A Failure Of Duotrope, A Failure of Their Audience: Thoughts By Someone Who’s Been There
Duotrope.com was the site I always recommended for new writers. Looking to find a market for your story? Duotrope had the most up-to-date listings of which magazines would pay for your stories, how long you could expect to wait for a reply, and all in a solid, searchable package. It was free, though of course they bugged you to donate. And it was awesome.
Then they started charging for subscriptions, and the Internet went berserk.
Thing is, I’ve actually helmed at least one free-to-play transition: StarCityGames.com Premium. When SCG opened, all of our strategy articles detailing how to play Magic: the Gathering were free. We paid our writers, but we made it up by selling cards from our online store. No problem. But as the years went by and we started attracting bigger writers, our article costs skyrocketed – as did our traffic, which meant we had to pay more for bandwidth and larger servers. Eventually, the articles were such a net loss that they were cutting into our card profits to the point where even accounting for the increased traffic the articles brought, we couldn’t afford to keep them.
So we had no choice but to render select articles Premium – you could only read them if you’d paid for a subscription. Which was hellish. But we did several things that Duotrope did not do, which helped:
1) Our costs were low.
I don’t know how Duotrope came up with $50 a year, but that sounds like too much. When we started, it was $30 a year, and we were paying out hundreds a week for forty written pieces. If Duotrope is spending hundreds of dollars weekly to keep its article database updated, it’s doing something drastically wrong.
Yet even if that $50 is a legitimate cost, it’s still a terrible price point. For a Magic player, who already spends hundreds of dollars on new sets and PTQs and road trips and card sleeves, paying $30 (or $50) to win some of those games is a legitimate investment. But I’d wager 85% of Duotrope’s audience won’t make $50 off of story sales in a given year; selling stories is tough, yo. So with a $50 price point, what you’re saying to your audience is, “Your first story sale of the year, if you make one? Hand the money over to us.” That’s a bad message.
What I’m pretty sure happened was that Duotrope did some bad math: Only 10% of our audience donates voluntarily, we need $x to stay alive, so divide $x by 10% of our audience and that’s our target goal. Whereas, as I’ll explain, that’s not going to be the case if you do it right.
2) We added features right away, so it felt as much as possible like an upgrade.
We made our bestsellers list available instantly, so Premium members got one new feature that nobody else got, and we added some hot new writers right away so you’d see extra value. It still stung, and we got a lot of negative backlash, but we also had a lot of people who trusted us that Premium would equal “you get more for your dollar,” and not “paying for what we got for free last week.”
Duotrope has made it feel punitive by saying, “You have to pay to get what you got.” Which is poor timing. They just added some new features, a cleaner search bar; why didn’t they wait and make those Premium-only searches? Why not put in a bunch of user-requested upgrades and make them all Premium so that users would feel the site was on an upward trajectory?
(And seriously? You don’t get newsletters unless you pay at Duotrope? Do you realize how easily you can monetize ads in a targeted newsletter, guys?)
3) We minimized the removal of old features.
Yes, some fan-favorite authors were now behind a paywall… but we left some veeeery popular authors on the Free side, even though we knew people would pay for them, because we wanted people to feel like “Coming here for free” was still something worthwhile. Duotrope, however, is removing most of the functionality that people liked for free, making it nearly useless to those who don’t pay. So how are people going to know how great your engine is unless you can show it off, right?
4) We framed it as “We had no other choice, we wrestled with it mightily, we are sorry, but this is the way it had to be.”
Look at our initial essay on Premium, where Pete explains in detail all of our other options that we struggled with. There’s literally ten paragraphs on our business squeeze before we get to the bad news. Now, a lot of people didn’t believe us, but all that detail helped folks to understand what a bad position we were in. (Which, and I’m being honest, we were.)
Duotrope’s essay feels curt and punitive. “Hey, you didn’t pay, so we have to do this.” For a site for writers, they utilized none of the narrative talent to create a sympathetic story. They could have explained how they got that $50 price point, and why lower prices wouldn’t work, and how they’ll keep the site quality up going forward since a lot of the work is done by paid volunteers… but they didn’t, and now they’re paying the price for that.
5) We accentuated the lower cost. Duotrope’s article states “Monthly subscriptions will cost USD $5 per month and annual subscriptions will cost USD $50 per year.” Bad writing, guys. You want to keep that monthly cost in line, so it should have been something like, “Access to our database is a mere $5 a month, or if you commit to an annual subscription, you save at only $4.16 a month ($50 total!)!”
Twitter was ablaze with DUOTROPE COSTS $50 A YEAR NOW. Reading Twitter, you’d think that there was no cheaper option. They really should have emphasized the monthly costs.
6) We figured that more people would sign up when they had to. People generally won’t pay when something is free – 10% of their audience was actually pretty generous, all things considered. But once the wall went up and you had to pay, more people would pay. So that 10% was probably underestimating by quite a titch. (Our conversion numbers were well above what we thought they’d be.)
So what you wind up with is Duotrope taking a lot of flack, and people going to free sites like Ralan.com (which I can’t stand, personally), and I find that sad. I think that they definitely needed to do this, as these sites are usually losses for someone, but they should have thought it through more – both in terms of the business model and the reaction of the Internet. As someone who’s witnessed a successful transition in this realm, they handled it badly. I hope they pull it off, because I like them. I intend to pay.
But that said….
If you never paid anything to Duotrope, and you could have, shut your fucking mouth.
The title of this essay is “A Failure Of Duotrope, A Failure of Their Audience,” and the failure of the audience is that the Internet inevitably wants everything for free, and never wants to pay for anything, and then gets outraged when it’s asked to pay. And if you’ve been using their site for free despite their years of begging you for cash, and couldn’t even bother to tip ’em a $5 at some point, take all of your complaints and shove ’em where the sun doesn’t shine. You’re the reason they had to go to a pay-for-play model – because you valued their service at free.
The typical response is, “Oh, they can make it up on ad revenue!” Yeah. Take your seventy page hits a week and see how much they get, particularly if you never clicked through. Your contributions to their cash are next to zero. You took their hard work for granted, and walked away whistling. You were a net leech on their work, whether you like it or not.
The lesson in this is, “If you use a service that you like, and they’re asking you to pay for it, pay them.” Doesn’t have to be much. Like I said, if all you can afford is $5, then pay them $5. If you’re flat broke and would pay them if you could, well, I’ll count those intentions as good. But the world does not run on free labor, and at some point labors of love fail to pay for the labors of the stomach.
In the future, to avoid this sort of thing, give when you can. Stop assuming that “free” means “a buffet for you” and start thinking, “How can I reward these people for their work?” Maybe you pay it back by volunteering at their site, or telling about it to all your rich friends, or whatever. But stop dining and dashing, and start helping the world be a better place by rewarding those who do good things.
If you liked Duotrope the way it was and you didn’t help ’em out, well, you’ve removed all of your right to complain about how things did turn out. Recognize that. Move on.