F&SF survey about paying for online fiction

[Via John Scalzi] Gordon Van Gelder over at Fantasy & Science Fiction is conducting a survey on the subject of paying to read short fiction online.

My own answers, for what they’re worth:

When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?

Not unless the publisher is also the author. Good writing makes me want to read more by that writer. What excites me about a publisher is good publishing.

In the case of print publishing, that means a well-designed, physically pleasing book or magazine, reasonably priced for what it is. Ready availability is also a plus, although Amazon.com and the postal service pretty much have that covered.

In the case of online publishing, what you’re really talking about is a highly specialized library service, and I judge it in much the same way I judge a bricks-and-mortar library. Does it offer stuff I want to read? Is it easy and pleasant to use? Is the price of admission reasonable? This last question is a killer for people hoping to charge a subscription for online magazines, because the “holdings” of an online publication are generally absurdly small. If someone opened a library across the street from your house offering nothing but back issues of F&SF, how much would you pay for a library card?

Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?

If all I want is a hard copy of the story to keep, I’ll fire up my laser printer. If I want a nicely printed copy of the story to keep, then I might buy that particular issue of the magazine, although it’s usually better to wait for the story to appear in a collection of the author’s work.

The only reason to subscribe to the magazine is if I want to collect the magazine, which I almost surely don’t. If I just want to read the magazine I’ll either read it for free online, or buy a copy of the latest issue at the airport to read on a flight and then throw away.

Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free. If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you do so?

No. I’d also point out that in the case of the Hugos, which are voted on by fans, you’d effectively be charging the judges for the privilege of deciding whether to give you a prize. Not a great strategy if you like winning.

Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?

No, the public library system did that. As every library patron knows, the correct price to just read a story—as opposed to owning a physical copy of it—is free.

14 thoughts on “F&SF survey about paying for online fiction”

  1. Your answers are perspicuous, but a comment:

    When you read books in or from a library for free (i.e. a free library where you don’t pay for a membership, as once upon a time you had to do, before Andrew Carnegie came along, or in a library where you can just sit and read for nothing)those books — and magazines — have already been paid for somehow, and some part of that has gone to the writer.

    This doesn’t and shouldn’t change your behavior — you’re not going to force some change on the librarian if you read and liked a story — but it does raise issues for publishers like Gelder. If he promised you free range among all his stories but charged you an initial membership fee — how would that be? Or if his stories were “free” but his site was chock-full of ads and popups, like the New Yorker is now? As Henry James once put it, “There’s no such thing as a free story.”

    1. When James said that he was presumably wearing his author hat and thinking about production costs — oh stupid, stupid novel, that won’t write itself! Readers are more interested in price, and in terms of price, free stories not only exist but are a glut, all the more so for those of us in the business: there’s a stack of books from my British publisher sitting on my office floor right now, and I know I didn’t pay for them.

      If he promised you free range among all his stories but charged you an initial membership fee — how would that be?

      Right now I pay $20 a month for high-speed Internet access. That’s my “membership fee” for the entire World Wide Web, which includes a vast virtual library with more good fiction than I could read in a lifetime. If all Gordon is offering me is access to a tiny, tiny handful of additional stories — even very high-quality ones — I don’t know if there’s a price point that we’d both consider reasonable.

      There are premium services I’m willing to pay for. The one online subscription I do have is to Cook’s Illustrated (I converted from the paper magazine to save shelf space). For $20 a year I get access to fifteen years’ worth of back issues and a searchable database containing thousands of (printable) recipes.

      Another service I would pay for, if I weren’t already getting it free through my Seattle Public Library membership, is the New York Times historical archive, which contains every issue of the paper going back to 1851. Even with the free access, I’d gladly pay for an “upgrade” to a more user-friendly version of the archive. (Whether I’d want to pay what the Times would want to charge is an open question, though.)

      Or if his stories were “free” but his site was chock-full of ads and popups, like the New Yorker is now?

      I just took a quick tour around the New Yorker site, and the ads don’t bother me. I’d say that’s definitely a better way to go, assuming F&SF can generate enough ad revenue to make a profit.

      1. Well I meant the New Yorker in print, actually — I go back far enough to remember those earnest and in fact harrowing articles John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake) and serious fiction surrounded by ads (big) for expensive liquor and jewelry and (small) for Tilleys Endurables and the Poke Boat. It made you think, though maybe not much, and the website not so much.

