Saturday, May 21, 2005

Money, Money, Money

I’m baaaack! I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from writing virtually anything outside of the day job, so I’m feeling up to posting something here. I was going to review a story, but yesterday I ran across a couple of things that took precedence, at least in my mind.

You are all familiar with how excited I am about the potential of audio on the web. I’ve even reviewed a couple of podcasts called “Earthcore” and “The Seanachai,” both excellent continuing podcasts. Now there is “Escape Pod.” This is an ezine that publishes an audio file of one short story a week, generally coming out sometime on Thursday. This was their second week in operation.

The publisher bills Escape Pod as “The world’s first science fiction podcast magazine.” There is another first for Escape Pod: they pay $20 per story. You submit a text file of your story according to their guidelines, and if they accept it, they record the story and publish the audio file on their site for free download. They prefer previously published stories (cuts down on the selection/editing timeline) but will accept original manuscripts. Science fiction manuscripts.

I listened to the first story they published called “Imperial” by Jonathan Sullivan. While the story itself wasn’t bad (it had a very nice science-fictioney twist), it could have profited from some judicious cuts. The production values were pretty good. There were some nice intro and outro sweepers, and the reader was pretty smooth though I think he could use a little work on his female voices. He could also use one of those mesh disks that they put in front of mics to keep the plosives from blowing out the listener’s eardrums.

All in all, this is a pretty exciting site for audio fans. If they can keep it up. My first question was, “If they don’t charge for the stories, where does the money come from to pay the writers?” Some time ago I discussed the three current models for bringing in money from a website: subscriptions, advertising and begging (also called the PBS model). Escape Pod is following the PBS model by soliciting donations through a PayPal button on the site. They faithfully promise that all the money they collect will go toward paying the writers. Way to go, guys! This is a ground-breaking site. They have a few things they need to work on, but I really hope they make it. We’ll have to wait and see how it evolves.

Part of the issue of Escape Pod’s survival will be promotion, another frequently heard rant on this site. The podcasting community does this much better than do the text sites. There are four sites on the internet frequented by virtually every podcast fan out there: iPodder, Podcast Alley, Podcasting News, and Podcast Pickle. When someone starts a new podcast, they submit their information to these sites, which then adds them to a master list and assigns them to a category. You can go to one of these sites and check out the newest additions in all the categories, or a specific category. That’s how I found Escape Pod.

In addition, Podcast Alley, Podcasting News and Podcast Pickle rate the popularity of each podcast by listener vote. Most podcasts will have a vote button for one or more of these sites on their home page. These votes get sent back to the appropriate compendium site and tallied. Each of these compendium sites produces a list of the most popular podcasts and posts that list in a prominent place. This, of course, increases the traffic to those sites. Naturally there are quibbles and complaints about how the votes are tallied and whether some votes are qualified and the like, but the compendium sites are trying to address those issues. But whatever way they go, these compendium sites are promoting podcasts to the listeners, a very valuable service with, as near as I can tell, no cost to the podcast producer.

A short note to those who still have doubts about the power of audio on the net. I mentioned Earthcore above. This is a book by Scott Sigler. Earthcore was on track to be published by AOL/Time-Warner. During the internal upheavals a couple of years ago, the publication of the book was canceled. Scott was unable to find any other interested takers, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He started recording the book himself and is currently issuing it as a series of podcasts, one or two chapters released each week. He was hoping to attract enough listeners to show publishers that he could deliver enough of an audience to make his book viable. Currently Earthcore is rated #6 on Podcast Alley and #5 on Podcast Pickle. Scott is seeing 5,000 to 6,000 downloads of each of his podcasts every week. In addition he has gotten a lot of press, both print and internet. So I’d say Scott did the right thing.

The second thing I saw this week was a couple of new services (oriented toward podcasting, but I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be adapted for text) that could make the subscription business model pay off for small publishers. I’ll talk about that next time.