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Duotrope Subscriptions and the Impact on Publishers

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March 13, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower

When Duotrope’s Digest switched to a subscription-based model at the beginning of the year, requiring users to pay to use the service for the first time since launching in 2005, one of the fears the impact it would have on publishers. Particularly, how would it affect small presses and new literary projects?

The general concern went like this: everyone used Duotrope, so it was a great way for new projects and small presses to get the word out to the writing world. Free advertising to the entire writing community.

How could these markets, without the financial resources to pay for advertising, survive with Duotrope closing its doors to the “common” writer?

In previous posts, I have discussed the worth of Duotrope and touched on some of the concerns from the writing community (read them here: Part I, Part II, Part III). There’s no doubt that Duotrope provides a great service to the writing community–both to the writers and the publishers. As a writer, I would not have anywhere near as many publications without the site’s convenient and comprehensive search and listing features. As the managing editor of Bartleby Snopes, I know that Duotrope has played a role in boosting our submissions and developing our readership. Being on the 25 Swiftest Markets list has no doubt kept our submissions up through the years.

So what about now? Did Duotrope’s switch affect us?

A few weeks ago, an editor from a small literary magazine emailed me asking for help. She said that submissions were way down this year, and she just wasn’t sure how else to get the word out. Her magazine was listed everywhere she could think of, and she did the usual Facebook and Twitter promotional stuff. Paid advertising wasn’t an option. What could she do?

One thing to keep in mind is that the number of submissions, much like success in writing, comes in waves. You know how as a writer you sometimes get a string of acceptances followed by a several month drought? The same thing happens with lit mags. We’ll have weeks with just a few submissions, and other weeks we’ll drown.

So far this year, Bartleby Snopes has received 391 submissions. During the same period last year, a free period for Duotrope, we had 455 submissions. That’s roughly a 14% decrease so far this year. Can we blame Duotrope?

Well, during the same period in 2011, we had only 330 submissions. Duotrope was still free back then. In order to blame them for our decline, we’d have to attribute the 27% increase from 2011 to 2012 to them. While they might be partly responsible, I think it’s more likely that our increased presence on Facebook and Twitter, as well as our appearance on Flavorwire’s Top Ten Lit Mags list, brought us more traffic. We became more respected in the writing community and as a result, received more submissions.

Enough about Bartleby Snopes. One example does not provide any relevant statistical insight.

I recently conducted a survey of about twenty literary projects that accept submissions. Most agreed that submission numbers vary (especially for those projects with irregular publication schedules). On average, the publishers who responded receive fewer than 150 submissions per month and have an average of 500 monthly readers, so we’re not talking about the heavy hitters here. We’re talking about the publications that Duotrope was most likely to effect. Glimmer Train and The New Yorker aren’t going to lose submitters because of Duotrope (and they aren’t likely to complete my survey either).

Forty-seven percent of respondents said they have seen no change in the number of submissions received since Duotrope switched. About twenty-five percent said submissions have gone down a little. Only one respondent suggested that submissions have decreased a lot since the change. The rest said submissions have actually gone up. One publisher informed me that Duotrope has never been much of a factor in referring traffic.

The next question I asked concerned the quality of the submissions. Sixty-five percent of publishers answered that quality has stayed the same. Twenty-five percent claimed to see an increase in quality. One publisher even said the “quality of Duotrope submissions has generally been the weakest.” Perhaps Duotrope in its free mode was making things too easy for amateur writers.

In general, the publishers I surveyed welcomed the Duotrope switch. Forty percent of the responding publishers spend no money on advertising in a given year, so they depend entirely on free services and word of mouth. Some publishers worried at first about staying on the radar without Duotrope freely available to all, but it seems that Duotrope isn’t the primary reason they were on the radar to begin with.

The only logical conclusion from all this is that the Duotrope switch has had very little, if any, negative impact on the literary community. It’s also possible that Duotrope isn’t as valuable to publishers as we once thought. Unfortunately, traffic referred from Duotrope does not appear on the Bartleby Snopes Google Analytics page (I tested several times). Our number one referrer is Facebook, although direct traffic and search traffic often trump that.

Has Duotrope’s switch impacted you in any way, either as a writer or publisher? If so, share your story in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “Duotrope Subscriptions and the Impact on Publishers

  1. Lx says:

    I think this basically shows that nobody knows SHIT about what works and what doesn’t work with online stuff. This is why I’ve always thought that these “social media experts” are full of shit. No one knows anything for sure; one day this works but the next it doesn’t. So I never ever pay attention to those “tips” everyone seems to have about publishing and the Internet. It’s bollocks. It’s still an unknown realm. I used Duotrope profusely when it was free; when it switched to subscription-based I just made my own Excel spreadsheet. I don’t submit my short stories anymore to anyone, as I’m working on a novel right now, but for writers with dozens or scores of submissions out, I recommend just using Excel. Or…paper and pencil.

  2. Mike Joyce says:

    Nice post Nate; the magazine I edit, Literary Orphans, can further corroborate your findings. Our submissions have actually increased; this is due probably to a new site design and a lot of buzz from our last issue. I don’t think Duotrope is our #1 referrer anymore. However, I will say that shortly after I founded the magazine a year ago, we were added to Duotrope and literally the week that happened, I received at surge in submissions–somewhere around 30 that week. While this is chump change for us now, I was so elated that the very low trickle we had been getting shot up so radically at the time and was (and am still) very grateful. Perhaps, if anything, that will be the worst impact of this–putting new mags on the map.

    Thanks for these blog posts on research, I have found them very useful and they help me get a little extra sleep at night.
    Mike Joyce

    • Mike, thanks for the comments. Always great to hear more perspectives. I think the initial surge could be explained by Duotrope’s recently added markets page. I know that some Duotrope users spend all their time on Duotrope looking at that page. Some are looking for easy publications (hey, a new mag has less competition). Some are looking for best chance at paid acceptances (again, a new mag has less competition, and if you get your submission in first…).

  3. David Sklar says:

    I just checked my publications from last year, and it looks like about half were in journals I’d found out about through Duotrope. That’s raw numbers–I think it would be lower if gauged by dollar amount or word count, since the Duotrope markets were largely in poetry and flash fiction. I like their searchable database, and their weekly updates–especially the part at the end that lists themed anthologies/journal issues and their deadlines.

    I do wonder if a part of the “quality” issue may be that Duotrope makes it easier for authors to send to magazines they haven’t read, resulting in a higher number of unsuitable submissions.

    I haven’t paid for a subscription, and I’ve been focusing more on sending to markets I hear of through word of mouth (like Cold Reads, of course) and markets that might actually bring me closer to professional status. While a $50 annual subscription isn’t in the budget for this year, I’m seriously thinking of taking out the occasional $5 one-month subscription and then searching the database for target markets to cover the next 3 months. I’m not sure that’s what the folks at Duotrope had in mind when they set up their subscription model, but if it catches on it may lead to more people paying at least something for the service, and help them stay afloat.

  4. I’m a subscriber, Nate, taking the 50 bucks from my meager PayPal account. I go to the site at least every other day and have notified of them of two that are defunct. Have found new markets that have accepted my writing (genre stuff, mostly). And feel good that I put The Story Shack into their database. Publishers must know that Duotrope is another way for their writers to find them, but publishers must know too that all social media–like any advertising venue–is necessary to get their names out to readers and writers. Now, what I really want to see is a Nielsen rating for online publications–like an ABC circulation figure–to tell me how many readers are reading my writing.

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