The Duotrope Conundrum

If you’re a working writer who actively submits short stories to markets for publication, one of the most useful sites on the Internet for you is Duotrope.com

Duotrope collects and displays information about markets. Let’s say you wrote a 5000 word epic fantasy story and want to sell it for at least 5c a word. Using their search function you can quickly generate a list of markets that accept stories at that length and pay pro rates, and are open to submissions. You can then sort them by average response time, or even by perceived difficulty of the market (i.e. what % of reported submissions has been accepted).

Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I love stats. As such, it’s no surprise that I really enjoy DT. So much so that I have donated money to help defray their costs last year, and was going to donate again in December (when I will be supporting several worthy writing-related sites with my dough).

But this morning I woke up to learn that Duotrope will no longer be a free site. Furthermore, they’re asking for a whopping $50 a year (or $5 a month) for their services. And while I was happy to give them $20 a year when I didn’t have to, I won’t pay $50. Here’s why:

Duotrope does three things that are relevant to me:

1) Track submissions.

I’m able to see all my active submissions at a glance and quickly pull up my submission history for that particular market.

Pro: Ease of use
Con: Only marginally better than an Excel spreadsheet. In fact, I use both. Partly because I want access to my data on my local hard drive and partly because while DT lists MOST markets, it doesn’t list ALL markets I submit to, such as private anthologies, invitation-only projects, etc. There are also other programs and web sites I can use if I ever felt that Excel was’t sufficient.

2) Track new markets.

DT lists dozens of new markets every week. Many of them are useless (to me) no-pay sites read by the editor, his mom, and maybe 15 other people per month. However, it does list all the pro and semi-pro start-ups as well, and makes it easy to find them.

Pro: Ease of use, very thorough.
Con: There are other sites out there that track new markets. Most notably, Ralan.com which has been around longer than Duotrope, specializes in speculative markets, and often posts new market info before DT has it. Their site isn’t pretty to look at, but it gets the job done.

3) Wiki-fy the submission process.

What makes DT really, really good is its volume of users who are willing to report their rejections and acceptances. Say I have a story on submission at Daily Science Fiction. A quick look at DT’s recent reports lets me know where the editors are in their slushing process. Are they responding to submissions in about 2 weeks, or should I expect to wait 3? Hundreds of DT users reporting their subs provides a very useful and relatively accurate snapshot of the slush status at various markets.

Pro: Amazing at helping users track the slush habits of various markets/editors.
Con: Only works if enough users are reporting their data.

And therein lies a problem. With Duotrope being a free service, about 10-20% of all submissions are reported there (as per my experience comparing actual slush numbers at UFO with what’s been reported there, as well as talking to other editors.)

Once DT becomes a paid service, a vast majority of their users will leave. They will no longer report  their submissions, which will make the DT system far less accurate. A critical mass of users is needed in order to maintain the usefulness of a Wiki-style site, and I don’t feel that DT will be capable of holding on to nearly enough people at their proposed rates.

I am not mad at the DT folks. It’s their web site and they can do whatever they want. We writers certainly shouldn’t expect them to operate at a loss for our benefit.

However, I feel that they’re making a very poor decision from a business standpoint. $50 is a lot to pay for a web site subscription. And anyway, can you think of many *successful* Wiki-style sites that charge for membership? the only one I can think of that remotely qualifies is Angie’s list.

By charging these rates, DT is likely to cause a downward spiral whereas even those users who’re willing to fork over $50 won’t be happy, because DT will no longer have the critical mass necessary to provide those paid users with a meaningful service.

So what could Duotrope do to raise funds? There’s no silver bullet, but there are a number of options to pursue:

* Lower rates. Personally I’d pay $20/year. Even at the risk of much worse results, I would fork over a $20 bill just to help them with the experiment and see if DT could sustain itself as a useful service. $2 a month or so is an amount a lot of users might actually pay.

* Charge markets a small annual fee to list them. Once again, I wouldn’t fork over $50 as a publisher, but I’d pay $10 a year or something to that tune in order to have UFO Publishing listed on Duotrope. Obviously having too many markets unwilling to pay would ruin the service, but DT could still offer some data about the other listings with “premium” markets offering a greater level of detail.

* Sell advertising. I’m guessing that plenty of fledgling markets would fork over some money in order to have their banner ad appear at the top of the DT listing.

There’s no perfect solution and someone will be unhappy regardless. But I mourn the end of the Duotrope era as we know it and hope that they will either reevaluate their 2013 strategy or someone else will step up and design a free-to-use bare-bone Wiki site to help accurately track response times.

 

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12 Responses to The Duotrope Conundrum

  1. David Sklar says:

    Another option is to offer services a la carte. I’ve never used their tracking service, and I can do with or without the reply statistics but I’d gladly pay $2 a month for access to the database and the weekly newsletters.

  2. Fran Wilde says:

    (writing this on my phone, so caveat emptor) Alex, I think your final point is the most pressing – user input for statistics is part of Duotrope’s overriding value and a main traffic driver. I am concerned about the quality of their stats if their market/content providers splits town en masse.

