My Take on the Duotrope Situation

Last night, I was just doing my pre-bed internet check (“Maybe some good publication news will happen in the wee hours of the night!” I’m just as neurotic as the next writer) when I saw Duotrope’s announcement that, starting January 1st, they were going to become a pay-only site.

Like all of Duotrope’s users, I’ve seen the subtle reminders each time I’ve visited the website, begging for enough money to stay afloat. HELP KEEP DUOTROPE FREE, it said. Well. Only 10% of the site’s many users ever contributed anything, and they haven’t met a monthly financial goal since 2007. So now this incredibly valuable and useful service–the best of its kind on the web, in my opinion–is going to be charging $5 per month ($50 for an annual subscription) in order to use their incredible trove of statistics and listings and many useful tools.

When I saw the announcement, I had two immediate thoughts: “Good, I’m glad. They deserve to charge.” And: “I’m going to wake up to a shitstorm of drama in the morning.”

Since last night, there has been SO MUCH hang-wringing on Twitter and Facebook about how awful this is. How dare Duotrope charge money for their service? Doesn’t anyone know that writers don’t make any money? There have also been many dramatic pronouncements about ART, how dare they in any way associate money with ART, thanks Duotrope, now I’ll never be a writer, etc. etc..

Forgive my bluntness, but this is all horseshit. For several reasons.

  1. Just because something is associated with art, doesn’t mean that it’s free. Painters have to pay for brushes and canvasses and paint. Studio space costs money. Writers gotta type up their work on a computer and (in some cases) print it out and put it in the mail. Graphic artists need computers and expensive software. Photographers need cameras, lenses. Art costs money. Someone on last night’s Facebook thread about the announcement asked the folks who were protesting the pay move and making lofty statements about the purity of art that if they received a check for an accepted story, would they tear it up out of devotion to that purity? Of course not. And it’s especially ridiculous because…
  2. Duotrope is a service of convenience, not access. If you can’t afford the monthly subscription, yeah, there’s gonna be more legwork when it comes to searching for publications, but it’s not as if you can no longer write, or no longer submit to those magazines, or no longer keep a record of where you’ve submitted to. It’s called “the internet.” It’s called “a spreadsheet.” Think about grocery delivery services. It’s really convenient to have food for the week show up at your doorstep, but the fact that places charge for that service doesn’t mean that you can’t eat. It just means that, if you don’t want to shell out for the service, you’re going to have to go to the store yourself. If you can’t afford to keep using Duotrope after the 1st, then you’ve got to learn how to utilize any other number of amazingly free resources–Twitter, Facebook, Google–to find out about places that take the kind of stuff you’re writing, aka “research.” Think of every novelist’s favorite piece of software, Scrivener. It’s not necessary to write a book, but it’s damn useful. And guess what? Someone had to make it, and someone is constantly improving it, and they have operating costs, and so yeah, it costs money. (As for Duotrope’s submissions tracker: learn to use an Excel spreadsheet. Or, if you don’t have Microsoft Office, you can make a spreadsheet on Google, for free.)
  3. If the thing standing between you and being a writer/poet/etc. is Duotrope, then you will never be any of those things. Writers existed before Duotrope and they will exist after.
  4. $5 per month is incredibly reasonable.
  5. We’re lucky it’s been free for this long.

People have also been suggesting–and I’ve seen a petition floating around to this effect–that publications should take the brunt of the operating costs, not the users of the site. I think this is shortsighted for a few reasons.

