PainScience.com is about 20 years old, and has been a profitable business for about 11 of those. Huge amounts of content here is completely free: many hundreds of articles and blog posts, and a giant database of lovingly summarized scientific articles. I also more or less constantly dish out free ideas and advice by email and on Twitter and Facebook. I work on extracurricular volunteer projects for many hours per week and have for years. I am generous. I give a lot away.
And yet — and this is a bit greedy, I know — I still have to buy groceries and a roof over my head, and the occasional tube of pain killer. Sometimes I even buy clothes!
So, because of my neediness, a handful of “flagship” articles — big online tutorials, my ten e-books — are fully available only after forking over a fee of $20 USD each. Is it fair and reasonable? Will the market “bear” it? Is it even ethical to charge for health care information online? Can I afford not to charge something? Yes, yes, yes, and no. More detail …
About the price of my books
Twenty bucks is a bit steep for an ebook, isn’t it? Yes and no. These are heavily researched and infinitely updated living documents, kind of a hybrid between a book and a text that constantly has new editions. (For perspective, most scientific papers go for $35-40 these days. Not that those are reasonable prices, mind you, but it is what it is. Most specialized documents are pricey.)
It just isn’t possible to create good quality information for any less, let alone free. Like any other complex thing, these books requires loving, dedicated maintenance. It takes time and expertise of all kinds and above all money, money, money to put them out there and keep them good.
Everything costs! It was cheap in the beginning, just a few bucks a month for server fees. That was then. But now? Powerful web hosting for all the traffic, advertising costs, custom software, subscriptions and the books I have to buy, licenses for artwork, technicians and contractors of every description, decent computers, more backup hard drives than I thought I’d ever own, ecommerce fees cost me more than anything else, on and on and on!
You know how it is. Everything in life — absolutely everything — costs more than you think it’s going to. Or should. But it is what it is: if I wasn’t charging $20 USD, these books simply wouldn’t exist. I would have no business. It’s $20, or PainScience.com goes dark.
Notice anything unusual around here? Something missing? Yeah, that’s right: no ads. Just content.
Now go look at almost any other site on the Internet. What do you see? Yeah, that’s right: ads everywhere. Because almost all online publishing generates revenue by selling ad impressions and clicks. The result is ubiquitous clutteration and an editorial style with badly warped priorities (the whole distasteful clickbait phenomenon).
I get so much fan mail praising PainScience.com for its “clean” ad-free atmosphere it’s just ridiculous. It is by far the most common positive feedback I get about the site.
And another thing I get in my inbox: lucrative advertising offers. Advertisers know where the traffic is. I decline them all.
But it means I have to sell books.
About the free introductions and the surprise paywall
A lot of visitors are upset when they read the free introduction to one of my books and then discover that it’s for sale, and they have to pay more to continue reading. (That’s called a “paywall.”) Here’s a typical example of the kind of e-mail I get about this, though many are far more rude:
Thanks a lot. Here I thought I was finding some useful information, and then I find our your [sic] just another greedy bastard out to make a buck.
I understand that the price tag can be an unpleasant surprise, that it is slightly distasteful, and that is resembles sales tactics used by some scammers. However, it’s also the secret sauce of my success, and it’s as unavoidable as the $20 USD price tag: if I didn’t do it this way, all the good stuff I do here would be impossible.
95% of people who discover my books are coming from Google searches. If I tell them it’s a sample up front, guess how many of the leave without giving the content a chance to win them over? Answer: almost all of them. No one sticks around when they know they're going to be asked for money to keep reading.
I’ve never been able to solve this dilemma. Doing it my way has a small cost: some people are annoyed when they discover that (horrors) I'm actually trying to make a living this way. But many more just buy the book, enough of them that I can pay for my life, and continue studying and writing.
Going over the dark side: the story of the lean early years
This whole thing started by going to massage therapy college. I didn’t work for three years, and I paid about eight times more for tuition than I would have paid at university. My family and I could barely afford it. I only just finished paying off the student loans a little while ago.
After graduating, I spent several years working extremely hard and just barely making ends meet. In my so-called “spare” time, I wrote several books’ worth of well-researched information about musculoskeletal health care. Why? Because it wasn’t there. Because there was a great need. And because I loved it.
In 2005, years into the project without a dime of profit, I started soliciting donations and putting some of the best articles up for sale. How profiteering of me! It’s amazing I can sleep at night, from all that greed. Do I sound bitter? I probably am, a little bit.
It was a slow start. I hardly earned anything for those first couple years with a “greedy” price tag on my books. Sometimes I felt like a real chump trying to make a go of this. While my yuppie friends purchased Vancouver condos that have quadrupled in value since they last changed their socks, their semi-impoverished writer/therapist buddy was dedicating the best years of his life to an obscure online public service which, until about 2010, turned a profit each month that wouldn’t have covered their latté budget.
Fortunately, things have been going well. My books are selling briskly. I have a latté budget, and more. If I count the value of my time in the early years, I might even break even by the time I’m 65.
The end of free info
So, here’s a friendly wake up call to everyone out there who resents being asked to pay for good information: almost before it even really got going, the golden age of free information on the internet died. The question of whether content “should” be free is an economic moot point. Good quality content will cost you, one way or another, sooner or later. TANSTAAFL!
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About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter.