The Duotrope Question

December 14, 2012

Over the past couple of weeks writers have been debating the wisdom of Duotrope’s decision to start charging for their service. The site’s been around for years and has relied solely on donations to keep it running. And apparently donations were not enough.

Like so many others, I’ve been considering what to do come 2013. I’ve donated to the site a few times, giving what I felt was a fair price for the service on a yearly basis. It was not, however, the $50 per year they’re now asking. I’ll admit had sticker shock on first hearing the price, and I’m not alone.

I’m not opposed to paying for a legitimate service that helps me reach my writing goals. But Duotrope’s asking price seemed a bit much at first blush for things I could essentially do on my own. After all, Ralan still provides an excellent speculative fiction market listing for free, and really, how hard is it to track submissions in a spreadsheet? Not that hard.

There are also other options paid options. Most notably, the Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition is about $40 and comes with a one-year subscription to the online service, which includes up-to-date market listings and a submission tracker. I used Writer’s Market online years ago, so I figured I’d give it another go.

Step over here a minute so I can explain something. We’ll get back to Duotrope and Writer’s Market shortly. When someone says they’re a writer, it’s not so different than someone saying they’re a programmer or a teacher. Writing a wide field, and usually the first question asked is, “What do you write?” Programmers tend to work in a specific set of technologies, and teachers tend to work with specific subjects or age levels. So tools appropriate for a Java programmer may be completely useless for an Erlang programmer. Tools appropriate for a Kindergarten teacher may be completely useless for a Professor of Intergalactic Ice Cream Churning.

Tools appropriate for a freelance journalist may be completely useless (or close to) for a genre fiction writer.

I write speculative fiction (mostly horror). Writer’s Market strives to cover the entire gamut of writing markets out there, everything from consumer magazines on retirement to trade journals on maintenance and safety. They have a section for literary magazines, which includes many of the genre markets I target, but it’s no where near as complete as what you’ll find on Duotrope. Ralan is arguably even more complete than Duotrope, but it’s also focused only on speculative fiction. Writer’s Market has a separate market guide dedicated to Novels & Short Stories, but if you buy the deluxe edition and get the online subscription, you get access to all of their market listings on the website. So from what I’ve seen so far, Duotrope has a niche in the genre fiction markets, and they cover it far better than Writer’s Market.

In terms of submission tracking, the Writer’s Market tool is very general. The UI is clunky at best, and it lacks some of the features found in Duotrope’s tracking tool. All of my data from my last subscription (2008) was still there, and I quickly recalled why I’d abandoned it in the first place.

I’m not opposed to putting in the hard work required to research and track, but Duotrope has been my site of choice for both research and tracking for 4-5 years primarily because the tracking and market listings are tightly integrated. I’ve donated in the past, and had planned to continue donating in the future. And, I took time to compare the service with what seems to be its closest pay-based competitor.

I can afford $50 a year. Not everyone can, and I get that. Even though I can afford it, I still haven’t settled on whether I’ll subscribe. But if I couldn’t afford it, I would stick with using Ralan for market research and a simple spreadsheet or even paper for tracking submissions. Duotrope removes some of the tedium for these tasks, but using the site won’t ever become critical to success as a genre fiction writer.

If you’re a genre fiction writer who can afford their fee, give it serious consideration. They’re a top-notch site with a well-integrated submission tracking tool.

Duotrope has another feature, but I don’t believe it’s as beneficial as they would have us believe. Incorporated into the submission tracker is the collection and compilation of market statistics, namely things like number of submissions to a market, average response times, average acceptance rate. Personally, I only really ever look at response time stats so I have a general idea of how long I can expect to wait. The other stats are, in my opinion, dubious at best.

All of these statistics are based on self-reported data. Duotrope claims a major benefit of moving to a pay service is the weeding-out of users who are poor at reporting their data. While this culling of bad data may improve completeness of reported stats, I don’t believe those stats will really improve anything for us as writers. In fact, I would argue that Duotrope’s method of collecting stats is flawed from the start. To get good data around the markets, users shouldn’t be entering data at all. The data should be collected as part of the submission process.

There are a myriad of tools out there gaining popularity among the markets to manage the submission process. Sites like Submittable are available for general use, and some publishers have developed their own systems, such as CWSUBMISSIONS created by Clarkesworld Magazine.

Dear Duotrope: You want good stats? Provide an open API that allows these submission automation tools to report statistics as part of the process. Humans are notoriously bad self-observers.

Further, if you want to be a paid service then provide your customers with more than, “You’ll be able to continue using our service.” Give us a roadmap of features or services you’re working on.

And while you’re at it, consider telling us who you are. There are no names or faces listed on the website. The best I can find is that you’re an LLC registered in New Mexico. A little bit of research yielded one name (which I’ll keep to myself out of respect for privacy), but if you’re not going to list people’s names on your site at least give some reasonable explanation as to why. Put a human face on Duotrope and we’ll be more likely to trust you.

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