The Science Reader: Help Me Draw A Profile

By Carl Zimmer | March 15, 2010 9:53 am


[As of 3/17 2 pm, the poll is closed. Thanks to everyone who responded. Results to be posted soon!]

[Update, 2 pm: Thanks for the big turn-out for my survey below. If you have trouble accessing it to enter your information, try again later today. I am hammering out some kinks right now. And I’ll crunch the numbers once the responses start to taper off.]

We writers, in case you didn’t know, are scratching our heads about what exactly to do next. It’s hard to figure out, because there are so many things we could do, at least in theory. If we wanted, we could write a novel in tweets, record an epic poem as a podcast, or transform a history of inorganic chemistry into an Ipad app. In fact, I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is doing all these things and more–but not all at once. Each writer has to figure out how best to use the twenty-four hours in a day.

It makes sense for writers to choose work that makes the most of their particular talents. And for writers who depend on writing to pay the mortgage, it also makes sense to write things that have a chance of being read, and perhaps (dare to dream) earn their creators some money. Ten years ago, the course for a writer wasn’t easy, but at least it had some clearly marked sign posts. You could try to break into newspapers or magazines with pitch letters and clip files. You could try to get a contract with a publishing house and write a book. Today, of course, people read in other ways as well. They read blogs, Facebook posts, Kindle editions, discussion threads, and on and on. The sign posts have been moved, turned upside down, or taken down altogether.

The writer is left to wander across a confusing landscape. This morning, for example, the Pew Research Center released a report on the foraging habits of the online reader that Gawker summed up fairly well: “Paywalls are anathema. Nobody clicks on ads. The value of news is zero dollars and zero cents.” But wait! Yesterday Business Week reported that ebooks are selling like hotcakes on the Iphone.

One thing is clear: it’s no time to sit in the monastery and continue to illuminate vellum scrolls. It’s time to try new things. Recently, for example, the novelist John Edgar Wideman skipped past traditional publishers to self-publish an e-book over at Lulu. It’s too early to know the outcome of that experiment; for actual results, one can follow the blogging of novelist JA Konrath, who is chronicling his experiences over the past year  publishing short stories and rejected novels as ebooks. It’s working out well for him, and promises to get even better.

I suspect that the fate of different writers will depend, in part, on the nature of their readers. As a result, I think the Pew’s report has a fatal flaw to it: it’s based on the old-fashioned notion that readers form a homogenous swarm. If you call a few thousand phone numbers at random, you will get a meaningful picture of people’s reading habits. But if there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that the country does not sit down in front of the TV and watch Walter Cronkite en masse. The motivations of the reader matter. Some people love to read about sports online, to the point that they will pay to roll around in baseball stats like a happy pig in mud (and no disrespect intended towards baseball fans or pigs). A lot of people will not spend that money. They’ll glance at scores on Yahoo News and move on.

So this is where you, dear reader, come in. Clearly, the simple fact that you are reading this blog means that you are…well, let’s call you exceptional, shall we? You may not be a baseball nut, but you are interested in science. Right now, you’re reading a post on a blog hosted by a fine magazine and financially supported by advertising and paid subscriptions. I want to get to know the science reader in 2010 better–how you get your science fix, where you expect to be getting it, what you hope for the future, and how writers may or may not be able to supply that fix and make a living at the same time.

While the science reader may be a bit mysterious to me, I know that readers of the Loom are willing to share their opinions. Last year a bunch of readers of the Loom took part in a survey about the cover of my latest book that ended up improving it greatly. So I’m going to impose on you again to participate in a slightly scientific, extremely idiosyncratic poll. While I have built this survey for selfish reasons, I hope they’ll be of interest to other people–both other writers and readers. Once the voting tapers off, I will write a post reviewing the results and giving you my homespun analysis. If you click the link below, a window will open up with my questions.

While Polldaddy does a great job of programming surveys and such, there well may be a few bugs. Please let me know if you find any. And don’t forget–use the comment thread if the survey isn’t describing your reading habits well. Many thanks. (And thanks in particular to Scott Sigler for some brainstorming.)


<a href=”” mce_href=””>View Survey</a>

[Image by the incomparable Berenice Abbott, via Flickr]


Comments (73)

  1. Interesting ideas in that survey. Looking forward to seeing the results. I’m not sure about paying individually for articles, etc. I like the model where I pay a “subscription” and then the money gets distributed among sites I like. But of course the biggest problem with Kachingle is that none of the sites I like use it!

  2. Ole Rogeberg

    A couple of comments off the top of my head on the survey:
    I replied that I will not click through all 30 pages of a long story, nor pay for it online – but the reason is that long articles are annoying to read on the net. I add them to my instapaper feed and download them to my sony reader and read them while commuting. Articles on websites where the print or “single page” option are not publicly accessible don’t work for this.
    As for ebooks – I don’t mind paying for them and frequently do, but don’t feel the computer/reader link is good enough yet. I can make notes on my sony reader, mark sections I enjoy, want to tip friends to etc. – but the software for viewing these markups etc. on my computer feel clunky and not userfriendly.

  3. One quibble with the question about how I pay for my science fix: I don’t pay personally anymore (except for what comes with my association memberships), but that’s at least partially because my work has all kinds of e-journal resources. I think this is a factor worth considering.

  4. I agree with Dave, looking forward to the results. As always with these surveys, I wanted more nuanced options, but I did my best.

    You didn’t ask about audiobooks – do you lump them in with eBooks? I’ve “read” a half-dozen science books as audiobooks during my daily commute in the past year.

  5. Michael’s is a very good point. I am a scientist and subscriptions to journals like Nature, Science etc… are paid by my institution (so even though I do not pay for it, someone still does :). I, still, do love reading popular science. I own a Kindle and sometimes buy e-books. However, for example the Question 9* did not take Kindle owners into account I guess, because, awesome graphics do not really change the equation for me, since Kindle is black and white and unfortunately does not offer the best of graphics options. (But I still like it).

    I find e-book prices a little expensive if they are over $10 because usually, I can go on and buy a used book for a cheaper price (if it not very newly published) and give it to a friend when I am done with it (increases my karma). So, I do not tend to prefer paying for the digital version if it is more than $10. I do not know why 10, might change when I get a post-doctoral job :)

    *Q9: Imagine this ebook: a book-length anthology of pieces by a science writer you like. It’s nicely designed and illustrated. What would it be worth to you?

  6. outeast

    WRT ebooks… I’m a major addict but I’ve not bought any science ebooks yet. But only because the kinds of things I’d like to see aren’t there (and also because most ebooks are unavailable to me because of geographical restrictions). But I’m not sure ebooks exactly are the best way to go with writing like yours: rather, I can imagine the app form being potentially rewarding, especially in combination with tablets like the iPad.

    Remember I once asked about a coffee-table Parasite Rex? Well, imagine that as an app instead – combining text with many pictures, maybe videos of mind-controlling cockroaches and whatnot, even with updates such as supplementary chapters based on blog posts from the Parasite Files… and all in a format which is not particularly amenable to piracy:) And frankly, all your books would go well with such a format – it’d be worth more to me than a sparsely-illustrated stack of paper. Everything you write makes me want to *see* what you’re writing about, and while that’s an impossible dream with dead trees it needn’t be with digital formats (though current ebook formats are not well-adapted to that, hence the suggestion of apps).

    Full app magazines would be good, too – I took out a subscription to Discover after one impassioned post you wrote on science journalism, but I’ve been frankly disappointed: content-wise a print mag seems so thin compared to online resources, and though I know there’s much more online I never get around to following up on the teasers in the magazine. I’d easily pay *significantly more* than the print mag fees for a once-a-month downloadable app that gives me all that content (including the stuff currently only online, text+pics+vids) on an iPod or iPad or whatever – with *downloadable* being key, so I can browse and read without delay wherever I am.

    That would seem a better option than a hybrid mag, at least for me. In principle I’d pay per article as per the model you suggest – but in practice, I don’t want to go through a checkout process, wait for the download, etc etc etc. Plus the fees would mount pretty quickly if you read even half a full magazine that way!

  7. CoffeeCupContrails

    Interesting survey.

    As a grad student, I can say without exception, I hate Paywalls. I hate Paywalls.

    SpringerLink – I hate you.


    Many of your readers are grad students. (Maybe that should be in the next poll?). As a group, we’ve been trained to detest paywalls when very reasonable papers are unfairly priced (SpringerLink, I’m looking at you.)

    Anyway, showing me abstracts or summary points and then asking me to pay for the rest sounds reasonable- I might do it myself. But I hate to be taunted or lured that way.

    Still, look at the Technology Review magazine blog. Those guys pretty nicely summarize papers from the Arxiv and provide a link to those articles. Most of the time, I don’t download the main document, even though it’s free. Especially because I now know the gist of the article and don’t want to spend an hour or so passing one equation after the next to understand the same.

    (Again, as a grad student, I’ve been trained not to have the patience to wait for pdf documents to load. So maybe the document format has something to do with it.)

    Note to science writers writing long articles:

    (putting things in brackets, somehow in my mind, puts that statement apart from the rest of the article). I then spend more time reading the article. Font style matters too.