        Otherwise I see that you are right, which leaves Gordon in a dilemma from which there’s no escape except to retrain as an IT guy or software engineer and upload his favorite stories for free. (The writers will have to give the digital rights to him for free too — right?)

        1. Or they’ll sell first electronic rights to Strange Horizons, which is donation-supported on the NPR model. Or Baen Universe, which is a loss leader for Baen’s book business. Or Fantasy Magazine, which keeps going… however it is Sean Wallace manages to keep things going.

          1. Fantasy Magazine: a loss-leader for Prime Books, but only a little bit, since it’s allocated as a marketing expense, just like Baen’s Universe, Subterranean Magazine, and others.

        2. Well, as David notes, there are online markets that pay authors for electronic rights, don’t charge readers for access, and still, somehow, manage to stay solvent long enough to give tradition-bound publishers fits. So workable business models do exist, and I’m optimistic that clever people who care about writers being able to get paid will come up with more of them.

      2. Yeah, I’d pay for access to JSTOR. Damn educational institutions with all their special privileges…

  2. As Matt said: “If someone opened a library across the street from your house offering nothing but back issues of F&SF, how much would you pay for a library card?” The answer most people would give appears to be: “Not much.”

    Where exactly did Henry James say that?

  3. On the other hand, you’re willing pay a Netflix fee even though you don’t get to keep copies of the movies. You’re paying just to watch, not to own.

    There are plenty of reasons, of course, that we never developed a public library system for movies the way we did for books. As a result, people have been much more willing to pay for viewing privileges than they are for reading privileges. The internet is changing that, too, though.

    1. Actually, some public libraries do offer DVDs and CDs now. The library in Warren, Michigan near my aunt and uncle’s place even lends software disks.

      More to the point, Netflix is a (private) library — I don’t pay to rent individual titles, I pay for access to everything they’ve got. Blockbuster offers a similar deal, and they let you return and pick up movies directly at their stores so you don’t have to wait for the mail. The only pay-per-title video rental place I use anymore is Scarecrow Video, because they’ve got rare items that Netflix and Blockbuster don’t carry.

      Movies may not have started with a library system, but competition and advances in technology have led to the development of one. Rhapsody and other similar services have done the same thing for music.

      1. Yes, lots of public libraries do offer videos, but never enough that people thought the idea of video rental stores was unreasonable. For decades, people were perfectly willing to pay just to watch, not to own, and they did so on an individual title basis. So it’s not that, as a general principle, people insist on owning a physical copy before they’re willing to pay for entertainment; it’s just a matter of what they’re accustomed to. They’re used to getting books for free, but not movies.

        1. Libraries used to charge too

          To support your “it’s just a matter of what they’re accustomed to”: up until around 1850, many or most libraries in the US charged fees to borrow books; see The Straight Dope’s How did public libraries get started?. (If I had more time to devote to this, I would enhance the Wikipedia article on libraries with info from there; Wikipedia’s article is missing some key material.)

          The web has gotten people used to being able to read anything online for free. The only payment-required website that I know of that’s actually making a profit is still the Wall Street Journal online.

          Remains to be seen whether other sites (like Baen’s Universe and Card’s IGMS) can make it work longterm; I would love to see them succeed, but I think it’ll only happen if people become used to the idea of paying for content online. And I don’t know how likely that is. Especially given that the advertising model (everything’s free but there are ads) has made a big comeback in recent years, after a few years when I thought it had failed.

        2. Sure, but the long-term trend does seem to be towards offering cheaper and broader access to all kinds of media, as technology makes that feasible. I don’t think a la carte pricing schemes are going to disappear entirely, but I do think there’s going to be more competition from services that let you pay one fee for a huge library of stuff — and a corresponding pressure to provide something extra with the a la carte items (not necessarily a physical copy, but something to convince customers they’re getting value for their money).

          One other point worth considering about reading is that unlike movie-watching, it’s a technical skill. You can’t have a mass market in literature without mass literacy, and mass literacy requires, I would think, that reading (and writing) materials be kept cheap. So at least in this one case it may be inevitable that we are accustomed to paying little or nothing.

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