Knowing the struggles that people like myself, Mike, Don (and others) have been through with Fawcette recently - in terms of Fawcette's financial (and some say ethical) difficulties - it got me thinking about what times might be like for people running a magazine and/or conferences in the information saturated world we live in today. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that these publications are losing subscribers and revenue. I believe they are also facing a multitude of other challenges in terms of how to deliver and sell their content. Are some rags going to be forced into only distributing their content via less expensive channels like RSS feeds and web publications? How much longer will printed magazines be financially viable for technical content?
The Delivery Dilemma
For most commercial technical publications (TechPubs), paying subscribers and advertisers are the main two (if not the only two) sources of income. Some TechPubs also have sponsors. I've also written for TechPubs that had no sponsors or advertisers among their pages. The point is that, distributing printed media, whether it is magazines, disc's, newspapers or brochures - costs money. Maybe only five cents per magazine or ten cents per CD but, the costs add up. How are TechPubs going to balance out these costs if most of their content is consumed with a web browser? MSDN Magazine offers their monthly content online for free. So why would I want to pay for the printed magazine? Other TechPubs like asp.netPRO offer one or two opinion pieces for free online, but require you to enter a customer id (from a mailing label) to view their online premium content. Wrox followed a similar subscription model when their ASPToday, C#Today and other “Today” sites were popular, although they distributed no printed version of their content as far as I know. Then there are magazines like MCP Magazine, which not only have all their content online for free, but give a free subscription of their printed magazine to almost anyone, MCP or not. With the cost of printing not becoming any cheaper, how much longer will it be until we see entirely paperless distribution by these TechPubs? I give them three to five more years, tops. Why so little time? Read the next section.
Blogs: The TechPub content killer
Once upon a time (OK, until about 2001 or so) the argument could be made that the benefit you received from holding a TechPub subscription was that you caught a glimpse of up-and-coming technologies and sound advice from industry experts that was tough to find outside of more expensive channels like books or conferences. Nobody can deny the fact that these benefits have been blown out of the water by blogs. Blogs aren't the only ones doing the damage either; eZines and communities like CodeWise are also making an impact. For example, at last count there were between 300 and 350 Microsoft employee blogs. Some blogs, like those of CLR Architect Chris Brumme, contain more in-depth technical wisdom than you would find in the .NET Framework SDK Docs themselves. Also, on many Microsoft employee blogs you can find interesting information about products that are still in Beta or Alpha stages of development. "What unique benefit am I gaining from this magazine subscription or by attending this conference?" is becoming an awfully tough question to answer.
Blogs also provide a spotlight for the author to shine on them self. Blogs are more enticing to write for than a TechPub. Popular blog articles make only the author well-known (in most cases). It doesn't take long for other blogs to link to good information either. Post something interesting in your blog and you will likely receive more exposure than you expect. Another nice thing about blogs from the reader’s standpoint is that most are completely void of banner ads and flash animations that get in the way of articles you find on many TechPub websites. With all of this quality technical information available for free, what are TechPubs offering that they can justify charging for?
I'm a big fan of constructive criticism. So here are some ideas I have that I think might help TechPubs regain some attention and be able to offer something somewhat unique.
For this article I wrote on building Sharepoint WebParts, I received at least a dozen emails from people asking not only about my code but, about the steps I took while building the WebPart. I think it would benefit subscribers to be able to download step-by-step videos that they can watch. These videos (done by the article authors) could be 5 to 10 minute clips that show the technology, go back and forth between the IDE (code) and the demo, and provide any further information the author thinks might be useful to his or her audience. This idea might only be useful for larger articles - something that in article form would be 2,000+ words, not including code.
I feel pretty confident in saying that if someone can write a technical article, they can easily figure out how to make a how-to video with something like Camtasia. If TechPubs are worried about their readership not wanting to download a large video file, just ask Carl how many people regularly download his 60 to 75 megabyte “.NET Rocks!” audio files. I believe he's had something like 400,000 downloads between his site and MSDN since the show started. The majority of developers have had broadband for years.
Survey your readers and find out what they want to hear aboutOne thing that blogs have going for them - that most TechPubs do not - is the way that people who keep blogs ask their audience what they would like to read about. I've seen this in several blogs but, not at any TechPubs. I'm not talking about a web page with a feedback form. Put a survey on your site and give it high visibility. When I find sources of information that often discuss things I'm interested in, I will come back religiously.
Salaries aren't the only survey in townIt seems like almost every TechPub publishes some kind of salary survey once a year. I stopped paying attention to them years ago though. Their data never seemed accurate. I know I'm not the only one with this thought. I'm sure the salary surveys are popular with the crowd that has 1 to 3 years experience and likes looking forward to the paychecks of the future. What about for the rest of us? Why not publish some smaller surveys on topics related to the more human side of tech life. Part of the appeal with blogs is that every now and then the author takes a step back from work and technical life and talks about something personal. Publish a survey about what kind of setup we have at home. Find out what companies we work at or what percentage of us are self-employed. What kinds of shampoo do VB.NET developers prefer or what kind have C++ developers heard about?
Don't get me wrong, despite the trouble I've had getting paid and everything else, I still visit TechPub websites and think they have a place in the media. I'm not the only developer that enjoys writing, either. I just think that the format that worked for them in the 90's is not what's going to work for them in the future.