  1. Some publications are going to want to support Duotrope, but others are not. There was some Twitter chatter this morning from smaller journals, who were talking about how Duotrope increases the size of their slushpile and for that they are grateful. And that’s good–for some. But there are plenty of publications–larger ones, the ones with year+ response times because their level of notoriety–for whom this paywall will be a boon. Readers who have read and know about their magazine will submit to them, readers who don’t, won’t, and there’s gonna be way less time and effort digging through that pile. (There’s a reason that some magazines, like n+1, chose to have their stats pulled from the site.) So what reason would they have to contribute? And if those large magazines refuse to contribute to Duotrope, what then? Would Duotrope remove their listings, out of spite? Wouldn’t that make the site less functional?
  2. The problem is that everyone is assuming that Duotrope is useful to journals, but they have it backwards. Sure, it’s useful to some journals, but it’s useful to all of its writers.
  3. If only the smaller journals subsidize Duotrope, that money still comes out of the pockets of artists. If those small journals operate on no budget, then the editors of those publications are going to shell out as much money as it will cost for a journal Duotrope-subscription (which would be, to cover the same financial needs, a significantly higher amount than distributed among many more users)–out of their own pockets. Is that fair? Is that right? If they pay, are they going to pay their writers less? Increase the costs of subscriptions, which is also money that comes out of the pockets of writers and readers? The point is, the money has to come from somewhere, so it might as well come from the people who use the service.

And yes, I know. $50 in one shot is a chunk of money. And yes, to some, $5 a month is a lot of money. But this is a service that you use. It is a convenience that, until now, has been free. Just because the people–the same people who built this amazing tool, who have been operating at a loss for over five years, who have been doing nothing except gently asking people to contribute something, anything–are no longer capable of such generosity does not mean that the sky is falling or literature/art is dead or they’re greedy bastards. It just means that they can’t do it the old way anymore, and now we no longer have the option of paying–if we want to use it, we’ve got to pay for it. Period.

This is not to say that there’s no room for compromise. Among the better suggestions that I’ve seen floating around today:

  1. Some kind of tiered system, with different levels of access for different prices.
  2. Student discounts.
  3. A free trial system, like Scrivner, so you can sample the website without having to commit immediately.
  4. One-day passes for a few bucks that let people who use it only a few times a year. (Though, they would be benefiting from Duotrope’s constant accrual of data, so I have my reservations about this point.)
  5. One I was thinking about today: group accounts. (Not for submission trackers, of course, but say, XYZ MFA Program/ABC Writing Center/etc. can have an account that all of its students/members can access while they’re affiliated with the institution?)
  6. A one-time discount for the 10% of users who have actually donated to Duotrope over the years, as a thank-you.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m also a writer, also very poor. I’m not excited to pay $50 on January 1st, any more than I was excited to shell out what felt like approximately sixty bajillion dollars in fellowship/grant application fees in the last few months (which, unlike this, actually is an issue where money can be a barrier to application). But $5 a month is an incredibly reasonable price for the wealth of tools and resources that is Duotrope. If you’re a writer, and you’re serious about your writing, and the idea of going without Duotrope is too much to bear, then make it work. Give up a cup of coffee or two a month. Ask for a subscription for a holiday or a birthday. Do a small fundraiser among your readers. Spend the time you save by using Duotrope instead of other methods of research doing tasks on Mechanical Turk until you earn $5 for the month.

And keep making art, because damn, the world is generally going to hell, and we really need it.

6 thoughts on “My Take on the Duotrope Situation

  1. Lorna D. Keach

    Hear, hear! Thank you for voicing your support for a writer’s service that is well worth the price. I especially like the idea of the discount for frequent donors, cuz I’ve already given them piles of my money. (Willingly, of course!)

  2. Bob

    This post doesn’t confront the less users = less reliable stats issue, which has actually been the main thrust of criticism on social media. You are welcome to argue that $50 a year is ‘incredibly reasonable’ but that is obviously completely subjective and reliant on an individual’s budget. For most commentators it obviously is too much. And here’s the real problem: The accuracy and value of Duotrope is reliant on a large and active userbase. Less people reporting submissions and responses and journal updates means that everything Duotrope reports is less reliable. It doesn’t matter if you agree with people not paying or not, I think it is clear that most will not pay. So the debate unfortunately is not ‘is Duotrope as I know it worth $50 a year’. The debate is ‘will Duotrope with far less users and data be worth $50 a year’.

