It’s delightful how many people over the years have bought my e-books “just because all the free articles were so great” — feedback I’ve heard a few times lately. #doingsomethingright But buying my books as a way to donate is no longer necessary: there is a new tip-jar. Try it!
I haven’t actually asked readers for donations in years. It was always possible, but the option was almost hidden. Why bring it out into the sunlight now?
Keeping up with the internet
The business model of PainScience.com hasn’t changed since my first brainstorm in the mid 2000s: work my arse off producing lots of high quality free content to attract high levels of traffic, and put some of the best content behind a paywall.
Unfortunately, that strategy seems to be producing diminishing returns. The effort and even money that I’ve invested in producing and maintaining the free content over the last few years hasn’t translated into a lot more book sales. I seem to have taken the business model roughly as far as I can.
I’ve been mulling over what to do about this for some time. Obviously I can start actually asking for donations — a request at the bottom of every article — and I have done that already. And I could, for example, put more of my content behind the paywall, maybe some of the best articles at a lower price point than full books, and I might do a little of that too. I have friends who have emphatically told me that they think I’m “insane” for not doing things like that. Conversations about “leaving money on the table.” Maybe so. But call me a kooky idealist: I want as much of my content to be as accessible as possible, as long as I can still make enough of a living that buying a home someday is a realistic ambition.
And so my preferred option — the experiment I’m going to try — is a “soft” paywall…
“Suggested prices,” not donations
After 2018’s huge ecommerce reboot, I now have the code infrastructure I need to easily sprinkle payment buttons anywhere that I want, and over the next couple months I plan to add donation buttons directly to many of my most popular and substantive articles. But with a twist! The content will remain freely accessible, but I will present those buttons as “suggested prices.”
The articles won’t actually be for sale, but it will look a bit like it. Enough that a few people may even pay up because they think they are “supposed” to or “have” to. There’s a grey area in there.+That sounds sketchy! Designing in such a way that foolish people are fooled — a “stupid tax” or a “careless tax” — and it’s extremely unethical. Actually dressing up a donation button as a required payment button would be Very Bad. People should not be punished for their naivete or inattention to detail. But please don’t worry: no one with more than two brain cells to bang together is actually going to think payment is mandatory. I’ll make sure of that.
There is definitely no clear “line” between easy/hard to mistake suggested prices for paywalls. These extremes are separated by a large grey zone filled with many design variables, all of which will collectively mean different things to different people. But a button that’s “easy” to mistake for a paywall? That’s definitely not in the cards.
As an interesting aside, in my experience, you literally cannot avoid the “stupid tax” entirely. No matter what you do with a business, some people are going to buy things they don’t need. I’ve seen it countless times over the years. I’ve refunded people whose reasons for buying are just mystifying.
This is a compromise between totally free and for sale. And it will be pure smoke and mirrors: in fact there will be no wall at all. By prominently placing payment buttons with “suggested” prices on them, I hope it will be a strong hint to readers that what they’re reading is just maybe worth something. The idea is to appeal to the same values that lead some people to donate, but more assertively. I think of this as the “busking model,” as opposed to begging, not asking for “donations” but for my income. Daddy needs a new gaming console! Oh, and rent!
Obviously the conversion rate ?E-commerce jargon percentage of readers who are “converted” into paying customers. will be super low. This is the internet, after all, where people expect all content to be free. But to be successful, all I need is for this approach to be more effective than traditional “begging.” And I have a lot of great free content. If even just a tiny sliver of a percent of visitors fork over a few bucks, it will be a legitimate new revenue stream.
The writer’s entrepreneurial challenge
A meta-goal of PainScience.com has always been to experiment with squeezing money out of the Internet ethically and creatively (without ads). Which is crazy hard. It’s nearly impossible for any kind of writer to make a decent living these days, and the entrepreneurial challenge of “writing my own ticket” fascinates me as much as my subject matter. And this will be the first significant change to how I monetize my content in quite a while. I’ll let you know how it goes.