If transparency is what you want...

If transparency is what you want...


I’ve been telling Tony for a long time now that we need to be more transparent. You know... let our readers know what’s really going on behind the scenes. But he gets so busy with all his work (until recently he’s been working three full-time jobs... ah the life of a workaholic) and I’ve been reluctant to start something that will mean even more work for me (ah the life of a slacker). But there have been some negative—yet understandable—misconceptions circulating amongst some of our readers (in particular lately) and it’s probably time someone made it clear what we are all about...

Sometimes we get emails from readers and they act is if their (sometimes nasty) emails will never reach a real person and they’re completely shocked when we reply within a day. We’ve received emails that have implied we are rich and live in some ivory tower and others that assume we work in some office block somewhere with air-cons and secretaries and xmas luncheons etc. In fact, most of you are probably completely unaware that it’s pretty much just the two of us (Tony and I) running this project from our laptops at home with the aid of some fantastic auxillary staff (Bridget, Alan and Gianluca). Most of you wouldn’t think/know that we have, in fact, been sacrificing a lot to keep this magazine going because we believe in it heart and soul.

Now I hear you groaning “Here it comes... whinge, whinge... give us money... pat us on the back... blah blah blah”. But we’re not into that. We really like what we are doing with FSM, for the free software movement and for our readers. I just want you all to know, if you’re interested, what our true intentions are so that maybe you’ll cut us some slack... we are only human and we need a little slack sometimes. And, if you’re one of those lovely people who has believed in and supported us from the beginning and have cut us more slack than we are worth—and I know you are one of them—then thanks! You’ve made it all worthwhile.

To put it simply, our intentions have always been: to pay authors to write high quality content in an attempt to promote free software and help educate and instruct readers in its use for free. And we’ve almost managed to achieve that and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. (Please note that profit is not part of the mission statement—we only want enough to make the project self supporting.)

Tony and I, along with many others (you know who you are... and we love you all), have worked for next to nothing, if not for free, for over two years now keeping this project going. And, if we had everything we ever needed we would still keep working on FSM because we believe in it and it’s what we want to do. The fact that Tony kept working on the project when he was diagnosed with, and then when he was fighting off, cancer should be evidence enough. Thankfully, I haven’t had to prove myself in the same way.

Now, I’m not gonna lie to you, we do want more money. Tony and I have recently started getting enough income so that we can keep it going. It’s certainly doesn’t cover all of the work we have done—we have worked untolled hours and have made ourselves available 24/7 for FSM—but it’ll certainly keep us going. So, the extra money we want is not for us. We live humble lives so that we are not, ourselves, a drain on the magazine’s funds; we really want more money coming in so that we can start paying the other members of our crew... especially our wonderful authors. We have agreed that books just aren’t enough compensation for the great work they do. And, as soon as FSM’s income increases to the next level, our authors will be rewarded.

Now to the issue at hand... PDFs

Whatever your opinion on the PDFs and their future, it’s hard to deny what’s been happening in the industry. For example, while there may still be a demand for the PDF format, it seems it wasn’t enough to keep TUX afloat when they started asking for money. And it certainly wasn’t enough when we initially asked for paying PDF subscribers back when we had to stop printing issues due to lack of interest and funds. We were only continuing with the PDFs because we needed them in order to create the lulu.com versions. Now that that business model has failed we had yet another reason not to keep them. Tony has already covered the other reasons but briefly:

  • They are demanding on our system. And, the tricks we used to ease the burden caused problems for quite a few users (who did not remain quiet about it... and fair enough; it’s your bandwidth and time as well).
  • They require hours of composition and juggling and we have not yet been able to pay for it. This took its toll and we just couldn’t go on asking for this work to be done for free.
  • And, as mentioned above, whether you like it or not, there were just not enough people willing to pay when we offered PDF subscriptions and TUX ran into the same problem.

Speaking of business models, even though we have over 30000 subscribers and fantastic content, each attempt we have made to get a viable business model in place has, in no uncertain terms, failed miserably:

  • selling print subscriptions
  • selling print advertising
  • selling PDF subscriptions
  • selling PDF advertising
  • selling HTML subscriptions
  • selling lulu.com copies
  • asking for donations
  • selling newsletter ads
  • (don’t even suggest putting print copies on the news stands—you would not believe how much startup money you need for that nor how long it takes before you get a return on your investment. And, besides, we’ve already tried getting venture capital and no one even sniffed at our application.)

Now this is not a gripe. I'm not complaining. I don’t blame anyone for these models not working. They just don’t, at least they haven’t for us. We have faced the facts and moved on. You can’t make money selling a product no one wants/needs to pay for (winks in Microsoft’s direction) unless you have a huge marketing budget available.

