Last week I discovered that, after a long history of being free to access, had moved to a subscription based model. If you’ve never come across Duotrope before it is a searchable database of markets for written work, with added features such as a way to track the submissions you make. I’ve used it to find a number of places to submit work and I now have a listing for The Great Escape there. Until now they had been operating on donations from their users, and I wonder whether, if more users had donated they’d have been able to keep going with that model.

Today I came across another site while researching Irish mythology for a short story I am working on. The Internet Sacred Text Archive is a repository of mainly public domain reference books on world mythology, religion and folklore. They also sell CD rom collections of books. I must admit I felt like a kid in a candy store; all that free information! On their home page they have an advert for their latest DVD-Rom pleading for people to buy to help them keep going.

I think many people forget that the supposedly “free” information they find on the web actually costs money to put it there. I know; I run a free access site. There’s the cost of running the server where the information is held, the cost of registering and renewing the domain name every year. In the case of The Great Escape we also pay to licence images and fonts when we need to. And that’s just the monetary costs; it doesn’t include the value of the time you put in.

I didn’t buy a DVD-rom from the ISTA, mainly because I didn’t have $99 kicking around spare, but I did find a link marked “donate” and sent them a few dollars. The information I’d found on the site had been really useful and I’d bookmarked it as a resource to go back to in the future; it was worth something to me. The sites operators’ time and effort were worth something to me.

Script Frenzy logo

The Office of Letters and Light event Script Frenzy challenged writers to produce 100 pages of script in the month of April. It ran for the last time in 2011. Image source –

I’ve been guilty in the past of taking free services for granted. I never donated to Duotrope and now it will cost me $50 a year to use it at all. I’ve also taken part in NaNoWriMo events three times and only donated once. This year The Office of Letters and Light closed down Script Frenzy because it wasn’t breaking even. From now on, I intend to make sure I reward content I think has value, either with a donation or for smaller things, through publicity. But that’s just me, what about the rest of the world?

Why do people expect things they find online to be free? Is it just because we’re used to it, or is it because there is no physical evidence of its value? No paper, no disc, no building with a counter where we can see someone sat behind a computer screen?

There might be an argument that, in a world where everyone is a producer of content, it makes little difference whether you spend your money on producing your content or on consuming someone else’s. But if everyone is a producer and no one is a consumer, is that even sustainable in the long term? Internet content just becomes a bigger and bigger drain on the resources of the producers.

Imagine how the quality of content on the internet would improve if the people producing it could actually cover their costs.

So what is the solution?

When people expect things for free, slapping an upfront price tag on it can be counterproductive, even when the price tag is small. Donations just don’t seem to work as Duotrope and Script Frenzy illustrate. But, what about a model which encourages people to pay what they think something is worth after they had read, viewed or used it? Could that work if enough people got behind it? What do you think?