Andrew Sullivan Goes Indie (Again)

There’s some excitement and/or consternation on the Internets in the last day or so regarding writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan’s decision to go indie with his blog, taking it from the confines of The Daily Beast, where it had resided for the last couple of years (with The Atlantic’s site being its home prior to that, and — memory starts getting hazy here — Time’s site its home before that) and testing the waters of a $19.95 subscription fee. As I understand it, everyone will be able to view the site’s front page, but if the post continues past the front page, you’ll need a subscription after the first few hits.

As an example of how everything old is new again, in December 2002 I wrote this about Andrew Sullivan doing a fund drive on his site and asking readers to support him to the tune of — you guessed it — $20:

Sullivan held a pledge week for his blog last week, saying in essence that if a certain small percentage (1% or so) of his readership didn’t kick in $20 a year, he’d roll up his blog and go back to writing articles for people who actually paid him money. Apparently the threat worked, since Sullivan is going to announce later this week that he’s cleared enough in contributions to keep his blog going.

A number of anti-Sullivan types have gotten themselves into a tizzy about this, but I’m really hard-pressed to see why. Like Sullivan, I’m a professional writer; I get paid to write. Therefore I can’t see what possible reason one should have against a writer getting paid. Sullivan’s had the benefit of seeing how other various revenue models have worked online, and he’s trying one that allows maximum choice for the readers and doesn’t require every single reader to consider paying.

So if people want to voluntarily pay Sullivan money, why should anyone else care? His not-so-subtle threat that he’d pull the plug might have seemed unseemly to some, but if the man doesn’t get paid for his writing, he doesn’t eat. If he can get some portion his audience to support the blog he enjoys writing and they enjoy reading, more power to him.

Having said that, I don’t think the average Joe Blogger should start thinking that Andrew Sullivan’s success extracting cash from readers is going to translate to a blogoverse-wide rain of money. Very few bloggers have Sullivan’s audience, and even he is smart enough to realize that he’s lucky if he gets 1% of his audience to chip in. 1% of most bloggers’ audience comes to a few dozen people, and most people aren’t going to be able to suggest a recommended contribution of $20 like Sullivan has. There’s also the matter of content — i.e., whether people have content that’s worth supporting with cash. No offense, but most don’t.

Pretty much everything I said then still applies now. Sullivan’s been canny in watching how others have leveraged online success into revenue; he’s not shy about the fact this is his living; I suspect he’s going to be at least initially successful in his quest to pay for the site through subscriptions; the number of blog sites which could follow his example is very low indeed. What has changed in the decade since I wrote that piece is mostly the dynamic of Sullivan’s notoriety — these days he is in fact primarily known for The Daily Dish whereas a decade ago he was still best known for books and magazine articles — and the size of his audience.

There may also be a deeper understanding by the sort of people who follow Sullivan’s site (and sites like it, such as Talking Points Memo, which also recently opened itself up for subscriptions) that money does in fact have to come from somewhere in order to make these sites work. The Daily Dish has seven employees as I understand it, so it’s not just Sullivan who needs to eat here; it’s everyone else too. Sullivan pulls in a fair number of reasonably well-off people, relatively speaking; what he’s asking for is below an important psychological barrier for pricing (many of his readers pay $20 a day on coffee and lunch; it’s not a lot); and the fact that he’s spent years establishing a community and keeping his core group small I suspect will probably work to his advantage. He’s the online equivalent of the mom & pop store, if your mom & pop store dispensed punditry instead of baked goods. Or perhaps the better metaphor would be that he’s an artisanal pundit, and thus able to command a higher price for his handcrafted opinions from his select clientele.

As noted, I expect him to be reasonably successful at least in the short term — the real question will be whether the subscription base grows in the second and subsequent years. If it doesn’t, I don’t expect Sullivan to be terribly romantic about it; he’s got to eat, remember. Be that as it may, I hope he’s successful, because I enjoy his writing. And yes, I ponied up the $19.95 (plus a smidgen extra) for the next year.

