Phillip Smith

Free content vs. sustainable publishing

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been having a great back-and-forth with the Jon Spencer — the “data geek” of Abacus Circulation — that riffed off a few ideas provided by Steve Izma of Wilfrid Laurier University Press about the delicate balance between putting content online for free and making a living as an author or publisher.

The conversation was prompted by the upcoming New Internationalist annual general meeting (where the cooperative comes together to democratically decide on the themes for the next year’s worth of magazines); there was some indication that the question of “does putting magazine content online for free impact subscriptions?” might be raised. Jon and I both work with the New Internationalist: Jon as a circulation advisor and I as a Web strategist. So, given our different roles — and mutual interest (in seeing New Internationalist succeed) — we tackled that question together.

After a bit of back-and-forth, I distilled the key questions down to:

  • Does having content online — accessible at no cost — impact paid subscriptions?
  • How can quality, independent, creation (writing/publishing/etc.) be supported — i.e., the full labour costs covered: fact checking, editing, etc. — in the digital age? </ul>

    And my response went something like this:

    When the question is framed by focusing on paid subscriptions, I feel that an opportunity is missed. Yes, paid subscriptions pay the bills and create long-term relationships — but at the same time the Internet has opened up new opportunities. Though the Web can be a great way to avoid the hassle of mailing in those pesky renewal cards — its potential is far greater than that.

    Jon referenced the Marry An American campaign that was produced for This Magazine, and I think it’s a great example of how the Internet can help to make the exploration of new ideas economically viable for small publishers. The hard cost to produce the campaign was under $100 CAD and the exposure was global. Over 1,000,000 people visited that site; over 7000 people signed the petition; thousands of profiles were submitted; and about 3000 double-opt-in e-mails were captured for future mailings. Now, let’s say that the hard cost under-valued the work done (because it was built on volunteer energy); let’s say that it cost 10 times more to produce that campaign — or $1000 — and let’s say that the campaign only resulted in 100 new subscriptions (which it probably did). Even at $1000, and only shooting for 100 new subscriptions, that’s a fairly low cost per acquisition at just $10 per subscriber.

    Now… what if you weren’t a terribly under-resourced magazine like This Magazine and could have actually pushed that list of 3000 e-mails a bit further? What if you could have consciously set some targets and managed to get 250 new subscribers? What if you budgeted to do campaigns like that 3 or 4 times a year? Okay, so that’s not about putting magazine content online for free… but, for me, it underlines how the Web makes it possible to think differently about revenue beyond the traditional “renewal series tied to a Web form” approach.

    A recent campaign that a colleague and I helped Mother Jones magazine produce is similar and has signed-up at least 2000 folks in the first few weeks that it has been online.

    My experience, and the experience of others that I’ve discussed the “free online content” question with, is thus:

    • Magazine subscribers are not the primary audience of a magazine’s Web site. They subscribe to the magazine already — why would they re-read it online? More than one publisher has confided that only a small percentage of total subscribers to a print magazine ever use the “Sign-in with your subscription number to read the full article” feature on an associated Web site. (If we did believe that it was subscribers coming to our sites: then why would we push subscriptions so hard?)

    • Most of the statistical analysis that I’ve done shows that Web visitors are arriving at a single story — usually via a search or a link from another site — they then read the story, and then they leave. That’s called a “bounce rate.” Keeping people on your site longer is called “stickiness.” And, in my experience, there’s only one thing that keeps people on a site longer: content. If it’s hidden behind a “pay wall” (a technical intervention to limit access to online content) — or just not online at all — people go away. The advantage of keeping them around is that you can present them with lots of opportunities to create a relationship with your magazine; by subscribing, by joining an e-mail list, by buying a back issue or non-magazine product, etc.

    • What else does this “bounce rate” mean? For me, it means: people are not reading an entire magazine online. They aren’t sitting with their laptop on the bus enjoying a latte and flipping virtual pages. Jon presented several reason why folks subscribe to paper-based magazines — the most compelling for me is the concept of the “editorial package,” which Jon frames succinctly with “It’s not about the one article that came up when you googled a certain phrase, but about the vision that the editors have of how things fit together [in the printed magazine].” I feel there are even more reasons, including loyalty (to an idea, a concept, etc.) and frequency (periodical format sits squarely between a daily paper and a book). So, though I feel that some folks will choose not to renew their subscriptions (and it’s hard to tell why without asking them, i.e., it could just be a bad renewal effort), I feel that others (hopefully more) will stumble on — or be lured toward — the magazine online and choose to take out a subscription (or support the magazine with revenue through a different channel).

    There are many of these other revenue channels. Online advertising is one of them and at the IPA convention this March, the Nation shared some impressive revenue numbers for advertising through their Web site and via their e-mail newsletter. Merchandise sales (and donations if you’re a non-profit or attached to a charitable foundation) is another. So, another question for me is: if the relationship between readers and magazines is changing — if “subscriptions” in the traditional sense are not growing — how can this revenue be replaced using the reach and cost efficiency of the Internet?

    Which brings me to question two: How can quality, independent, creation (writing, publishing, etc.) be supported — i.e., the full labour costs covered: fact checking, editing, etc. — in the digital age?

    This Magazine published a great article on Toronto science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. In short, Cory has shown one answer to that question… which is: making content available online for free allowed him1 to reach audiences he otherwise would not have (though the traditional, profit-focused, publishing structures). And, 35,000 copies (sold) later — I’m sure that worked out economically for his publisher too (and the editors and fact checkers along the way).

    1 (Of course it’s hard to predict how well these ideas translate for others that are less Web savvy, or weren’t the first person to do it (aka novelty factor). However, he has continued to publish all of his books online for free, which tells me that it’s working.)

    Politically, there’s so much to read into what he’s doing. Not only does this model — a model supported by a concept coined “the long tail” — speak to a more people-based publishing paradigm (where what is successful and what isn’t is based more on merit than promotional budget), but it also speaks to the reach of the Internet. There are people who want to subscribe to New Internationalist that have not figured that out yet! And the Internet is one of the lowest cost ways to reach them. Traditional marketing — like direct mail offers to rented lists — can be expensive and can have a limited reach, whereas new forms of online marketing (think Marry An American here) can be inexpensive to produce and, with some amount of luck, will extend their reach into corners of the world that traditional marketing never could have.

    Similarly, I think that Cory has applied this approach — specifically, the idea of “distributed fact checking” or open-source publishing — to another level recently by asking his readers to sign-up to check his manuscript for consistency before it went to print. Hundreds of readers got to read the book before it was printed (incentive) and hundreds of errors (not caught by the publisher’s editors) were found and corrected (cost savings) before it was printed, for free (again, cost savings). Where is the downside here? Readers get a preview and will promote the book using the most powerful marketing force there is: word-of-mouth. Publishers get some labour in exchange for a sneak preview. Author and publisher get more eyes on the book than they could afford otherwise. Everyone wins.

    So, the question I leave you with is: what are the new models — the ones that break through the paradigm of limiting access to knowledge — that will make publishing work for everyone, the Publisher, the Author, and in the public interest? They are there, I assure you; it’s just a matter of finding them.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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