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Tony Mobily [opinions]

So, why has the PDF gone? [pdfs] [free-software-magazine]

I am the founder of Free Software Magazine. My role has always been important, but you must keep in mind that FSM exists thanks to several key people who worked hard on this project.

My latest editorial has received countless comments about us dropping the PDFs. You can see them yourself - some of them are reasonable, while other were along the lines of "I want a PDF version, and I want it right now. If not, I will never be back to this site ever again".

When you manage a site like Free Software Magazine, your skin thickens - it really does. Rob Malda, the much-praised and also much-criticised leader of Slashdot knows this very well. Your skin thickens, but the attacks still hurt - every single time, on a personal level. I have always been sympathetic to Rob Malda, but only now I can say I truly understand some of his reactions.

I had planned on detailing the reasons for our decision to drop PDFs in the upcoming newsletter. However, it seems I need to respond sooner; this blog entry is to answer all those readers who sensibly, and politely, asked me why we made this decision, and even offered help to reinstate the PDFs. If you look hard enough, you'll see a few sensible responses amongst those angry ones.

We did not have the resources to continue producing PDF files. I have personally spent countless hours trying to make it work, with Gianluca (who was heavily affected by our decision) and Dave. Our original plan was to cover the costs of creating the hi-res, hi-quality PDFs (that is, paying Gianluca to produce it) with sales. The result was... well, disappointing to say the very least. The response was understanding though - in order to turn any profit, we had to charge quite high rates and on top of that there was shipping costs. As a consequence, after four months, had made only enough money to cover a couple of meals out in a cheap restaurant. Our readers were not interested in the paper version of the magazine, and the PDF - the electronic version - was an enormous burden on us.

The PDF needs a cover, needs composition, and needs a lot of double-checking. The PDF also puts a strain on the production schedule of the magazine - once the PDF is created, it's hard to change it. Plus, if you want to be able to print the magazine later, you also need to make sure the number of pages is a multiple of 16. This means that sometimes important articles are left behind because they just don't "fit the puzzle". There is also a "flexibility" issue here: without creating the PDFs, we can decide what gets published in an issue much more easily, and are able to make last-minute decisions.

Since the plan didn't work out, I hoped we could cover the PDF costs (in terms of time and money) by selling PDF ads. Unfortunately, selling PDF ads is basically impossible - unfortunately, we are not the only online magazine to have discovered this sad truth.

Basically, we cannot afford (either time or money) to continue producing PDFs. This decision wasn't sudden - we kept working on the PDF versions as long as we could. However, given the circumstances, I must say that the decision is final.

Somebody suggested that we publish PDF versions of the magazine and charge $1 for each copy. In our experience (we've tried charging for the PDFs before), readers are rarely willing to part with money for information they can get for free. Again, we are not the only ones who have discovered this fact. Further and unfortunately, micro-payments are not the easiest thing to deal with - it's actually quite hard to charge somebody $1 over the internet. There is infrastructure to set up, accounts, and missing payments to deal with and this is only the beginning. We would have to be convinced that it would be a worthwhile venture before we undertook it... and we have already been convinced otherwise. However, if somebody out there is serious about this, is a good graphic designer and wants to create and sell PDF versions of Free Software Magazine, please contact me in about a week (things are a bit hectic at the moment), bearing in mind that we have very little time available to manage such a system.

Dear sensible readers, I very quickly organised a "printer friendly" button for each article and blog entry. I haven't worked on the CSS yet (any volunteers?), but given the circumstances, I have put it online immediately. Dear sensible readers, consider this a compensatory gift to you, from me and from all the people who worked so hard on this amazing project.

Take care, and thank you for your support,


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