Being a Free Online Magazine

I’ve been trying to come up with a good starting point for talking about how Clarkesword Magazine could incorporate some of the wonderful ideas coming out of all the recent talk about magazines and online publishing. I’ve mentioned that we’re pretty happy with the business model, so I thought perhaps explaining some of that would be a good foundation for what comes next.

FREE!

That usually gets some attention. With an online magazine, one of the earliest decisions you have to make centers around this word. Many online magazines, Clarkesworld included, give away all their content for free. Some, like Baen’s Universe, have a free issue online, but you pay for the rest. Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show gives you free non-fiction, but makes you pay for the fiction. If you run down the list of online magazines at Ralan or Duotrope, you’ll find many more magazines and models. There is no right way.

We went the completely free route because we thought it was the best way to get the most eyes on our stories, articles, interviews, and art. With that decision made, our sources of income became limited to:

  • advertising
  • affiliate programs
  • donations
  • sponsorship
  • spinoff projects
Advertising
Everyone hears about how Google and Boing Boing make nice sums of money from online advertising. They are the very rare exception. Advertisers care about the number of pageviews your site gets and it isn’t likely that you’ll get the quantity that will interest them enough to pay you. The numbers I’ve heard from various online magazines just don’t warrant it. Sure, Google will let you put their ads on your site, but the payoff is small and the aesthetic quality is almost non-existant. I decided the trade-off wasn’t worth it. Fourteen issues of Clarkesworld have been published without a single paid ad. However, I do fill the ad space with ads for my businesses and that has contributed to some of our operating costs. (see sponsorship below) Another good use of your ad space is in trade with other magazines for space in theirs.

Affiliate Programs
We’re linking book titles in our author bios and non-fiction to affiliate programs. I don’t expect to see much revenue from these. I consider it more a promotional tool for the authors in our magazine and value-added for the reader. If it makes some money in the process, that’s just great.

Donations
Some magazines make this their primary source of income. Strange Horizons, for example, holds an annual drive for donations. Helix uses its donations like a pooled tip jar for their contributors. Based on editorials and comments from staff members, it seems that the level of giving at both has recently failed to meet their expectations. We take donations and I can tell you that giving levels are quite low.

Sponsorship
This was the model employed by the granddaddy of online genre magazines, SciFiction. SciFi.com paid for everything and then one day they decided to stop. The rest is history. Subterranean Magazine and Fantasy Online are also sponsored sites run respectively by Subterranean Press and Prime Books. It’s very easy to consider these marketing projects for these publishers, just as Clarkesworld has been for Clarkesworld Books and will be for Wyrm Publishing. When the magazine was associated with the bookstore, I saw an significant increase in sales of short fiction (magazines and collections) there and that helped pay for a small portion of the magazine costs.

Spinoff Projects
This is where you can get creative. Through Wyrm Publishing, we’re doing chapbooks and an annual anthology of all the fiction we publish in a year. The thinking here is something for collectors (signed chapbooks) and something for people who prefer paper or just don’t read online fiction (books). Let’s face it, online readers are a subset of readers.  Just as the print magazines should reach out to the online community, the online magazine should reach out to print people in some way.  Intergalactic Medicine Show is also taking this approach with a Tor collection of their stories (anchored by Card’s Ender stories).

Did I miss anything?

All this is nice and fine, but you need to build a community (just like a print magazine needs subscribers) for any of this to work. But that’s for a later post…

10 thoughts on “Being a Free Online Magazine

  1. rakdaddy says:

    Clarkesworld branded schwag. Reselling art prints. And, while it’s not free, having paid subscriptions to see an ad-free version might help later on.

  2. plattcave says:

    You don’t appear to have a newsletter. Monthly newsletters could help to drive traffic, and each issue would be another place to potentially sell ads.

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