    Your list of compromises is sound. Ultimately however, the lifeblood of Duotrope is data that writers submit to the site. They can and probably should offer tiers that restrict access to various statistics, but if free users cannot report submissions and responses (and have a motivation for doing so), Duotrope cannot be the service it was. Subscribers will be paying far more for far less. You can bet that an alternative option with a smarter approach to finance will emerge if Duotrope charges headlong into the abyss. Duotrope knew that the basics had to be free when they started their service. Whatever the financial solution was, this clearly isn’t it. It’s sad for everyone.

    1. You are welcome to argue that $50 a year is ‘incredibly reasonable’ but that is obviously completely subjective and reliant on an individual’s budget.

      I still think its reasonableness is unconnected to people’s budgets–like, it can cost a reasonable amount and still not work for certain people, but that doesn’t make the charge for the service not reasonable, it just makes it not free.

      Less people reporting submissions and responses and journal updates means that everything Duotrope reports is less reliable.

      I’m not a statistician, but I do know that fewer data points, to a degree, doesn’t necessarily equal less accuracy. National surveys only use a few hundred people for their survey samples, and those are statistically sound. So this idea that Duotrope is somehow going to crash and burn just because fewer people are using it seems unlikely. Also, I don’t know if you saw this, but they made this comment on their Facebook page:

      “A note on our statistics: We at Duotrope are aware of how important our statistical data is to a large number of our users. We plan on carefully tracking the impact our new pay model has on this data, and we will continue to work at keeping the statistics relevant and useful. Based on our internal numbers and analysis of individual user statistics, we believe the accuracy of our data will actually improve in the long run. This was a significant factor when making the decision to go paid.”

      So right now, I’m not worried about it.

  3. Bob

    I saw it and that statement was pure hand waving I’m afraid. I’d love to see them be more specific but can they argue with basic maths? Fewer data points means more ‘variation’ or to put it bluntly, inaccuracy. I’ll agree, for the sake of argument, that the reports of a few hundred people make the stats ‘sound’. This has been good enough so far, if you look at the current number of reports many markets receive, which you can view at https://duotrope.com/stats.aspx. The absolute most popular dozen journals get 1000+ reports a year, but these markets are already pretty forthcoming about what submitters can expect. Most journals stats are already based on a few hundred or less reports. How many users will continue using the site once subscriptions come in? We don’t know, but reports on social media tend towards mostly negative, and these are the people who care enough about the site to say anything at all. We do have this assertion that only 10% of Duotrope users cared to donate. If only 10% of users subscribed you might be looking at dozens, not hundreds, of reports a year for journals below the elite household name tier. I predict that more than 10% will sub, but at $50 a year (comparable to the price of an actual subscription to a lit journal), I doubt more than half will. And then, certainly if you’re working up the ladder as a new name, you’re going to be looking at submitting to markets with something close to a statistically insignificant number of relevant responses to guide you. In some areas this is already actually the case! I’m a UK poet and Duotrope might as well be merely a list of bookmarks when it comes to UK poetry journals. I certainly hope that you are right and that this isn’t shortly the case for US journals I follow, but I must responsibly wait for feedback from statistic fans who brave the new Duotrope before I commit any money myself.

    1. To clarify: the “few hundred” number I was using was referring to national US polls – a few hundred data points (between three and five, I think) is statistically valid for a country with a population of 311.5 million people. Re: Duotrope, in some cases, only a few dozen numbers might actually be enough to come up with accurate stats re: response times and acceptance rates.

      I think that Duotrope should, and probably will, explain how those numbers will work at some point. The stats are, as you and others have pointed out, the crux of their value, and in addition to thinking that they’re not evil, I also don’t think that they’re stupid, either. If they think that this new model will make the numbers, in the long run, more accurate, then I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

      (That being said, $5/month, for me, covers the things that I like about the website that has nothing to do with stats – the submissions tracker and the journal search/database.)

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