Unfortunately, the only model we have found that works for us is selling online advertising... which leaves us feeling dirty and gets us plenty of complaints (including the FSF who stopped linking to us because we were displaying ads they didn’t like. Fair enough too... it’s certainly the thing I like about our project the least and if I had my way they’d be the first thing I’d change (read: get rid of) if we had a better source of income). While we will never stoop to displaying the ads and “whitepapers” of the likes of Microsoft (cough Linuxtoday cough... :) alright that doesn’t work so well in text), ads are how we’re managing to keep FSM going with our tiny skeleton crew at the moment. We are just scraping through and we feel pretty bad about still, after over two years, not having enough to pay authors (remember that has been our target from the beginning). We just never thought that paying ourselves would be such a struggle in the first place.

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Comments

ErnieDV's picture
Submitted by ErnieDV on

The whole PDF thing would have been far less controversial if Tony had just said this from the beginning. Instead he wrote an article that said PDF was a thing of the past and it was being abandoned because no one wanted it. The reaction shows clearly how wrong that was - especially because no printer-friendly format was available. Being up front about your business model and why you make the decisions you make will always win you many more friends and supporters than any other approach.

Dave Guard's picture
Submitted by Dave Guard on

Consider that there are well over 30000 subscribers and only...what... 100 complained. That's roughly a third of a percent of our readers! Wow. If you had that much of a heartbeat, you could be considered dead too. Unless miracle max is operating and then you'd be only mostly dead. We know the stats because we record them. We know how many downloads there have been and they've been declining heavily month after month. Trust me Tony's opinion is based on lots of experience; it's not just conjecture. PDF may never die completely but it is mostly dead. Anyway whatever you believe our PDF is dead. Sorry.

Kurt Pfeifle's picture

I understand your anti-PDF decision now -- now that the real reasons behind it have been fully explained. (And my initial thoughts had suspected economic forces behind it -- I know how much work it is to create a good layout even with professional DTP software).

But I think your "only 100 subscribers out of a total of 30000 complained (roughly a third of a percent of our readers!)"-argument is slightly skewed.

After all, only roughly two thirds of a percent of all your readers bothered to give you *any* feedback on the topic at all. So would you also agree to a statement like "Since that much of a heartbeat is not sufficient, FSM must be considered dead"?

Smiling greetings,
Kurt

Dave Guard's picture
Submitted by Dave Guard on

I hear what you are saying but think about this:

It's been a couple more months now and we're up to maybe 200 complaints and I would agree there would be more out there who aren't happy but can't be bothered to vocalise their opinion. We've also had a bunch of people (not many really - maybe 50) coming forward and saying they are fine with the PDF being gone. But you can't just compare these figures. This would be comparing the black and the white but leaving out the massive amount of gray. The vast majority are in the middle and either a) don't care enough to complain or b) don't care at all. In fact, I would say most of them don't care at all. If you've still got what you want (the content) and you don't care that it's only in HTML, why would you feel the need to say anything?

As I said before, our position is further reinforced by the fact that there has been a decline in the number of downloads per issue in the last year and that says a lot. Moreover, the number of downloads per issue is far less than the number of subscribers. So there's a lot of people out there who subscribe but never download an issue. And that number has been growing with each issue. More people are subscribing but less and less are downloading the PDF... what does that tell you? The content is popular but the PDF isn't (as popular).

All this aside we are working on alternatives and hopefully we can make a greater percentage of our readers happy soon.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

That's interesting to know. I came to this site because of the free PDFs but I stayed because of the online articles/discussions. I like reading about free software news, issues, opinions and the comments about all of them. I've even bought a couple of books because it was featured on this site.

What surprised me what the reactions of many that objected to the cease of the Free Software Magazine PDF. I didn't understand why people would react in such a way for quality content that they received at no cost to them. Some of those people sounded like real spoiled brats. As for me, I thank you for your work. I commend your dedication to running a site such as this and I wish you the best of luck for the future.

Terry Hancock's picture

The numerical analysis doesn't make much sense. This was not the result of a vote, but a response from people who were upset enough to reply. Most people simply didn't comment. AFAICT, no one supported the lack of PDFs. Actually, I knew it was coming, and I knew you wouldn't be flexible on the subject, so there was no point in complaining.

ISTM, it's safe to say that the decision was rather unpopular.

Of course, that's different from asking "are PDFs worth the trouble for FSM?" -- because that depends on how much trouble they are. From what you've said, I gather they were a real pain.

Which is a shame, because I had thought it was pretty automated, and I think the PDFs were very nice to have for genuine articles. HTML is fine for online browsing, but I normally store papers I want to refer to later in PDF if I can, simply because it's a very self-contained format (That said, some form of XML with embedded resources would be smarter in the long run. I suppose ODF fits that description -- but I gathered that wasn't too easy either).

FSM is never going to find a business model, though, if it doesn't accept that making money is a rational and ethical thing to do. I can't understand your negativism about carrying advertisements, and if RMS really pulled the link over that issue, then he is much more anti-commercial than he likes to admit. Ads are a distraction, but they make it possible to offer paid work for free.

IMHO, you've done something very commendable just avoiding the MS "Get the FUD" ads. Ad space is supposed to be a fair market for people who pay, not a way to editorialize. That's why it's so important to clearly mark the difference between advertiser-paid "content" and the real stuff from your writers and editors.

