Monday, 2 March 2015

Duotrope's Digest, Three Years On

Helping the headless since August 2005.
Somewhat over three years ago now, I wrote a post titled No More Free Duotrope's to commiserate the fact that Duotrope's Digest - self-described as a "service for writers that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, and non-fiction markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, submissions trackers, and useful statistics" - was moving from a donation-based model to a subscription-only one.  I've been a user of, and a fan of, Duotrope's for more years now than I can be bothered to count.  But having recently resubscribed for one more, and with doubts that I'll do so again come 2016, I thought that this might be the time to come back to the question I posed a third of a decade ago: is Duotrope's a good enough, vital enough service to warrant the $50 a year it currently costs?

Inevitably, the answer is "yes and no" - but to that I may as well add straight away that, for me, it's now more no than yes.  I said at the time that $50 was too expensive and lo and behold, it's still too expensive, a fact I'm feeling more now that writing is my only source of income.  The thing is this: I'm not paying for the submission tracker because I have a spreadsheet that does that, nor for the calendar of deadlines because again that's easy to do myself.  I'm certainly not paying for those useful statistics, since they're rarely terribly useful - but also for other reasons I'll come back to.  What I'm personally paying my $50 for is the database and the market updates, and unless those provide me with sales well in excess of $50 to markets I wouldn't (and couldn't) have found out about otherwise, there's just no way I can justify the expense.

There's a reasonable argument that 2014 scraped past that line, with sales to three anthologies I found out about from Duotrope's listings.  But when I stop to analyze that, the picture quickly looks less rosy: it works out that I paid them about 14% of what I earned because of them, which is only marginally less than the rate an agent would charge.  And if all an agent did was present me with a list of potential markets and say "knock yourself out," I wouldn't be paying them a thing.

Perhaps, in a sense, that's both an unfair and an overly restrictive yardstick to judge Duotrope's by.  Just because I'm not using all those other features, that's not to say they don't have value.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that the moment a service becomes commercial, it opens itself up to such criticisms; clearly, most of us don't pay for something for no reason.  The point where a service begins charging, in fact, raises a whole host of expectations.  Three years ago I said that "maybe I'm wrong, and that extra cash will see Duotrope's develop into something even more marvelous" and I think what bothers me particularly is that that's exactly what hasn't happened.  This may to some extent be a failing of memory, but I'm fairly sure that, but for a few aesthetic differences, the Duotrope's Digest of 2015 is largely the Duotrope's Digest of 2012.  The added income appears to have done little but keep it ticking over, which feels unambitious from a site that once upon a time improved on an almost daily basis.  In fact, more and more, it seems like a service stuck in stasis.  It frustrates me, for example, that they're yet to amend their criteria of professional markets in line with the SFWA's not-that-recent revision; I realise the SFWA don't run the world, but since the Duotrope's definition for both short fiction and novels is exactly the same as the SFWA's old one, it seems a safe bet that that's where they got it from.

Oh, one last grumble, while we're here.  An obvious point of contention that the owners of Duotrope's acknowledged when they moved to the paying model was that anything which reduced the size of their user base would inevitably affect the quality of their data.  The point has been repeatedly made that this isn't the case; Duotrope's even has a specific page called "state of the stats" that exists to deflect such criticisms.  However, it also has a page that shows which markets have registered the most responses, and that tells a somewhat different story.  In retrospect, it's one that should have been obvious: the quality of statistics for markets now depends greatly on how much they pay.  For Clarkesworld, with over a thousand reports made, they're probably rock solid.  For smaller, lower-paying markets - or for markets that don't pay at all - it's a safe bet they're considerably less reliable now than they were three and a half years ago.

Since I don't feel entirely good about sticking the boot into a service I've used devotedly for years now, I should finish by saying that at its heart Duotrope's Digest remains a profoundly excellent product. It's effective, intuitive, easy on the eye and has been constantly useful to me over the years; I have no idea how I'd have managed without it.  And while I don't think that directly charging the user base was the right choice when it came to monetizing the site, it's not a service I actually begrudge paying for; I was, in fact, one of the few people who used to donate regularly back in the day.  All I'm really saying is, Duotrope's is great, but it's not indispensable.  And for me it's now too expensive for what it actually provides.  If I'm going to be still using it in another year from now, it will need to be a damn sight cheaper - I'd posit $36 as a reasonable charge - or a damn sight more essential.

I sincerely hope it ends up being one or the other, because if I'm forced to give up on Duotrope's Digest, I'm going to miss it.


  1. I'm considering the same decision. I've stuck with Duotrope because it's good, and because it already contains all my data. That makes staying where I am the easy option. But whereas a few years ago short stories were my main writing outlet and I was submitting them all the time, now they're an occasional thing, a sideline to other writing. For that reason alone, I should probably cancel my subscription.

    I hadn't even thought about the lack of improvement in the site. Honestly, I was happy for them to just keep it working in a format I'm used to. But for people more focussed on the short story market, I can see how that might be an issue.

    I still think Duotrope is a great tool, but I'm not sure it's one for me any more, which after years of use is kind of a shame.

  2. I hadn't actually thought of it that way, Andy; I suppose the fact that my focus has drifted away from short fiction is a factor, too. Now that I'm down to eight or so stories a year, Duotrope's is proportionately less useful through no fault of its own.