  8. Chiral

    I love my kindle, but despise the drm on it. I’m not buying any more ebooks until they at least publish how many times you can download the book where I can see it before I pay. I really wish they’d pick up Apple’s model and let you download anything again if you deauthorize another device. Otherwise, how am I going to upgrade and keep access to all of my books?

  9. Lindsay

    I’m wondering – why the focus on ebooks? I found a lot of the questions on the survey difficult to answer because while I would like to say that I would pay for science reading, I probably will not buy an ereader until they grow at least more ubiquitous than the ipod. So right now, I can’t “imagine” a nicely designed science writing anthology ebook that I would pay for.

    A more interesting question that seems closer to reality: Once the NYTimes figures out their online paywall, will I pay for the Science Times, which is a valued part of my Tuesday morning ritual?

  10. Bernard Delacruz

    I think you also need to break down readership between general public, students, academics, etc. When I was a scientist I might have personally paid for a couple of journals as well as accessed articles–some for free, some for pay–and this is separate from my general science (SciAm, Discover) fix which is mostly satisfied by feed aggregators and library browsing.

    I answered as an (unemployed) general public person, not as a working scientist but my answers would be very different if I was still in the lab.

  11. If there was a central system to effortlessly manage online subscriptions, I think people would buy them for a modest amount. Maybe I’m not typical, but my limiting factor is not wanting another username and password to remember for everything. If it charged me a dime to read a full NYT article, I would read a few. But if I had to install a lot of stuff to do it, and write down a login and come up with a password with 3 symbols and upper and lower case … well then it’s not worth it.

  12. HP

    Regarding Q.2 — You mentioned television, but failed to mention science videos on YouTube, Hulu, BBC, NatGeo, etc., etc. I get a fair amount of my science fix in video form — everything from 3 second clips taken in the lab to full-length documentary series.

  13. Thanny

    The general problem with e-books is not the books themselves, but the portable hardware.

    The Kindle screen is too small and still black and white, as are all other E-Ink readers. That makes them useless for reading a magazine.

    The Fujitsu color model is too expensive, and only sold in Japan. And it doesn’t look very good in the pictures I’ve seen.

    The iPad is a back-lit LCD device, which means it will be useless in sunlight, and probably cause more eye strain.

    When E-Ink, or some other company, finally comes out with a large, color electronic ink display, then I’ll consider e-books. Not before.

  14. Bob Finn

    I’d like to correct one assertion in Carl’s post above.

    While I and most other writers do have to figure out “how best to use the twenty-four hours in a day,” this clearly doesn’t apply to everyone.

    Judging by his productivity, Carl’s days must run 48-72 hours at least.

  15. Maggie

    I don’t own a kindle yet because it’s not in my budget, but I plan on getting one within a couple of years. (Perhaps not a kindle but a sony reader or something else).

    One of the worst frustrations for me is reading popular science articles that link to nature or science papers that I can’t read. I would gladly pay $10 a month to be able to be able to download any scientific paper I wanted. But $8 a pop is just insane, especially if I can’t tell if the paper will be useful based on the abstract alone. Not to brag, but I’m the sort of person who would read through all 30 pages on nuclear fusion and still not feel satisfied, so I’d go hunting for papers. Sometimes, you just need to see an equation or a graph of actual data before something makes sense, and no amount of words and pictures will suffice.

  16. rehana

    One thing your survey doesn’t mention at all–living in a city with a good library is the reason I don’t really buy books anymore.

  17. Jonathan

    What about the LIBRARY? I can’t answer question 1 because he doesn’t have that option listed.
    My #1 way to get my science fix? borrow Science Fiction from the LIBRARY.
    ~1/3 of the books I read are non-fiction… ~95% belong to the Local public library.

  18. Jessica

    +1 to HP’s comment. I don’t watch any TV in the literal sense, but I like watching science documentaries through Netflix instant watch or finding good short videos on YouTube.

  19. Jay Fox

    Seems like a lot of interest in e-books and their readers. Not interested. Also not interested in “smart phones.” Give me one that just makes calls, please. Those screens are too frakin’ small to be of any use as readers or web surfers. I agree with the poster above about sign-ins and passwords – way too much hassle.

    I may be swimming against the tide on this, but I resist becoming “mobile.” Give me a big screen computer that I can read comfortably on, and anchor it to one place. When I want to surf, I can sit down and do it. I have not figured out how to do all that I must during the day and surf the web at the same time. Those that I see trying to do that do a miserable job at non-web tasks. They need to get their head out of the “cloud” and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world just past their tiny little screens.

    I do not mind paying for a paper subscription for science info. When I see something really interesting, I go to the web and read more. Having to pay a fee for every article would slow that down a lot.