To anticipate the question of whether I would/should/could do something like this, my short answer is that even if I could – a proposition I consider questionable for a number of reasons — I would prefer not to. Among other things it requires keeping track of subscriptions and handling customer service issues and doing all sorts of other stuff that I already know I would rather drag my tongue across a razor than to do. If I were hard up for cash I would probably put advertising up on the site before I did a subscription scheme. But I would be far more likely just to write something and put it up for sale; that seems to me to be the easier and more effective route for me.

Basically, if I were you I wouldn’t be waiting up nights for me to announce Whatever as a subscription site. I don’t imagine any of you will actually be disappointed by this.

Update, 2:33pm: Sullivan reports raising $300k+ in 24 hours with 12k subscribers so far. Details here.

37 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan Goes Indie (Again)

  1. This is interesting. There are a couple of podcasts that I make monthly payments to, even though I can access them for free, because I enjoy the content. In both cases, they are around $3 a month, which I kick in without hesitation. The yearly total is therefore $36, yet, when I saw the subscription amount for Sullivan’s blog my first thought was “Woah! Twenty bucks?”

  2. IIRC Sully held his fundraiser then went on vacation and then promptly moved over to The Atlantic when he got back. That was, to me, too much. I’ve not been back since.

  3. I think $20 is a sticker shock.

    As for Whatever, I’d be very surprised if you went that route just because I thought that for all practical purposes you had already monetized it by using the platform to leverage book sales.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing, that he’s doing, either. I just don’t know that he’s chosen the right method to do so. But, time will tell.

  4. I think the subscription model is better than the ad model because you could probably farm out your customer service with subscriptions but would to have to deal with advertisers on a more personal level. Not to mention an advertisers potential objection to your content.

  5. I regularly donate to a few blogs, subscribe to a few webcomics, and have a low barrier to chipping in when someone has a funding drive (often for the cost of keeping the site up or for medical expenses). 20 dollars is about what I can give without thinking about it. (Two lunches or one dinner out.)

    That said, I wouldn’t pay for a blog that was subscription only. I like my contributions voluntary.

  6. I don’t see the appeal of paying to read one writers ‘s column. A novelist, sure, but a commentator or critic? Seems silly. Guess that defines me as ‘not his audience.’ :)

  7. You already have advertising on your site; you plug your books. Granted, it’s not the traditional banner ad business model. Still, I expect you could write off your hosting costs as promotional expenses. Also, you periodically bundle up blog posts and sell those as books. You have a viable business model for your blog, and there’s little need for you to wring more money out of it, especially if the means you would use (ads, subscriptions) would undermine the effectiveness of the existing business model (promotion). One possible low-key means of generating a little more revenue would be a PayPal tip jar, for anyone who feels especially motivated to throw money in your direction, but it might be worth the cost in terms of your dignity; busking is more traditional for musicians than for writers.

  8. Whatever is the gateway drug to your harder work for a lot of people. It probably works the reverse way as well, of course.

    Bottom line: if you want to charge you have to have REALLY good content, and that’s rare. (I didn’t mean to insinuate that the content of Whatever isn’t good, because it is, but that you aren’t spending the vast majority of your professional time on it, which is what it would probably take to make people pony up cash for it.)

  9. I wonder how the subscription model affects comment moderation? I have never looked at Sullivan’s blog, but if he allows comments, and has the equivalent of the MoLC, how would the fact that his commentors paid for that access affect it’s use?

  10. Kevin Hicks, he doesn’t, but he does occasionally pass on letters he receives. It would be interesting to see if subscribers turn out to be republished more often, but there’s no good way for us to know.

  11. Hey, if he’s good enough then he’ll get it. I pay 50 dollars a year for my GiantBomb membership, and before that I’d never have guessed that I would shell out money for a website.

  12. Good for him, if it works out. I don’t know who he is (although the name sounds vaguely familiar), but if he has the customer base willing to pay (as it seems he does), then good for him for working out a method that pays him a good wage for his work.

    Frankly, I’d rather pay a certain amount per year or per month for content than have to put up with adverts, but I freely admit I can afford it. There are a couple of blogs/forums that have yearly/monthly subscriptions that I value highly and am more than happy to pay for. They are all specialized fields, though, so I can see how a more general blog or forum, or one that is one of many on a particular subject, would not be able to leverage that into subscription fees.

