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Information at What Price? Exploring Fee-based e-Content


In pursuit of a paid model for content, many businesses offer newsletters for a fee or ebooks. These models offer pros and cons. Some organizations send out two newsletters: fee and free. The free version has the basic, watered-down contents found in the fee version to entice readers into wanting more and paying for it. But is it worth the time and energy to do this?

Ebooks are also a way for businesses to make money. But do they sell when it's been proven that people prefer reading printed copy to electronic text? Read on to hear from several experts in the field about what people are willing to pay for and whether or not offering fee-based content is right for your organization.

Too much information!

Considering there are so many free newsletters and information out there, why should readers shell out the dough for these premium newsletters? Reading online is harder on the eyes because of the light emitted from the monitor. People overcome this by printing out the newsletter.

I can't hazard a guess on how many free newsletters are out there. So why would a person pay for a fee-based newsletter? Jenna Glatzer, editor-in-chief of AbsoluteWrite.com, says, "You have to offer something different and better than what the free newsletters are doing. Personally, I wouldn't pay for newsletters that are just for entertainment, but I do have paid subscriptions to a handful of newsletters that are specific to my line of work and appropriate for my level (not beginner). A paid newsletter that has all the same sorts of free-reprint articles that all the other sites have won't work. You must find a corner of the market that no one has claimed yet and be the most reliable source of information on it."

Joan Stewart, publisher of The Publicity Hound, started her subscription newsletter seven years ago, long before there was as much information on the Internet as there is today. She says, "Content must be king. If you can supply good content that can't be found elsewhere, and it's well-written and easy to read, and leads readers in other directions where they can find even more info than they could possibly need, you will keep your customers happy.

"If I had it to do over again, I would have never started my subscription newsletter. It started as an 8-page print newsletter, but the postage and printing costs were killing me," she says. "About two years ago, I reverted from a print newsletter to a PDF document. It's in the same format, but it's now emailed to customers. My free ezine, The Publicity Hound's Tips of the Week, is still far more profitable, several hundredfold, than the subscription newsletter."

Charging for ebooks

Considering there are no printing and paper costs to the publisher for ebooks, how can they charge as much as they do for them? Higher prices equal higher perceived value. However, I've seen many ebooks cost more than a paperback, and the content isn't always better quality than print. Yet, they sell.

What justifies the higher cost of ebooks when there are no printing costs involved with them? Christopher Knight, publisher of Ezine-Tips, says, "What justifies the higher cost of ebooks when there are no printing costs involved with them? Christopher Knight, publisher of Ezine-Tips, says, 'That would be a fallacy in perception logic because the printing cost is not relevant to the market perception of a paperback versus an ebook. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that some people even value an ebook as higher value than a paperback because they can take their data with them on a personal notebook computer, whereas it's hard to travel with a pile of paperback books.'"

Glatzer points out that whether a piece is written in print or ebook format, it is the same amount of work for the writer. "Of course, ebooks have a smaller market, so the problem is that if the ebook is priced very low, it won't be worth it for the writer to spend the time writing and promoting the book."

If it is worth it, however, ebooks provide many benefits to those who download them: The readers aren't taxed, don't incur shipping costs and don't need gas money to go to the bookstore. As soon as people buy your ebook, they instantly download it and have it in their "e-hands."

Stewart says, "The biggest justification is that the information is immediate. If a customer wants information NOW, they can get it NOW, and they're often willing to pay the hefty price. My ebook, How to Be a Kick-Butt Publicity Hound, sells for $97. The most I could expect to get for the same book in hardcover is about $25. Another justification for the higher priced ebooks is that live links in the ebooks take visitors directly to Web sites with related content."

E-format versus print format

Research on ebooks indicates people still prefer paper over ebooks. What's the point of pursuing ebooks and fee-based newsletters? Glatzer shares her experience.

"I've written two ebooks and 14 print books, so that shows you where my bread and butter comes from. However, I had my newsletter first. It was thriving, yet I had nothing to sell my readers. I was barely breaking even with advertising costs and often paying hosting fees out of pocket. I'd received so many letters from readers asking for advice about how to do what I had done-make a living writing for magazines-and finally decided to write a book about it. I knew I had a built-in audience among my subscribers. The ebook sold well, but my goal was to take it to print. When a publisher made an offer on it, I took it out of circulation as an e-book and expanded it for the print publisher. That became Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, and the print book has far outsold the ebook.

"The second was a niche book for greeting card writers and artists. It contained market info for just that field, so it was such a specialized book that I didn't go after conventional publishers for it. Plus, the time factor was crucial: contact info changes so often that I wanted to get the book out ASAP, and I wanted to be able to update it when needed. I briefly had it out as a print-on-demand book, but I took it off the market as soon as it became dated and just continued selling it as an ebook.

"Since then, I've stuck to conventional publishing and just a few giveaway ebooks for publicity. But I think the market for ebooks is decent if you have a specialized topic and a built-in audience."

Based on Glatzer's experience, when you have a free newsletter, you already have an audience ? unless you try to sell a book on home makeovers to your audience that subscribes to your pets newsletter!

Timely matters

Ebooks have an advantage over print in that their content is up-to-date and piping hot. If something changes, it's quick and easy to modify the ebook and put the new version up for sale. The publishing process for printed books can be a lengthy one.

Time can impact content depending on the topic. Some industries such as sports and history have experienced little or no change in over a decade, while others like technology are moving at megahertz speed.