  20. The survey seemed to me too much about contemplated business models, few of which I personally find interesting. (I pay for Nature and Science – not much else is worth what’s charged, unless it’s free.)

    As a science writer, I didn’t see much of anything that concerned what kinds of things people want to read, such as professional quality review articles, review articles for non-specialists, or dumbed down entertainment articles for people waiting in the dentist’s office.

  21. These responses show what ingenious creatures we readers are! I would pay to get through a NYT paywall, but figure we clever readers will also figure out how to get paywalled content for free through public libraries or professional associations. Why not a buying co-op? As a science journalist, I get some journal content free, but rely on the Web for much of the rest. YouTube has become an extraordinary resource. Not bad for a product launched in 2005.

  22. Kevin C.

    I was disappointed in this survey, as you still seem to be stuck in old-school 20th century thinking.

    Here in the 21st century, the costs of distributing information have become too cheap to meter, and you need to focus on making money off of other scarcities that are increased in value by the information you provide, not by charging for the information itself.

    You should look into the writings of Mike Masnick on adapting to the new economic reality. I had trouble finding a good starting page, but the following two links are a good start:

    [CZ: Thanks for the links, Kevin. While it’s true that the costs of distributing information are low, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the value of good writing is zero. The latter question is an open question. Maybe I’m missing something on the techdirt pages, but it looks like they are making money off stuff like t-shirts. If I write a story on carnivorous plants, I’m not sure how many t-shirts I can sell with Venus flytraps on them. But I may well be wrong, so please leave another comment if you catch this.]

  23. I have a vast library of PDF’s, and I no longer make photocopies—I get a scan of the PDF or book chapter or whatever. Reading on screen is a kind of torture for me, however, so I will print out what I need to read.

    I am a reviews editor, so I cheat and when I really want a book I offer to review it.

    I personally don’t subscribe to any science journals, but the various institutions with which I am affiliated do. I could never afford to pay for what I use if I had to, personally. As for more general-culture science stuff, I let twitter and the various blogs I subscribe to point me in the right direction. Mostly it’s a disappointment though. Inflated claims, no real understanding of scientific method or the scientific ideas, no sense of what’s really important to science, driven by the need to create hype.

    I have written about reading “books” on the iPad and Kindle here:

    (Apologies for the shameless self-promotion).

    Happy reading, e or otherwise!

  24. Steve

    I came in to write the same thing as Kevin. I just wanted to say now in response to your reply that the method you use to monetize the fact that you, CZ, have my attention and support, can be completely unique to your particular situation. Now that I know Carl Zimmer, I would like to attend an event he hosts in my town, my local university. I would pay to have dinner with him. I would pay for funny science t-shirts, yes. I would pay for a well crafted book, that is worth more than the paper it is printed on. Even if I had already read the content online. I want the things that I pay for to either provide an experience or to have some sort of future return. DRM’d e-books are exactly the opposite of that. They lose value with time and since they are abundant instead of scarse, the files themselves do not come with much value to begin with. See economics 101.

  25. Rachel Lee

    I second the comment about getting my science fix from youtube & other online videos — especially clips. Re: the first question of the survey, which I think was a general one about primary media formats for science news — what about radio or podcasts? I frequently listen to Science Friday on NPR.

  26. Well I, on the other hand, think that the survey was too stuck in hyped 21st century consumerism! I like to get my “science fix” through books of the paper kind, yet they were rarely mentioned in the survey.

  27. minusRusty

    For me personally, I like my Kindle for straight-forward text with minimal graphics (think Soul Made Flesh), but definitely physical paper for graphics-heavy stuff (Tangled Bank).

    As to purchasing online articles, I think the price I would pay would necessarily be related to the quality of the work I expect to be receiving. Heavily researched articles, yeah, I might pay $2.00 per. But probably not very often, unless I thought it was a retainable article (one I would use in the future). And not being an academic, it would probably have to be related somehow to the culture wars.


  28. Taina

    Like some other commenters, I’m a grad student. I can get any technical scientific literature I want through institutional access. If perchance I can’t get something online because my institution doesn’t subscribe or it’s not online at all, there’s always good old-fashioned inter-library loan. Somehow those librarians can always find someone who has what I need and what’s more, they’ll scan it and deliver it to me as a pdf!