    Personally, I really like the “donations” button that a lot of blogs have. When I find something really useful/interesting on a blog, I like to be able to compensate the author for his or her work.

  13. I’ve always enjoyed Sully’s take on things, even when I don’t agree with him, so chipped in. I also contributed to TPMPrime for much the same reason, and a few other sites (some with mandatory subscriptions, some with voluntary or “tip jar”-style donation mechanisms). The $50/year for TPM is far and away the largest single membership – most are $10-$20 or so, which includes a few Kickstarters.

    Interestingly, I added up my annual contributions of that sort for last year, and with the $25 for Mr. Sullivan, I am at $310. The interesting part is that I do not currently subscribe to a physical newspaper (and my current hometown paper would set me back $18.85/month, so I guess that I could argue that I am merely re-purposed my physical info/entertainment budget of $225 to digital sources).

    I have no reservations at all about financially contributing for content I enjoy – that’s typically how the creators get to generate more content, after all.

  14. I’d be curious how this mandatory model for content works over voluntary contributions. Thinking along the lines of a Humble Bundle program which asks people to spend both what they can afford as well as how much people think something is worth.

  15. Just a nit. Technically, notoriety is being famous for disrepute, ill-repute, shame, or infamy. The synonyms for notorious include infamous, egregious, outrageous, arrant, flagrant, and disreputable. There are times, however, when notoriety and notorious are used pejoratively, i.e., disparagingly. But for the most part, I think Andrew Sullivan’s intellectual renown, as one of our most thoughtful pundits, hardly merits a notorious description. Nor will his $19.95 fee reduce him to the lower rungs of notoriety.

  16. It will be interesting to see how this works in the long run. One estimate I saw said that he would need more than $500K per year to maintain his current staff levels. That’s a lot to raise on a yearly basis through subscriptions, especially since subscribers tend to be fickle at best. I guess this was bound to happen. While a free internet is nice in theory, over the long haul it’s just not sustainable. That said, I don’t really like this model. I would much rather pay to read specific articles rather than pay a fee for an entire website (a la the New York Times), but I would support specific stories and writers for a small fee per article.

  17. I gave up on his blog a long time ago because, like a lot of other sites, it has TOO much content. The only blogs I subscribe to that are in that category are Lifehacker, the Guardian, and the International Atlantic feed, and I’ve figured out how to handle them. Back when I read the Daily Dish, he allowed no comments, so it wasn’t like a blog–it was like a newspaper. You had to email them if you wanted to “interact.”

  18. @Judy – Most of those synonyms have been applied to Sully by people from just about every corner of the political spectrum at one point or another. He is more known for his emotional cliff jumps than he is for his more thoughtful posts. Not to mention his support and defense of The Bell Curve.

    As to charging $20 a year? If he can get enough people to pay, more power to him.

  19. @ Judy Linklater:

    I’m guessing that Andrew would embrace at least some of those synonyms, and possibly “notorious” itself as well.

  20. @Kevin: The yearly total is therefore $36, yet, when I saw the subscription amount for Sullivan’s blog my first thought was “Woah! Twenty bucks?”

    I was thinking the same thing. My first reaction when I read this news was “I occasionally enjoy reading Sullivan (despite his weird preoccupation with Sarah and Bristol Palin’s whelping histories), but I don’t know that I’d pay 20 bucks to read him.” But then I parceled it out over months, and said “hmmmm, I might pay that.” Odd, really.

    I wonder if charging by the month would get more readers. I wonder if the increase in readership would justify the added administrative costs (f any). Any readers who are more ‘net savvy than I feel like chiming in on this?

  21. A recurring monthly payment has the problem of having to handle approximately twelve times as many transactions a year. The main problem with micropayments (which PayPal defines as anything under $12. I remember when they were going to be less than a dollar or even a fraction of a cent) is the cost of processing the transactions.

  22. @Jack Lint – the payments issue is where apps come in. A technology blogger I read and whose product I use (Marco Arment who makes Instapaper) recently launched The Magazine. It’s a very minimal, nicely done magazine… but it’s an iOS app. This means that it can live inside the Newstand folder on iPhone, iPads and iPods and Apple’s infrastructure deals with pushing new issues, recurring subscriptions, etc.

