Gordon van Gelder from Fantasy and Science Fiction has posted a question in the F&SF blog about free content and its impact on buying habits.
He discusses their current free online experiment (A story from a back issue offered for free each month), and the fact that they did not really set themselves up to measure its effects.
Then he goes on to ask a few questions of the readership about online content.
What his post and questions really brought into focus to me is the fact that a magazine like F&SF or Azimov’s is not a content provider. They are a content distributor, and when the tools of distribution are available to everyone at a very low cost, the need for content distributors goes out the window. It’s not dissimilar to the problem being faced by the music recording industry, except instead of attempting to keep an iron hold on their market, literary outlets seem to be thinking of ways to accept the reality of the situation and make their way in the new world.
Here are some of the barriers that I think print distributors are tripping over as they try to make their way in the virtual world:
- Don’t try to charge me the cover price. You have no printing, warehousing, or mailing costs for your electronic version of the magazine. You are, in fact, gouging me. I don’t like it, and am not likely to pay for it.
- People are not likely to pay if there is equivalent content available for free. This one is tricky, because it’s hard to determine equivalence for something so subjective as fiction. However, when one can get stories from top-flight authors for free, one will be less likely to pay for stories from relative unknowns. There will always be a few, of course. Some people just prefer the feel of paper, or particularly enjoy meeting new talents. But that will become more and more a niche market as the electronic means of distribution improve.
If people don’t want to pay for your content for its own sake, then you should use your content to attract people and then make money from them some other way. I think this is one way that house organs like the Baen Free Library or Tor.com have an advantage. They can use their free offerings to promote their regular authors and intrigue us into buying books. I’ve already got some Charlie Stross on my “next to purchase” list after his story appeared at Tor.com. F&SF doesn’t have that option. They will have to look into a “free and premium” model, or possibly advertising.
- If you don’t have house creators, then you are not the object of interest. F&SF doesn’t have any particular loyalty from me, because I’m more concerned with the person writing the story. I’ll go where the content is, and I won’t agree to pay for an extended period when I don’t know that content I am likely to want is going to come from that direction.
I’m not a business man. I have no idea what the answers to these problems are. All I know is that the public’s attitude toward content of this type is changing, and it’s important for the existing establishment to try to change with it. As for me, I will go on supporting authors whose work I enjoy how and when I can, and being grateful for free offerings from them when I get them.