various school events, craft home parties, gift shops, and by word of mouth. Granted these sales won’t make anyone “rich” but if you keep busy and and put yourself out there then you can make a modest profit.

    I consider myself a little old fashioned. I personally refuse to use e-books….I luv my real books. I still write and type letters to friends and family as my way of correspondance. I craft my own gifts for birthdays, holidays, and special occassions. The cell phone I use is a pay as you go phone for emergency purposes only….I never use it and forget it at home most of the time…..if I want to talk to anyone I prefer face to face or over my land line phone while sitting and relaxing on my couch and not being annoying to anyone while standing in line at the store letting the whole world know my business 🙂 I don’t blog….although I do read them for amusement. I don’t email because it seems so impersonal and don’t even get me started on texting…..could never!! Of course I do have a computer but that’s only because my husband uses it for work so it’s there and like I said I use it for reading amusement. I still pay my bills by check and can u imagine….I use a regular ol’ envelope and stamp to mail them 🙂

    Okay, I suppose this comment was more about myself than anything but I just feel that we have become too technology dependent and just setting outselves up for all the horrors of identity stealing, technology mistakes and failures. Nothing is perfect of course but I like the safeness of everything old fashioned which is as Martha Stewart would say “is a good thing”. This lifestyle is definitely a choice but in this world of fast everything, I like coming home to my retro typewriter, hearing the clickety clack of my time well spent in the company of my retro creativity and imagination. Hey, have to stay sane somehow 🙂
    By the way…..GREAT BLOG!

    Retro Paige 40 from PDX

  30. Do you know about this zine: link ? It’s been published since the 80s, primarily done on a typewriter. Now I’m not saying they make their living with this, but I find it interesting. And it certainly makes sense for folks with alternative living conditions to be using typewriters.

  31. I have seen job posts on for someone offering to type a note from a manual typewriter on the buyer’s choice of stationary paper and send it to the chosen recipient for $5. Of course I don’t think anyone is going to make a real income $5 at a time, but it’s an example of something beyond sales and repair of typewriters. However, it relies on the use of the internet to get customers, engage in the transaction, and make payment.

    I love the idea of a coffee shop centered around typewriters. It reminds me of those pottery stores where you can go in with your kids and create/paint your own pottery right there in the store. In the right location a coffee shop of this nature might do well. How do current locations of type-ins perceive the revenue, or lack there of, when they host a type in. Are they losing money because all the tables are occupied for long periods of time by typists ordering only a cup of coffee, giving up the chance to serve more profitable customers. Or does it bring increased visibility to their business, and increased revenue?

  32. Running a coffee shop is, as I hear it, a really tough business in which to turn a profit. I also wonder whether typewriters would ultimately contribute to or detract from paying customers as you mention. Personally I am way to risk-averse to ever try to run a coffee shop, but keep hoping someone in the typosphere will try it.

  33. I’m super late to this party, but am intrigued by this idea. I’m about to buy a 1940s Royal typewriter because I want it for my scrapbooking and papercrafts. Sure, I could run paper through my printer to make titles, etc. but it’s actually *easier* for me to type out a quick date or title if I have a typewriter ready to go. Nothing to boot up, no futzing with exactly where the text will print.

    Not sure this will ever be a moneymaking scheme, but I suppose you could make little embellishments, ephemera, etc etc for people to use in their own projects.