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.
- 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…
- 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.)
- 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.
- $5 per month is incredibly reasonable.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- Some kind of tiered system, with different levels of access for different prices.
- Student discounts.
- A free trial system, like Scrivner, so you can sample the website without having to commit immediately.
- 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.)
- 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?)
- 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.