Some items feeding into each other that I ran across last Friday:


StartUp episode #16: The Secret Formula

In the first season of StartUp, one of the possible routes that they considered taking is the traditional VC strategy of getting a large audience by making lots of stuff, trying to build a large and defensible business via network effects. I was glad to see that they didn’t take that route: these days I’m getting more interested in what it takes to do something really well rather than to do something at scale, and I’m getting less interested in VC growth strategies. (See also Signal v. Noise post suggesting reconsidering VC money.)

So I really enjoyed this episode, where they started off by talking about how their “secret sauce” is to put in a lot of very skilled work producing very well crafted podcast episodes, and then they gave a live example of how that works. They showed how they go from idea to raw footage to a better idea of where the story is to a revised script to better footage: I love this sort of concrete, worked-out example.

And I appreciate seeing an apparently successful small business, with some modest VC pressure, navigating the waters of growth.


Unwinnable: Content is the Opiate of the Masthead

I’ve been published in Unwinnable twice now: a reprint of parts of my post on the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter and a reprint of my post on games, prices, value, and uncertainty. I didn’t get paid for the former; I asked about payment for the latter, was told that their standard rate was $50, and I didn’t argue.

That $50 rate felt a little funny for a couple of reasons, though. One of those reasons is that the article was almost four thousand words long; $50 feels like a token payment, given that. (I won’t say that they’re 4000 great words, but I also didn’t get paid in the learning that comes from editing, either.) And the other is that an Unwinnable subscription is $96/year; so, even though I’ve been published twice this year, I’ll still be paying them money overall! I actually thought about asking to get payment via a free yearly subscription instead of via money, but I ended up not doing that.

That was just in the back of my mind, not anything that actively bothers me; my blog posts are in the public domain, after all, so Unwinnable would have been perfectly within their rights to publish them without even asking me! I have zero desire to try to be a freelance writer, and I have a good salary, so $50 versus $250 doesn’t seriously affect me, either one is a pleasant but small windfall.

Though, actually, I have been thinking recently about unsubscribing from Unwinnable. Again, the price isn’t so much the issue, though $100 / year (or the $8 that I see on my monthlycredit card statement) is enough to pass my financial “should I keep doing this?” threshold in a way that the $35 Kickstarter subscription price wasn’t. Rather, It’s the rhythm of the thing: I either need to find time to read Unwinnable every week or I need to fall behind, and I’m not thrilled with either idea. (I have enough magazines on my dining room table already…) Five out of Ten fits into my rhythms better, as does plain old reading a book. (Or at least I would like reading books to fit into my rhythm better; and in general reading longer-form work makes me feel better about myself.)

With that as prologue: this article. Seeing that $50 is the standard rate made me glad that I didn’t argue: I’m happy to be in the same boat as the other writers, even if I do blather on more. And seeing how on the edge of financial ruin Unwinnable is makes me feel a little guilty about considering unsubscribing, though not too guilty: I hope that I am following the article’s requests of not spending too much time on word factory sites, and of paying for the more substantial writing that I am trying to spend time on.


Exponent Episode 58: The Attention Market

If you only follow one of these links, this is the one to follow, even if it will take an hour or so to listen to: once it got going, it was repeatedly fascinating. The podcast hosts have been talking for a while about a concept of a publishing landscape where the middle ground gets squeezed out but where either very large sites or individuals with a focused audience can survive; this podcast was an important evolution of that thought.

The first part I thought was really interesting was when they talk about how writing is only a part, potentially a rather small part, of how small sites make money these days. In particular, they laid out a chain of interactions where somebody follows an interesting link to your site, then they start reading it more regularly, then they follow a podcast link, then they end up being a podcast regular. This gives two opportunities to make money off of (tasteful, targeted, native) focused advertising: posts in your feed / on your site (maybe one per week), and spots on your podcast episode (maybe three per episode). (Daring Fireball / The Talk Show is a canonical example of this strategy.)

The point here is that, for a small site, standard display advertising is extremely unlikely to make enough money to support you, because the rates are too low for your volume. Subscriptions are a possibility (it’s how Ben Thompson, one of the podcast hosts, makes most of his money), but having your content be free has huge advantages in building an audience. If you’re a really focused site, though, and if you’re in the right sort of market, then there will be people who want to advertise specifically to your readers / listeners: they won’t be the big companies, they’ll be the small companies who are heavily involved in your target market. So that gives you a way to get higher rates (and flat rates instead of per-page-view rates); apparently podcast ads are actually a pretty decent way to make money these days, though you need both reputation and audience volume to pull this off.

The other part of the episode that I thought was really interesting was their discussion bundling. We all find bundling annoying when we look at our cable subscriptions and see a hundred channels that we’ll never watch, but the hosts made a pretty compelling case that bundling is actually good for both the audience and the content producers.

If all content is unbundled, and if people are choosing everything that they’re paying for, then an awful lot of time people will end up deciding not to buy, leading to less money for the producers and fewer choices for the consumers: e.g. if I’m a baseball fan but only a casual basketball observer, then I’ll be happy to pay $10/month for baseball but I wouldn’t be willing to pay that for basketball (and I probably don’t even want to think hard about how much I’m willing to pay for basketball); this can play out in various ways, but one way where this can play out is that I won’t get to watch any basketball and the basketball teams won’t get any money from me. Whereas if they’re both bundled together for $13, then I’m probably happy with that price, I have more stuff to watch, and the content producers get more money overall from me and from my basketball fan / baseball casual alter ego.

And this in turn got them rethinking their suspicion about medium-scale businesses: maybe a medium scale group that’s made out of bundled focused smaller groups could be successful.


Those last two items, of course, raise the question of whether Exponent has lessons for making thoughtful games commentary a sustainable business. One option would be to broaden the revenue stream: don’t just focus on writing, add in podcasts and youtube channels as well, with the various audiences all feeding into each other and with native advertising in all of these places. (As Unwinnable is in fact doing with their Unreal Engine articles.)

The downside there is that you still need the audience size / devotion and you still need to be able to convince advertisers that it’s worth their time and money to focus on you.

The other potential route is bundling: maybe Unwinnable, Five out of Ten, The Arcade Review, etc. could get together and offer a joint subscription that would give people access to all of their magazines at either the current price for one or something a bit higher. Or maybe a cross-genre approach would work: Unwinnable could pair up with philosophically similar publications about sports or books or music, so people who are devoted to one of those but have some interest in reading about the others could combine together to build a bigger audience than the combined individual publication audiences would be.

Or, of course, combine both of those! Have some of your content (e.g. most of the long-form writing) behind a bundled paywall, but also have podcasts that anybody can listen to with its own native advertising!

I dunno; it’s a hard problem, and I’m glad it’s not my problem to solve. I’m still not convinced that there’s enough of an audience for regular high-quality games writing to make a business out of it; maybe a patronage model, with eventual dreams of a guaranteed minimum income, really is the way to go in that sphere.

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