    Like commenter #17, the public library is a major source of my science reading. If I hear about a good new science book (usually by reading blogs like this one and the science and book review sections on the NYT website), I reserve it at the library. I place high value on paper-and-ink books and don’t think I would enjoy the e-book experience as much, but I haven’t tried e-books yet because I’m too cheap to buy a reader. So if, after reading the library copy, I really like a book and want it for my permanent collection, I buy a copy. If I’m underwhelmed, I don’t buy it. For example, I’m currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (first heard of right here, then read more about on NYT) from the library. I think that I will probably buy a copy later on. Also, I recently bought a copy of “Finding Darwin’s God” by Ken Miller, which I had previously checked out from the library.

    I’ve been a voracious NYT online reader for years. As an undergrad, I paid for a paper subscription to NYT through their college student program. I loved reading it in the paper format and sometimes wish I still had a paper subscription, but again, I’m cheap. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I will pay for NYT online when they put up the paywall.

    I can imagine a “hybrid magazine” concept with a sort of “meal plan” pay model. You could choose between paying a flat rate for unlimited access to the full articles, or paying whatever amount you liked into a subscription account, and a dollar (or 75 cents or $1.50) would be deducted each time you chose to click through to a full article. No messing around with a “cart” and “checkout” every time you wanted to read a full article. When you’ve spent your full balance you could add more money or not, at any time.

  29. I think it’s important to recognize that the thing of longterm value – the merchandise – is the scientific information itself – everything else is just packaging.

    And most people throw away the package itself soon after they’ve bought the merchandise.

    Writers and publishers of nonfiction, including science writers and journalists in general, need to accept that they are only middlemen who put stuff in packages and move it around. There is definitely economic value in that – but it is ephemeral. Like the performance of a musician, an actor, or a comedian. People will pay to be entertained by performers – but only performers of the highest ability. Performers such as Carl Sagan or, quite possibly, CZ.

    A different type of middleman is the educator, and that has much economic value too – if the information itself has value. But few retail customers pay the educators themselves. Our social system has created institutions to efficiently collect payment for education in various ways. People who aspire to be educators almost always have to work through those institutions. (Even though, in a few fields, it is possible to make a living – maybe a very good one – as an independent lecturer, consultant, trainer, counselor, or “seminar” organizer – if there’s enough demand for the information. But that usually requires great marketing skills.)

    The lasting economic value, still, is produced by scientists and scholars, and by those who support or fund their work.

    Bottom line: Technology has put disintermediation in control. Anyone who wants to make a living as an information middleman does not have a lot of easy options.

  30. Robert E

    As far as items like the Kindle are concerned, I’m waiting for the Skiff reader.

  31. Nancy said:

    These responses show what ingenious creatures we readers are! I would pay to get through a NYT paywall, but figure we clever readers will also figure out how to get paywalled content for free

    Yep. For example, the New Scientist paywall takes just about long enough to load for an agile-fingered person to press Ctrl+A and Ctrl+C, and then Ctrl+V into a Word document. Just sayin’ 😉

  32. Carlie

    I like to read articles in print just to give my eyes a rest from the screen I have to deal with the rest of the time. However, the searchability aspect of online articles is amazing. I never have to remember where I read “x” factoid again!

  33. Hi Carl,

    I think that Charles Daney and Steve have made some great points. As a current scientist and former composer/musician, this is a subject I’ve put some thought into, so I’ll offer my one and a half cents.

    –The musicians who (I believe) have best adapted to the 21st century are those who have embraced the following idea, which I think is definitely applicable to the science writer issue:
    Try to sell your goods as ‘art objects.’ What I’m saying is that you should go in the *opposite* direction of the ebook. I’m certain that many here will agree (some have already implied) that if you publish an ebook, it will be viewed as another “free internet good,” and even your most adoring fans will find a simple way to view it for free (either through or through torrents). There are even more options for obtaining music for free. One route that has been enormously successful for both small and large artists is to, as Charles says, focus on the “packaging.” Artists in the black metal and indie communities have been doing this since the 90s–releasing colored vinyl editions of their works, editions with t-shirts and art prints, editions with bonus discs of rehearsal material or unreleased songs, etc. Even very small musicians (i.e. musicians who still drive themselves and their equipment around the country in an old van when they tour) are able to put “$100 super-deluxe, hand-painted, limited to 500 copies” editions of their albums online and sell out within hours (I’d be happy to provide specific instances where this has happened if anyone is interested). I think you should consider taking your next microcosm (an /excellent/ book, by the way) and trying this model. Maybe you offer 2,000 copies of the “signature edition” on your website, which is just the normal book with your personal signature inside the cover, priced at maybe 10% above list price. Then offer 500 “subscriber editions,” which include a personalized memo and a big poster of one Carl Buell’s excellent illustrations to this hypothetical book. Finally, 50 extra special $100 “Zimmerfan editions” are sent to your most diehard readers ahead of the publication date, and include the poster, a hand-written letter of thanks, a polaroid you took, and a fossil (or even just a cool rock) you found outside. Etc., etc. It may sound ridiculous, but these are the sorts of things that people crave in the digital age. I can absolutely guarantee that you would sell out of all of these editions, and part of the reason is that your readers absolutely /want/ to support *you,* but they don’t want to feel cheated paying for something that they know they could get for free. An ‘art object’ with a personalized, cottage-industry touch is something that you cannot get for free.
    This has been called the ‘Hat-In-Hand” model by some. The following article is excellent, and worth the time of anyone remotely interested in the issue of making it as an artist or writer today:
    One very simple way to implement this might be to place a paypal ‘donate’ button at the bottom of your articles.

