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.

7 Comments

  1. barg
    Dec 2, 2012

    I’m really with you on #3 — I’d never used or really considered Duotrope before this kerfuffle, although it sounds like the kind of service I’d be interested in, and now I’m stuck without being able to tell whether it’s really useful for me without ponying cash up front (always a bad sign in the writing business).

    I’d point out, too, that it looks like the databases are maintained at least in part through free information-sharing by users. You were providing a service: they’re crowdsourcing. User expectations differ a lot between the two categories.

  2. M.K. Hobson
    Dec 2, 2012

    This, right here:

    “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.”

    You’d think writers, especially, would resonate with this, given how often we are asked to ignore our stomachs (indeed, how often we’re abused and scorned as hacks when we even *mention* our stomachs) and work instead “4 the luv.” (God how I hate that cutesy little term!)

    When I was using Duotrope regularly, I donated as often as I could. Now I use Wikipedia more, and more of my support goes their way. (Gosh, can you just imagine what would happen if Wikipedia decided to put up a paywall? YIKES!) I wasn’t making a ton of money off writing then–and seven years on and a few books later I’m still not. But I pay what I can for what is valuable to me, and what I appreciate, and what I want to see continue.

    We’re all in this together, kids.

  3. J. Kathleen Cheney
    Dec 2, 2012

    I have donated to them in the past, and plan to subscribe for at least one year, because I feel I owe them that.

    That said, I don’t put out much short fiction now, so I’m not really using Duotrope. So I may not go two years….

  4. Ryan Harvey
    Dec 3, 2012

    Thanks for this. So far, this is the best post I’ve seen on the topic of Duotrope going paid.

    I am one of the writers who donated; I gave $10 a year for each of the three years I’ve used Duotrope. I’ve been struggling financially for years, but this amount seemed completely appropriate for the use I got out of their services.

    I may try giving $5 a month to see how Duotrope handles this, but I feel that they’ve crunched the numbers wrong—as you’ve said—and it will hurt them. The usefulness of their statistics (one of the best features on the site) will decline. I wouldn’t be surprise if before six months Duotrope either a) ceases to exist entirely; or b) alters the subscription model.

    Either way, as much as I love the service, I simply cannot afford a straight $50 donation at this time—and I doubt most other writers can either.

  5. Spark Editor
    Dec 3, 2012

    We’re one of the fledgling literary markets who benefited from Duotrope; now that submitters know us and we’re not facing any shortage, we’re returning the favor by making a one-year Duotrope subscription one of the rewards for backing our Kickstarter project.

    For $35.

  6. datahore
    Jan 23, 2013

    I think one thing that is upsetting, besides the high price point, is that part of the success of Duotrope was crowdsourcing information, as barg said.

    I donated my submission times and responses to help them accurately portray markets in exchange for access (I also donated from time to time).

    The problem with a $50 price point is that most writers won’t make that in a year selling fiction or poetry and it will be a deterrent for participants, which are needed to keep the database current on times and responses.

    This is where Facebook does it right: the members of Facebook are the product being sold to advertisers. I’m sure there could have been more adverts on Duotrope, especially ones targeting writers. Major publishers, Pro magazines, etc.

    I think the point about newsletters and monetization are key as well. They totally missed the boat on income streams that could have eliminated or lowered costs to the users (who they also mine for information that they plan to sell back to users).

    What they could have done in order to get the best of both words was to keep the database index accessible for free (basically, search by title only) and have the advanced search feature available for the premium. This way, general infrequent users still contribute data points, but the ability to use the search function to comb through the data costs users $2 a month.

    Couple this with adverts and monetizations, and there you go.

  7. Quinn Kit
    Feb 3, 2013

    An insightful and eloquent commentary.

    As you have said: ”the world does not run on free labor, and at some point labors of love fail to pay for the labors of the stomach”. Virtually anything in the world can’t be free, except for the oxygen in the air. And I am not going to keep on carping because the change is irrevocable.

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