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Dave Guard [opinions]

If transparency is what you want... [free-software-magazine]

I’ve been telling Tony for a long time now that we need to be more transparent. You know... let our readers know what’s really going on behind the scenes. But he gets so busy with all his work (until recently he’s been working three full-time jobs... ah the life of a workaholic) and I’ve been reluctant to start something that will mean even more work for me (ah the life of a slacker). But there have been some negative—yet understandable—misconceptions circulating amongst some of our readers (in particular lately) and it’s probably time someone made it clear what we are all about...

Sometimes we get emails from readers and they act is if their (sometimes nasty) emails will never reach a real person and they’re completely shocked when we reply within a day. We’ve received emails that have implied we are rich and live in some ivory tower and others that assume we work in some office block somewhere with air-cons and secretaries and xmas luncheons etc. In fact, most of you are probably completely unaware that it’s pretty much just the two of us (Tony and I) running this project from our laptops at home with the aid of some fantastic auxillary staff (Bridget, Alan and Gianluca). Most of you wouldn’t think/know that we have, in fact, been sacrificing a lot to keep this magazine going because we believe in it heart and soul.

Now I hear you groaning “Here it comes... whinge, whinge... give us money... pat us on the back... blah blah blah”. But we’re not into that. We really like what we are doing with FSM, for the free software movement and for our readers. I just want you all to know, if you’re interested, what our true intentions are so that maybe you’ll cut us some slack... we are only human and we need a little slack sometimes. And, if you’re one of those lovely people who has believed in and supported us from the beginning and have cut us more slack than we are worth—and I know you are one of them—then thanks! You’ve made it all worthwhile.

To put it simply, our intentions have always been: to pay authors to write high quality content in an attempt to promote free software and help educate and instruct readers in its use for free. And we’ve almost managed to achieve that and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. (Please note that profit is not part of the mission statement—we only want enough to make the project self supporting.)

Tony and I, along with many others (you know who you are... and we love you all), have worked for next to nothing, if not for free, for over two years now keeping this project going. And, if we had everything we ever needed we would still keep working on FSM because we believe in it and it’s what we want to do. The fact that Tony kept working on the project when he was diagnosed with, and then when he was fighting off, cancer should be evidence enough. Thankfully, I haven’t had to prove myself in the same way.

Now, I’m not gonna lie to you, we do want more money. Tony and I have recently started getting enough income so that we can keep it going. It’s certainly doesn’t cover all of the work we have done—we have worked untolled hours and have made ourselves available 24/7 for FSM—but it’ll certainly keep us going. So, the extra money we want is not for us. We live humble lives so that we are not, ourselves, a drain on the magazine’s funds; we really want more money coming in so that we can start paying the other members of our crew... especially our wonderful authors. We have agreed that books just aren’t enough compensation for the great work they do. And, as soon as FSM’s income increases to the next level, our authors will be rewarded.

Now to the issue at hand... PDFs

Whatever your opinion on the PDFs and their future, it’s hard to deny what’s been happening in the industry. For example, while there may still be a demand for the PDF format, it seems it wasn’t enough to keep TUX afloat when they started asking for money. And it certainly wasn’t enough when we initially asked for paying PDF subscribers back when we had to stop printing issues due to lack of interest and funds. We were only continuing with the PDFs because we needed them in order to create the versions. Now that that business model has failed we had yet another reason not to keep them. Tony has already covered the other reasons but briefly:

  • They are demanding on our system. And, the tricks we used to ease the burden caused problems for quite a few users (who did not remain quiet about it... and fair enough; it’s your bandwidth and time as well).
  • They require hours of composition and juggling and we have not yet been able to pay for it. This took its toll and we just couldn’t go on asking for this work to be done for free.
  • And, as mentioned above, whether you like it or not, there were just not enough people willing to pay when we offered PDF subscriptions and TUX ran into the same problem.

Speaking of business models, even though we have over 30000 subscribers and fantastic content, each attempt we have made to get a viable business model in place has, in no uncertain terms, failed miserably:

  • selling print subscriptions
  • selling print advertising
  • selling PDF subscriptions
  • selling PDF advertising
  • selling HTML subscriptions
  • selling copies
  • asking for donations
  • selling newsletter ads
  • (don’t even suggest putting print copies on the news stands—you would not believe how much startup money you need for that nor how long it takes before you get a return on your investment. And, besides, we’ve already tried getting venture capital and no one even sniffed at our application.)

Now this is not a gripe. I'm not complaining. I don’t blame anyone for these models not working. They just don’t, at least they haven’t for us. We have faced the facts and moved on. You can’t make money selling a product no one wants/needs to pay for (winks in Microsoft’s direction) unless you have a huge marketing budget available.

Unfortunately, the only model we have found that works for us is selling online advertising... which leaves us feeling dirty and gets us plenty of complaints (including the FSF who stopped linking to us because we were displaying ads they didn’t like. Fair enough too... it’s certainly the thing I like about our project the least and if I had my way they’d be the first thing I’d change (read: get rid of) if we had a better source of income). While we will never stoop to displaying the ads and “whitepapers” of the likes of Microsoft (cough Linuxtoday cough... :) alright that doesn’t work so well in text), ads are how we’re managing to keep FSM going with our tiny skeleton crew at the moment. We are just scraping through and we feel pretty bad about still, after over two years, not having enough to pay authors (remember that has been our target from the beginning). We just never thought that paying ourselves would be such a struggle in the first place.


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