    Also, re: Ed Yong’s comment: crafty readers can also disable javascript for in the options tab of firefox and avoid even seeing a paywall.

    No matter what you decide to do, your writing is truly excellent, and I really do hope you continue to be successful!

  34. chezjake

    A couple points:
    1. Add me to the list of avid public library users, and an actual book is more comfortable and portable than any battery operated device.
    2. E-books are of potential interest, but…
    – a. I’m more interested in reading them on my large screen iMac than on a portable e-reader.
    – b. I refuse to invest in any proprietary reader or software that restricts where or what e-media I purchase.
    3. Paywalls to sites where I don’t read huge amounts of articles are not even worth thinking about. A Kachingle-like arrangement that covered a multitude of interesting sites would be tempting.

  35. kuma

    Another shout out here for the library as a source of both print books and online journal articles. Even though I’m a librarian myself, I’m increasingly buying Kindle books for iPhone rather than checking out print books – the convenience is often worth it. I always take advantage of the free sample to make sure a book’s really going to engage me and have “re-readability” before I purchase.

    I get the majority of my science fix from blogs and online news/magazine articles. I subscribe to a few science RSS feeds, follow a lot of links I see on Twitter, and regularly read NYT online.

  36. 1. I never pay for science, that is what institutional subscriptions are for. If I were left without the recourse of looking up scientific journal articles, I might be more inclined to subscribe to more print magazines, or pay for content online, thought the latter is less likely as the information always seems to be available somewhere for free.
    2. The survey ignores sources of science, like journal articles (PNAS, JNeurosci, PLOS, etc.) all of these are free, online, and direct from the source. Also, current company excluded, many blog posts or other newsmag (online or not) coverage of science is rarely better than just reading the abstract on pubmed or the press release from the lab/university/company, etc. This probably also contributes to people not wanting to pay.

  37. I second the points that others have made about being a poor grad student, liking the idea of Kachingle-like sites that collect lots of interesting content from different sources, and reliance on institutional subscriptions for science content. If someone made a science blog central repository that could handle institutional subscriptions, I would be lobbying my university’s library so hard to subscribe! Alternatively, offering student discounts would also be great. I received a student discount from a small software company who verified my status by asking me to send them a link to a departmental website that listed me as a student. I thought that was a really thoughtful way to go about it (although perhaps not very scaleable, since an actual human had to click my emailed link and find my name on the page).

  38. rehana

    Thought about it some more and remembered something else: I don’t get ebooks from the library because the DRM is too much of a pain. They’ve got a long way to go.

  39. Thanks to the 3 commenters who mention Kachingle.

    Kachingle is live and publicly available as of February 14th. It is the perfect solution for the monetization of valuable scientific content.

    You can sign up for Kachingle as a user (Kachingler) or content provider (Site Owner) at We now have about 100 content providers and hundreds of Kachinglers. Kachingle is a network system, so each Kachingler/Site that comes into the system adds value to entire system. Please add your blog, website, or online service or try it out as a user.

    Yesterday we made our first Pay-Out (>$50) to one of the Kachingle-enabled sites. Check out

    Articles written about Kachingle in the last few days:

    Cynthia Typaldos
    Founder, Kachingle
    cynthia AT

  40. outeast

    Since this is largely a question of how to continue to monetize (science) writing, isn’t it a bit pointless for people to just write ‘I buy secondhand books’ or ‘I pirate newscientist articles’ or ‘I use the library’ without suggesting what might make them actually fork out dough? We can *all* get content for free… but as Carl has pointed out before, such content will only continue to be available *at all* as long as someone is picking up the tab. And mainly that means people actually paying for content, whether online or in dead tree format. You get all your access free? Bully for you – but someone, somewhere is paying for it, because without pay you get no production.

    Incidentally, the science fiction writer Charles Stross has gone into the economics of publishing in quite some detail on his blog (see this post, for instance). It’s been quite an eye-opener for me, and has make me realize how important it is to find new ways to actually turn good writing into money in the digital age. The old model is breaking, sure, but the current Internet model of ad- and merch-supported publishing is pretty much bust as well.