    Likewise, ads can be done nicely… See John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog or Marco’s Marco.org. Both use a single noticeable but unobstrusive ad via The Deck. The Deck’s standard rate is $8600/week for a single site ad. That’s a gross of $34,400 per month or a bit over $400k/year. If the site gets 70% of that it’s around $290k/year net.

  23. I kick in $10 a month each to Firedoglake and Smirking Chimp. I prolly should, at the very least, hit the tip jar at a few more sites. If forced to, I would contribute to read Whatever, but glad it’s not necessary. I’m surprised you don’t have a tip jar. You’re at least as important as a barista at a Starbucks…and less filling.

  24. stoicjim:

    “I’m surprised you don’t have a tip jar.”

    I really don’t need the money and don’t see the need to ask for money here if I don’t.

  25. What’s that line from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” about if you don’t make them pay, they won’t know what it’s worth. (haha) Nah, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy it. Thanks.

  26. Sully turned out to be an exceptional news *aggregator* for a progressive political moderate like myself – I get a better one-stop scan on the current events that I care about (and a better introduction to the state of the debate) through his portal than anywhere else. His minions save me slogging through all the relevant newspapers and blogs myself – and (generally) I am insulated from the barking idiocies of the “fully” left wing portals like huffpo or the pop culture inanities littering msn, yahoo, etc. $2 per month for that kind of streamlining is eminently worthwhile – even if you are lukewarm on some of his punditry. Don’t get me started on his Sunday edition…

  27. I appreciate the few free hits. It’s frustrating when someone links an article on a site I don’t read and I run into a paywall. I would expect a rigid paywall to greatly teduce the odds of a post going viral.

  28. While I don’t always agree with his political positions, I enjoy Sullivan’s writing. He’s the sort of rational conservative that actually makes you think about his arguments rather than breathing fire from a pulpit. Would that the Right had more like him…

  29. I question whether $20 is an amount most people will willingly pay for something they previously received for free. Not because $20 is a huge sum of money but because people are generally illogical.

    We don’t compare the experience of paying $20 to read a blog with our coffee and lunch. We compare it with reading on the internet. In a stretch, we might compare it to a magazine subscription, in which case it’s a fairly good deal, but that won’t be the first comparison.

    In order to maintain the impact of his blog he has to maintain a certain level of readership. The $20 is going to hurt him in the long run. It will lower his current readers, make it harder to attract new ones and more likely to lose current subscribers when the next payment is due.

    I would have chosen a smaller dollar amount like $5 and perhaps made the archive available for free after 3 or 6 months.

  30. @Scalzi: “I really don’t need the money and don’t see the need to ask for money here if I don’t.”

    I find this to be one of the most interesting things about you John. You are very Un-American with your deficient greed gene. Where do you think that comes from?

  31. itsathought:

    “I question whether $20 is an amount most people will willingly pay for something they previously received for free.”

    It’s not a question of “most people,” however; just a sufficient number of the sort of reader Andrew Sullivan attracts.

    JustMe:

    I don’t know that it’s a question of greed for me as much as obligation; primarily, that if I make Whatever directly about money, then it becomes a job, and that changes the dynamic of how I view it and how others view it as well. But otherwise, yeah. I like money just fine, and I like making a lot of it. But not everything in life has to be about money.

  32. >>>these days he is in fact primarily known for The Daily Dish

    These days he is in fact primarily known for his obsession with Sarah Palin’s uterus, at least outside the MSM who like to claim he is “conservative”.

    While I don’t read him anymore, I do like this model so I think I’m going to contribute $25 anyway. I can think he’s turned into a raving loon yet still admire the courage he’s showing here in trying this. I’d like to see him succeed enough to prove out the feasibility of this revenue model.

  33. Whatever is also a superlative marketing device, so the value you receive from building a readership to the “free” content of your site, permits you a nice, targeted marketing reach and traffic level that most authors and journalists for that matter, would envy.

    Having the Whatever behind some kind of paywall or shilling endlessly for tips would probably reduce its effectiveness.

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