Thursday, January 05, 2012

Buying Time

I've been thinking about ways to make money publishing stuff on the internet.

There are a lot of ways. Usually, I settle into talking about the "extras" method, where the core content is free but you allow the audience to pay more for more. This has been discussed lots before, so I'm going to skate over it here and get to a different kind of issue:

Publishers, rather than content creators.

Normally, my stance is "screw publishers, don't need 'em." However, that's an unfair stance brought about by bad experiences. A good publisher helps polish, check, distribute, and market your content. Those are valuable services, especially if you're the kind of creator who is bad at those things. Which, really, should be most creators: the only reason creators have to be good at that stuff is because most publishers have not been keeping up with modern technology and are hopelessly obsolete.

But in a world where content is free, how can a publisher hope to make money?

Well, "gating" is common. The idea that you're the publisher, so you're the sole distributor and can charge for the product. But gating is obsolete, and getting obsoletier each year. The only way to enforce gating is to try to use DRM, and that gets more hilariously awful with every passing month.

Another common method is advertising. By serving ads either in the content or around the content, the publishers hope to eke out some indirect cash. This is in some ways better than gating - YouTube has proven that most people will weather ads without going off and pirating the content, so a publisher can still be the primary distributor... at least for a while, until it actually becomes easier to find the content by Google search.

However, I don't like ads even without the coming Googpocalypse. What other methods are there?

Well, a publisher can offer bonus expensive goods in much the same way as an individual. A publisher can create a "standard" swag set - shirts, mugs, signed copies, and so on. This does reduce the price of creating the swag slightly, and the author might be happy to not have to handle it. But that seems like it wouldn't work, to me. Maybe it's because much of the draw to pay for swag like that is specifically to support the author, not the publisher. I think it would really decrease the amount of swag sold, although the larger number of interested parties might balance it out.

Even if the swag pays off, however, there are a lot of situations where it's just not viable. For example, a publisher that publishes scientific data sets. "Oh, I want the hat that supports trial 293101-B!"

How can a publisher make money on this kind of publishing?

I say: buying time. Or, more accurately, buying expedience.

Look, you can't gate your content. If you gate your content, you'll cripple your draw and lose tons and tons of audience. If your content is such that your audience really wants it, they'll get it or a nearly identical version from another source and you'll get nothing.

But you can gate it briefly. You can say "oh, this article on type B diabetes will be out on Monday. You can read it now if you're a member/pay, but if not, enter your email here and we'll send it to you on Monday."

See, this is a double - no, a triple win.

People who want the data fast, or people who want to support you, they'll pay. People who want to read it see it isn't available, but instead of just being told to fuck off, they're told "we'll deliver it to you personally ASAP." That's a promise of service and permission to contact them.

Now, that time gap isn't always ideal. But it serves a surprising number of media. Webcomics can use it, science publishing can use it, financial publications can use it - anything where there's a continuing stream of information that some people will want to see ASAP and others are willing to wait for.

The gap will, of course, vary in length depending on the kind of thing you're publishing. Webcomics might have a one week delay, while a science journal might have a three or six month delay. But that delay isn't determined by what you think the delay "ought to be", it's determined by how long it takes for the content to be pirated and distributed and how much damage each day of delay causes your adoption rates (if any damage is done).

There are other services you can provide for members, as well. Deals on swag, recommended articles, delivered articles based on their filter preferences, contact with the author or other experts...

There are ways to make publishing work. Flatly gating content isn't one.

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