  41. Bertrum

    I had to answer that I will not pay for my science fix, but this is not true. I will pay for that fix, but not for a transient on-line version. I want a tangible thing that I can read, lend to friends, add marginalia to, use as a door stop, etc.
    A model I think would be interesting is to sell a book (a real one with pages and so on) that comes with a subscription to certain other digital content. Your hypothetical collection of articles in eBook format, should be in real book format that confers rights to access the online archive, blogs, video clips etc. It could even include an eBook version as part of the package.

    Take the way I consume music as an example. I will listen to tracks on some free to air medium (TV, Radio, disco). If I like what I hear, I will listen to some of the free samples from an online store. Then, I might buy the digital downloads if I’m not 100% certain that I like all the work, but in the majority of cases I will buy a physical CD, rip it to my player and listen to it there. So I use the digital format, but still own the artifact. If I like something enough to buy it, I want a ‘thing’ that I can touch, lend, write on, carry about, put in storage, lose, or even (gasp) sell on second hand.

  42. Shannon

    Your survey failed to mention your local library which is where I get ALL of my hardcover science books (including yours, Carl!). They even have audio books that I can request.

  43. The last two questions aren’t valid Carl. I had to choose the ‘never’ first response because I don’t think eBooks are ready for me yet. They need to sort out some of the DRM issues and I don’t want to buy a dedicated eBook reader.

    I needed a choice like “can’t answer given the current state of eBook technology and the eBook marketplace”

  44. Daniel Kerr

    Well, I’m kind of disapointed with the survey options. I get most of my science fix from Podcasts (Nature, Science, Scientific American, Naked Scientist, Science Friday). When a segment catches my attention I go to the printed or web source.

    [CZ: Judging from the many complaints like yours, Daniel, this was a major oversight on my part. Apologies. I guess I was too focused on the economic sustainability of the science fix–and as far as I can tell, podcasts themselves don’t directly generate any revenue. They just direct some people to a web site or a publication, as you say. That being said, I love podcasts too.]

  45. Clair


    You are looking for a revenue model to pay you for what you love to do. I can’t answer that for you. I can offer you what I think will work. People only have two things to give you to reinburse you for the work you do. Time and Money. People who pay you with money should get an advertisement free product. People who pay you with time should have to work though a lot of advertising to read your product. Those people who love your product will be willing to switch from the ad model to the pay model.

  46. Daniel Kerr & Carl:
    I admit that I blanked on Podcasts as an option for this survey, which is stunning to me considering I make my living off of podcasting my fiction novels. Oddly, it never crossed my mind. Now that it has, it’s like … duh, obviously.

    Carl, podcasts DO generate revenue via advertising. I run an ad on most podcasts at, and on my archived audiobooks (the back list) I have up at It took several years to generate a large enough audience, but now that I have it, I give away content for free and make money with advertising. This is nothing new — same model radio and TV have used for decades.

    It’s all about the eyeballs (or earballs, whatever). If you create solid, free science podcast content, and that content resonates with an audience allowing you to consistently generate large numbers, you can earn revenue with advertising. Yes, you can still drive traffic to a site, and urge your listeners to buy print products, but the podcast itself becomes the primary revenue generator.


    [CZ: Thanks for the extra wisdom, Scott. It almost makes the nightmarish image of “earballs” worth the horror.]

  47. HP

    One thing about podcasts — as a listener, I find that advertising in podcasts is both more effective and less annoying than online or print ads. Between adblockers and flashblockers and just plain directed attention, it’s a lot easier to ignore ads online or in print. But I do hear the ads in podcasts, and they’re certainly less annoying than popups onscreen.

    I think there’s a potential for podcasts to exploit the old-time radio formula, where the sponsor is in effect willing to pay creative types to produce compelling content as a vehicle for delivering targeted advertising. As long as there’s no conflict of interest (say, a pesticide or pharmaceutical company sponsoring “The Carl Zimmer Parasite Show”), I think a return to the mid-20th c. revenue models could work.

  48. Wilson Fowlie

    Normally I wouldn’t just pipe up ‘me too’, but since this is a survey, it’s a little different.

    I’ll add to the comments about:
    – podcasts. My biggest weekly science fix is probably the CBC radio show Quirks & Quarks. I also listen to Virginia Campbell’s long-running Brain Science Podcast. You might check out the latter, as Dr. Campbell is actively exploring ways to make a living from her podcast.