So, IMHO, you shouldn't be beating yourself up over needing the ads. Of course, people are going to complain -- but these are the same people who refused to pay for subscriptions. They just want something for nothing. There will always be people like that, and you have to learn to ignore them.

The alternatives are:

  • turn to paid subscriptions (your subscriber list will plummet, of course)
  • officially declare yourself a non-profit and seek foundation grant funding
  • pass the hat (and you'd better reform as a non-profit for that, too)
  • give up on paying authors, and just accept the roll as yet another blog site

Of course, "passing the hat" can be quite sophisticated. There's RSPP and there's "pledge drives" like the "Public Broadcasting System" does here in the US.

I distrust the foundation funding concept, because basically that's just passing the buck (so then, how do they make the money?).

It's possible that a subscription model would work, but it would reduce the reach of the publication (only the free articles would continue to have that reach). But there's something in that -- if people are only willing to take what you're providing if you're providing it for free, then maybe they don't really value it as much as you've been hoping they would.

The default path, of course, is just to keep doing things the way we are doing it -- and that means none of the writers are really getting paid. So it's basically just another blog site (the distinction between "blog" and "article" is being reduced, since they both are essentially treated the same when the magazine is 100% online and no one's getting paid to write anyway). Perhaps a slightly more professional one -- but it's not entirely clear that that will persist.

Still, it's pretty neat even that you were able to swing the "payment in books" arrangement.

On the whole, though, it seems like ads are your best bet, and I'm only sad that they aren't selling better. OTOH, there is another point, which is that advertising sales isn't linear: the more ads you have, the less valuable each ad is. Some of the most lucrative ad sites are the ones with very few ads, because the remaining ads are very prominent.

But you need an expert to sell ad space in an optimal way (and I am not that person!)

guydjohnston's picture

I agree that adverts seem to be the best source of revenue. I'm generally more interested in the blog than the magazine, because it has so many entries added all the time, which are often very interesting. Which link has RMS supposedly pulled? I see this site has still got quite a prominent place on the 'Free Software Links' page of the GNU site. I'd be surprised if the FSF would have anything against adverts on this page. From what I've read, the reason they don't have them on their own pages is in case any appeared on them for proprietary software, which they don't want to support in any way. I wouldn't have thought they'd be too bothered if the adverts on this site are for proprietary software, though I suppose they might then see endorsing this site as supporting proprietary software in an indirect way. Either way, it's not just because adverts are 'commercial'. It's all about 'free as in speech' rather than 'free as in beer' after all, and they often praise people who develop free software for commercial reasons.

--
GNU - free as in freedom

Dave Guard's picture
Submitted by Dave Guard on

I was not aware that they have listed us on their links page. Our link was on the home page it has been taken down and we were told why.

guydjohnston's picture

I see. What was the reason they gave?

--
GNU - free as in freedom

Dave Guard's picture
Submitted by Dave Guard on

We were displaying ads to sites that use the term "free software" misleadingly. We suggested a compromise by placing a warning above the ads that explained the links below may link to sites that contain software that is not free as in freedom. The warning took up valuable real estate and may have driven away paying customers. But that was not enough for them and the removed the link which dealt a considerable blow to our pagerank. As I said in the entry above, we don't like the ads either but they keep us running and we wouldn't need them if we had even a small percentage of the funding that the FSF or GNU.org has.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

If people are complaining, but not prepared to put their hand in their pocket, their voice is less important.

If FSF don't like the ads, but don't they buy all the advertising space for themselves.

If you want PDF's, then support the production of them and buy it once in a while.

Money seems to be a dirty word in the "free" software community, so why not devote time instead, and if you want a PDF, then create one yourselves from the content. The articles and blogs are under a free license anyway.

Opus61856's picture
Submitted by Opus61856 on

While you don't have the $ or time to do PDF is understandable, but still heavily used as a portable format within my industry (Telcom). It has become the standard format for EBP&P to offer on-line statements.

Lopo Lencastre de Almeida's picture

(...) including the FSF who stopped linking to us because we were displaying ads they didn’t like (...)

Well! They could push some money to your side. Promoting Free Software the way you were promoting is as much important as the way Stallman does.

Sorry they *still* don't understand this. Free Software is not only the software and if they want to push the software they must also push the mentalities of those that are not even aware of it.

Having this PDF was important to me. I pushed it directly to a few guys as much as I could and some may start being interested in Free Software besides Linux.

And I know what you feel about magazines and the market. I was the publisher of the Linux Journal in Portugal once ;)

Lopo

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hey,

I'm not a frequent reader yet, but from some of the articles I've read, they don't really seem to be of quality that has to be paid for, they're nice blog entries really. I mean if you can it's cool but I just figured that there are plenty of people who are more than happy to write something if they have a decent idea for an article.
And there are plenty who would do it for what ever reasons other than being paid, like advertising yourself, your blog or your views, or just starting a conversation they're interested in.

As for the ads thats no problem, you've done a good job keeping the content first and site looking tidy so don't feel bad about it, everything costs something.

Tim

Author information

Dave Guard's picture

Biography

Dave is a co-founder and the Senior Editor of Free Software Magazine.