    This is true of many socially driven services, actually. But Duotrope’s platform is especially sweet and I’d hate to see it go.

    And there’s the other half of the problem. From a programming standpoint, as well as supporting the IT infrastructure, popularity increases expense. And we’ve all seen the notices. Donations weren’t covering expenses. Even with the donated services of the talented programmers. The best interfaces are invisible. Unfortunately, that translates into a feeling that they grew naturally, and thy the people behind these interfaces are so l33t that they don’t need to eat or pay electric bills.

    I don’t know what the solution is here, but I hope there’s a middle ground. I hope Duotrope’s done a market study to discover what is survivable.

    I know I’ll continue to support them, as they’ve helped me in numerous ways, visible and invisible, as I find my way as a writer. I hope that they can find their way too.

  3. Alex Shvartsman says:

    Another point I neglected to include in this post: How does DT’s $50/year charge compare to what its average user earns from their short fiction sales? I earned about $1000 in 2011 and will likely earn a similar amount in 2012, so $50 would be 5% of my writing income.

    Agents collect 10% of your sales in exchange for their services, and DT can SORT OF make an argument that they’re acting as your short fiction agent. But how many DT users earn even $500/year from fiction sales?

  4. Colum Paget says:

    I salute you for donating to them, (I do too) but I have to say that I don’t think there’s any price at which DT will be viable. $50 dollars a year isn’t whopping, it’s less than a dollar a week. That’s less than a cup of coffee in a cafe, less than the cover price of most magazines, a packet of fags, a bottle of beer. If people aren’t prepared to pay the price of a cup of coffee, then they’re not going to be prepared to pay any price. Duotrope’s model was always unsound, because it provides a service that people fundamentally do not want to pay for.

    Their best hope would be ads, but I imagine they’ve covered that option already. This is their last gamble. They can’t continue running at a loss, if this doesn’t work then there was never any workable model under which to provide the service. People want the product, but if they’re not prepared to pay the price of a cup of coffee for it, then it’s not a product that can really be provided.

    Colum

    • Alex Shvartsman says:

      Colum,

      I understand your point, but the cup-of-coffee comparison isn’t exactly fair, either. It’s important to remember how cash-poor short fiction “business” is overall. 5c/word being pro rates and writers willing to give up 10 hours of labor in exchange for $50-100 reimbursement for a story makes $50 feel a lot more than “for a price of a cup of coffee a day” comparison would suggest.

      There are tons of us on social media willing to pay $10-20 but not $50, and while DT would lose a number of subscribers at ANY price point that isn’t zero, I think there would be a very noticeable difference between consumer flight at $20 and $50.

      One idea DT should have explored is Kickstarter. I suspect they would have raised more money via KS than they’ll generate at $50 a shot over the course of a year.

  5. I’ll add my voice to those willing to pay $20 (the amount I contribute to it per year already) but not $50. I’ve certainly never made $500 per year with short fiction. Duotrope will be painful to give up, but I just might have to.

  6. As I’ve been saying over on Twitter, the service Duotrope provides is easily worth $20 (maybe even $50) a year to me (as both a writer and a small-press fiction market), but I’m not going to subscribe at either rate because the value of Duotrope is in the size of its user base (which will plummet) and the fact that it’s open, easily discoverable and freely available to poorer writers and smaller markets. The sort of service that Duotrope provides (which is 100x as good as something like Ralan) needs to be free at point of use. I’d tolerate advertizing (I’d even pay to avertize with them); I’d support a Kickstarter or a fundraising raffle of the kind that Apex and Clarkesworld have run for years (to the tune of more than $50 worth of prizes/rewards plus donation) if that would help to keep it open, because that’s more important to me than just my personal use of it.

  7. pattyjansen says:

    I totally agree with you. I haven’t submitted any short fiction for a long time, but when I did, I donated $20 a year. One thing that irked me about Duotrope was the anonymousness of its webmasters, and the fact that they never stated how much money they actually *need* to run the site.

    I also think that they could take a leaf out of the book of the ebook blog sites and open up for advertising by anyone afiliated with creative writing and genre. There is no money in magazines, but there is money in games, in books and related genre stuff.

    IMO this change is stupid and will kill Duotrope.

  8. simonkewin says:

    I hadn’t heard that. $20 a year does feel about right – $50 feels like too much for me, too, as I do my own tracking and, I must admit, rarely look at the stats. I just find places to submit to using Duotrope. Shame.

  9. My plan–make a spreadsheet of all my favorite Duotrope listings before the pay wall goes up T-T

  10. Will says:

    Duotrope won’t last long if they do go through with this and start charging, I guarantee it. People will find other places to go for their searches.

  11. I seem to be among the few that disagree. That is, I agree with pretty much everyone that $20 is the natural price point – that’s what I was donating before. And I agree with Alex’s concern that Duotrope’s statistics are about to lose a whole lot of value. But I’m signing on at the $50/year rate. I’ve found that Duotrope is much more useful and efficient than my home-grown Excel and Access solutions were.

    So, $50 is steep, and I could be tempted away, but for now, I’m sticking with Duotrope.

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