By the time an author of a book related to software writes it, and the publisher prints it, a new version of the software is available, rendering the brand-new book outdated. However, many users don't upgrade every version, as this stings the cash flow. Often, tips and steps given in books covering earlier versions of software are applicable to the newer version.

Knight suggests selling in both formats (print and ebook); that way all your bases are covered and you reach more channels for the same product.

eContent = lower quality?

M.J. Rose, Wired columnist and author of both print and electronic books, has commented that people thought she wasn't a real author when she published her ebook. For some, ebooks are "bottom-feeders" in the world of publishing. They see such content as lower quality and without prestige.

I have a folder of all the books I've collected through reviewer duties and as free downloads. I haven't read 10 percent of them. However, it could be a different story when you pay for an ebook. Knowing that you bought the book might force you to read it. But then again, I have shelves of printed books that I have yet to read.

Why would I want to buy ebooks and let them rot on my hard drive where I naturally save them after downloading them? Same reason for printed books? I don't think so, because you can see and touch them. It's easier to scan printed pages than to scroll electronic books.

Fee-based newsletters

Most of the fee-based newsletters I've seen have a free newsletter distributed by the same people. Organizations use the free newsletter to entice readers into subscribing to the fee-based newsletter. Like Glatzer says, you're establishing credibility with your audience through the free newsletter, and when they see another offering from you, they might jump at it. Glatzer publishes Absolute Write, free Absolute Markets and Absolute Markets Premium Edition newsletters. Free Absolute Markets comes out every other week and the premium edition comes out in between those issues.

Glatzer explains the difference between the free and premium editions. The free markets contains a small sampling, about 10 markets covering mainly magazine-related work plus contest listings or an article in alternating issues. The premium edition has many jobs and lists markets for various types of writing including international markets. It also includes interviews with magazine editors and an in-depth look at a high profile magazine on a monthly basis. She also lists calls for writers from editors who know her and those calls won't be found anywhere else online.

Glatzer decided to offer the fee-based newsletter because there wasn't anything like the Absolute Markets Premium Edition with its 50 pages of markets. She believed that a $15 fee for a yearly subscription more than pays itself if writers land one assignment from the newsletter's resources. Furthermore, it saves the writers' time spent searching for job listings. In determining what to charge, Glatzer and her colleagues researched what publishers charged for similar newsletters in other fields such as casting calls for actors.

In determining how much to charge for her fee-based newsletter, Stewart asked herself, "How much would I be willing to pay?" The Publicity Hound, her eight-paged, bi-monthly, fee-based subscription newsletter costs $9 per issue or $49.95 for a one-year subscription (six issues) and has more single-copy buyers than subscribers.

Selling ebooks and fee-based newsletters

If you decide to sell ebooks and newsletters for a fee, Glatzer recommends getting lots of reviews and interviews for ebooks. For newsletters, she says, "I think you need to establish credibility by offering free samples first. Make it easy for people to subscribe by offering multiple payment options."

Joan Stewart promotes articles in the fee-based newsletter in almost every issue of the free ezine. She also uses auto responder messages for people who buy single copies. About a week after the purchase, they receive a message thanking them for their order and asking if they would like to subscribe. Stewart shares her list of what works and what doesn't work when selling ebooks and fee-based newsletters:

What works:

  • The product must be content-rich.
  • It must include lots of links to other resources.
  • Even if it includes hotlinks to other products, it must cover topics that readers would be interested in.
  • The product must be top-quality, which means free of typos, and it must be easy to read. (16-point type for ebooks.)

What doesn't work:

  • Information that's outdated. Special reports and ebooks must be updated at least once a year. I have a special report called "Fly High with Publicity in In-flight Magazines." It includes contact info for 30 in-flight magazines. It's a real pain to update this annually, but readers will jump down my throat if I don't.
  • Products that are little more than sales pitches for other things the author sells (consulting services, etc.).
  • Products that don't promise what they deliver.
  • Lousy customer service. Buyers expect a human being to reply to their email messages or answer the phone if they have problems downloading the product, or other concerns. I have bought ebooks from some well-known Internet marketers who refuse to return my phone calls when I call them for help. I no longer buy from those people.

Steer clear of joining discussion groups solely for spamming the list about your ebook or newsletters. "It irritates the heck out of people," Glatzer says.

She promotes her fee-based newsletter through advertising in other writing-related ezines and some paid Google ads; she also advertises it in her own free newsletters, and she sponsors writing contests and conferences in exchange for newsletter mentions. Glatzer says, "We do a lot of promotion for the site and all newsletters in general; people subscribe to our free newsletters for a while, so they can determine we're worth the bucks!"

Fee-based newsletters are out there and won't go away soon. Authors churn out ebooks every day in spite of data supporting that people heavily prefer print over electronic versions. Ebooks prices continue to equal or surpass printed books.

Knight ends the discussion. "The best will survive and rise to the top as they always naturally do, while those who don't step up to the plate and innovate like mad will get left in the digital dust." Amen.

Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl's notes, eNewsletter Journal, and The Remediator Security Digest. She is also a PC Today columnist and a tour guide at InformIT. She is geared to tackle your editing, writing, content, and process needs. The native Texan resides in Plano, Texas, a heartbeat north of Dallas, and doesn't wear a 10-gallon hat or cowboy boots.


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