About twenty-five years ago, Jason Epstein, then the editorial director of Random House and one of publishing’s most far-sighted visionaries put forward the notion in conversations that someday prominent authors might decide to create their own portals to sell books, sidestepping publishers and booksellers. At the time, the concept seemed unlikely because the writers would have to subsidize the expensive infrastructures of sales, promotion, and accounting. But as was so often the case with Jason’s insights, he was on to something. As a young editor, he had devised what became known as the “quality” or trade paperback. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. He was a co-founder of the highly regarded Library of America. In addition, a decade ago, he began the company that markets the Espresso Book Machine, which prints books on demand in bookstores and other venues.
Now, Jason’s idea of the writer breaking away from a formidable backer to strike out on his own is about to have a major test in a way appropriate to the digital age. Andrew Sullivan’s announcement that he will be leaving the Daily Beast, his base since February 2011, to launch an independent site, completely reliant for revenue on reader subscriptions and contributions, caused a mighty stir in the media world—as well it should have. Sullivan’s blog the Dish is enormously popular, with an average of 1.5 million unique visitors a month during last fall’s political season. What’s more, his readers tend to stay for longer periods than most digital readers. Sullivan’s concept of a community of loyal fans willing to pay $19.99 a year (or more if they choose) for total access to his blog on politics and whatever else he fancies is an important breakthrough in the emergence of personal “brands” that have no need for association with a major (i.e., corporate) parent.
In his declaration of independence, Sullivan wrote, “if this model works, we’ll have proof of principle that a small group of writers and editors can be paid directly by readers, and that an independent site, if tended to diligently can grow an audience large enough to sustain it indefinitely.”
Sullivan’s initiative got off to an exciting start. In only two days, he said he had received nearly $400,000 in subscriptions and donations, close to half of what he (and others knowledgeable on web economics) had estimated it would cost to sustain his small team of staffers and interns for a year. At the $19.99 price point, that means something like 16,000 subscribers, a very good beginning.
Sullivan’s subscription model is definitely a different version of commitment than those of the past. In the first place, it is much more flexible than just an annual fee for any access, with periodic reminders that a deadline for renewal is approaching. Readers will still be able to reach most of the Dish through links on social media and search results, as well as through his RSS feed. Sullivan’s use of a metering system, the practice adopted by hundreds of newspapers in the past year or so, is in line with the widespread efforts to develop a sustainable revenue stream while so much on the Internet remains available for free. Sullivan is counting on his most fervent of fans to pay for total, unfettered, access.
What Sullivan expects—and the indications are that he is right—is that a substantial number of his current readership care enough about what he and his colleagues write that they will pay to join what amounts to a club. Public radio and television make a similar type of appeal to their audience with pledge drives, but after fifty years of experience in building their national and local structures, it would be impossible to shift now to any form of fee-for-service plan of the sort that Sullivan has chosen.
What Sullivan has also done is opt to work without advertising. In devising his independence model, Sullivan wrote, “the decision on advertising was the hardest.” He was persuaded by the consistent complaints of readers about how “distracting and intrusive” advertising can be and “often it slows down the page painfully.” Ultimately, these considerations were probably secondary to what is the core message of Sullivan’s move: to fulfill the promise of the Internet without becoming co-opted “by large and powerful institutions” and the inevitable burdens of advertising support. “We want to build a new media environment that is not solely about advertising or profit above everything,” Sullivan wrote, “but that is dedicated first to content and quality.” By Sullivan’s count, the Daily Dish produced 13,000 separate posts last year. How the new incarnation will evolve depends on its output, supplemented—assuming that the money flows in—with longer form pieces and possible spin-offs designed for tablets, or featuring video.
Jason Epstein’s prediction that leading writers will favor the benefits and accept the risks of independence came long before the Internet era. In addition, the fact remains that few of the authors and journalists with followers numbering in the millions have launched anything as bold as Sullivan’s new venture. Having a website of one’s own is standard now for writers, but the distinctive feature of Andrew Sullivan’s move is that it anticipates viability solely through a direct connection with its community supported by their willingness to pay. Sullivan’s strength is his opinions and the reporting he does. It is not, I am guessing, his business acumen. He will not employ a publisher, so keeping track of cash flow and reiterating the regular call for contributions will be a significant responsibility.
In all the reams of commentary I read about the February 1 launch (using the address www.andrewsullivan.com), the consistent tone is one of support. One of the best descriptions came from Jack Shafer on Reuters: “Even when his fans don’t agree with his pulpit thumping, or the pyrotechnics of his righteousness, they still respond to his style. He’s their priest. They’re his parishoners. As tithings go, $19.99 a year is pretty cheap.” If Andrew Sullivan succeeds, he will doubtless be joined by other web-based bloggers in striking out on their own. But they should be forewarned: matching Sullivan for bravado and insight will not be easy.