Behind Cognitive Monthly

Why did I start Cognitive Monthly?

They say science journalism is in a crisis mode. Many newspapers are cutting their science sections, and even the venerable Scientific American is struggling to find a business model that works in the age of the internet. So why on earth would I decide now is the time to start charging for a bit of rather home-grown science journalism?

Honestly, I don’t know. And I have no idea whether this idea will work. What I do know is that I’m unsatisfied with most science journalism produced these days, whether or not the whole business is in crisis mode. I also know that my experiences working with the traditional science journalism establishment have been unsatisfying. I don’t like deadlines. I don’t like selling ideas before I write them. I don’t like chasing down sources for interviews. I don’t like dealing with editors. I don’t like other people telling me what to write. Maybe that means I shouldn’t even try to be a “science journalist.”

But still, I’m also unhappy with the level of depth attained in a single Cognitive Daily post. Initially Greta and I started the site as a way to keep notes for a much larger work — a book, in fact. But all my issues with the science journalism world also apply to the world of trade book publishing. We’ve gone back and forth with several agents, even signed a contract with one, but in the end we simply didn’t want to be told what to write.

In the course of preparing sample materials for agents, however, I’ve found that I very much do enjoy the actual process of writing longer pieces. The problem is, a blog isn’t really the place to showcase a longer work. My eureka moment came when I saw how much Greta loves to read books on her Kindle. Here’s the perfect medium for sharing a larger work — and it’s even something people readily pay for. Why not give it a shot? Even though we don’t have an entire book to sell, just some sample chapters, we don’t actually need a whole book. The chapters can stand pretty much on their own. Since there’s no printing press, there’s really no reason you have to sell a book-sized chunk of writing all at once. You can sell it a chapter at a time.

There are also some interesting possibilities for synergy between the chapters and the blog. You can work interactively with readers to answer the bigger questions brought up in the comments section of a blog. Then you can put all that in your longer report, and sell it on Cognitive Monthly. It just might work.

I didn’t want to limit the project to just the Kindle platform, so I looked into other forms of digital publishing. Lulu.com offers exactly what I need — a way to charge people to download PDFs. As a bonus, they automatically transfer the PDFs to iPhone format. Yeah, I’ve covered all the hot personal technology devices!

There were a few technical glitches along the way, number one being the fact that there’s no easy way to go from Apple Pages to HTML, required for the Kindle (you have to take a cockamamy path via RTF and TextEdit). Lulu has its own set of hoops to jump through. Greta, who’s been very involved throughout the process, wanted to edit the final version, which meant editing two different versions of the file, then re-uploading each to its respective online distributor.

Next, we had to set a price. Obviously we can’t charge a book-level price for a chapter-length report. $1 is as cheap as you can go on either Lulu or Amazon, but that seemed a little low — almost like we weren’t placing any value on the product — so we settled on $2. On Lulu, this translates to $1.60 for us. On Amazon, only $.70. But we figured Amazon, plus the Kindle, might generate more impulse buys, so it’s probably worth it to be there. If we sell a few hundred copies a month between the two sites, it’s a worthwhile experiment. If we sell over a thousand, about 1 percent of the monthly visits to Cognitive Daily, it’s almost a sustainable career. Plus, 12 issues corresponds roughly to the length of a book. If a book is worth $24, then surely a chapter is worth $2.

I don’t expect to sell that many right away. As Bora Zivkovic notes, there’s a built-in tendency to expect to get stuff for free online. But that’s changing. We pay for music. We pay for movies. Now we’re starting to pay for books using devices like the Kindle and iPhone. Even newspapers and magazines are starting to move to Kindle. But why pay for a subscription if you don’t want to read every article? Doesn’t it make more sense to read just the articles you’re interested in? If the answer to that question is yes, then we might actually have a business model. In any case, it certainly seems worth it to try.

The other nice thing about an online monthly is that it never goes out of stock. Most people will decide not to buy this month, but maybe next month’s topic will seem more interesting to some people. If they like that article, they might decide to buy the back issues. Month by month, assuming we have a good product, sales should grow faster and faster, because there are more and more articles to buy.

Right now, neither Amazon nor Lulu offers a “subscription” model for mere mortals, but that would be an awesome next step. I could see a lot of people who might balk at $2 per month decide that $12 per year isn’t a bad deal, and I’d take that guaranteed payday over the iffy month-to-month prospects. Amazon also has a weird quirk. You set your price, and get a 35 percent royalty based on that price. But then they can turn around and sell it at a “discount,” which they did. The book now retails for $1.60 at Amazon. Fortunately, our royalty doesn’t decrease based on our adjustment. Clearly it costs them much less than the $1.30 they’d make at full-price to sell the book. I’d rather they not sell at a discount and just give us a bigger royalty, but I suppose if their discounts get too obscene, we can just increase our suggested price on Amazon. I’d rather people buy it from Lulu, where we make $1.60 per book.

One very unnerving aspect of the whole process is the way you can watch your sales roll in, in real time. In some ways, I’d rather just get a report once a month or so, so I don’t obsess about it. This is a long-term project, and its success is best not measured on a day-to-day (or hour-to-hour) basis.

I really hope this thing works, not just because the money would be nice, but also because it is a model that other writers and creative people might be able to follow. You could produce anything this way — a serial novel, a play, a TV soap opera, a record album — whatever you want. Creative people would be freed from the overlords who’ve controlled the means of distribution for centuries. Either that or I’ll sell 20 copies over the next four months and have to figure out something else to do with my life.

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3 Responses to Behind Cognitive Monthly

  1. Mark Sample says:

    This is an awesome experiment, and I hope it turns into even more than an experiment. Several of my friends have published books on Lulu, and they’re really finding a niche audience.

    You don’t mention Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory, but the economic model behind Cognitive Monthly seems to be in line with his thinking.

  2. Mark Hedden says:

    I think that this is a great idea! Good luck with this…. One question, is there anyway to link your “chapters for sale” to Cognitive Daily without causing a problem with them? Or, could you also link to this blog?

    Mark

  3. Mark Hedden says:

    Ooop’s, I just answered my own question by reading the April 30th entry of Cognitive Daily…. so…. uh…… never mind….

    Mark :-)

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