    – audio books. I have a 30-45 minute commute each way and since I lost my carpooling partner a few years ago, haven’t been able to read. Audio books (and podcasts) keep me from having to listen to the radio. I mix fiction with non-fiction and most of the non-fiction is science.

    – libraries. While I do buy occasional science books (and said so in the survey), I get more from the local library. This includes both print and audio. However, since your survey was really about viable revenue-producing channels that we readers use, I can understand why this option wasn’t included. Although, knowing the level of usage of non-revenue-producing channels could be useful too.

    – ebooks. I probably will be a very late adopter to ebooks. Partly for the reasons mentioned above – I do much, probably even most of my ‘reading’ aurally. When I’m actually reading with my eyes, I’m almost certainly at home, and I’d rather sit down with an actual book. I’m old enough for that to be nostalgically comforting. I don’t hate ebooks, I just don’t like them as much.
    The other part of my resistance to ebooks is the cost. The cost of ebooks doesn’t bother me, but the cost of the reader does.

    If you changed your book cover based on feedback, perhaps it might be worth taking a second stab at the survey based on the reaction so far?

  49. Most importantly, I think,

    1. I read too much to pay for single articles, and
    2. I read from too many different sources to justify paying for access to any single one.

    Like some above, I’ll gladly pay for paper, but not for an electronic copy unless it’s *very* inexpensive. If the cost is anywhere near comparable to a cheap book or magazine, I’ll gladly wait to buy the paper copy.

    If there’s news I’m interested in — but have to pay for access — I typically google/bing it, dig up other articles, etc. I’m almost always able to get a satisfactory amount of information.

  50. Laurie

    Will only pay $10 for an e-book if the articles are by Lewis Thomas or equivalent.

    I miss Lewis Thomas … can my affection for Wired science ever compete?

  51. Susan

    Like many other commenters I use my local library. Often if I see an article I really want to read behind a paywall I can access it at the library for free. I also find that for some reason reading on line doesn’t seem like the same experience as having paper in hand. I keep massive amounts of scrap paper around and print out articles that I really want to read. On the other hand, podcasts are really helpful. You can listen while making dinner or exercising.

  52. Just to echo what a lot of others have already said:

    I rely enormously on my university library for access to electronic and dead tree literature. I read a lot of blogs and I enjoy a bit of good popular science writing, but if I am really interested in a story I will track down the primary source and read it myself.

    And, again like others: it’s not that I am waiting for e-book technology to improve or that I think the idea is anathema – I just don’t really feel the personal need at the moment. But I felt the same way about cell phones for a long time, I may well join the kindle club eventually.

  53. I am all in favor of ebooks – especially from the Gutenberg project.

    I strongly object to public domain works being issued in digital form for a price, especially in a form that is not viewable in full screen using alternate fonts. Small gizmos and gadgets are useless to people with poor eyesight.

    Pay-per-view is something I disagree with – the greater part of the world’s population is excluded by poverty from access to what should be public knowledge: the latest findings of science.

    End grumbler mode, reboot smile. :-)
    Vivat blogging, ruat caelum.

  54. jdmimic

    Just to add my two cents to clarify my responses. Even though I have never bought a science ebook yet, i am not opposed to them. But I will wait for better readers. Most of the dedicated readers are fine for reading straight text, not so good if illustrations are an integral part of the book. However, the techonology has improved in just the past year, so I expect that I will buy ebooks in the future. I expect I will be like most people, in that the lower the price, the more I will buy, being completely irrational in that I will buy an occasional book at $8, but at $1, I might buy 10-15 in the same amount of time, assuming the books aren’t just reduced in size as well, which would put me off buying them completely. Now, where the breakpoint wherein the reduced price no longer brings increased sales, I don’t know. This is pretty basic economic theory, but the confounding factor here is the quality of the readers. Right now, I wouldn’t pay very much. With improved readers, I would likely pay more. So the price is going to be very dependent on what I can read it on and how important the visuals are for the story. If they are only adding glitz, then I would prefer a cheap text version I could buy.

  55. Tony

    I get the majority (75-80%) of my science fix these days through science and skeptical podcasts which wasn’t an option on the survey.

  56. Evan Harper

    I also do podcasts and public libraries. And — you don’t want to hear this — I just don’t pay for science writing. I get it for free on ad-supported sites (with AdBlock Plus active, of course,) or I get it for free on pirate Torrent sites.

    Basically what I’m telling you is that your business model is terminally fucked and there’s no way out. Sorry.

  57. Liz

    I couldn’t read all of the above and maybe I’m repeating something that was said before but in summary what I think ( and wasn’t covered in the survey ):

    – I’m not waiting for e-books to get better, but for e-readers to get better and cheaper.
    – As someone said above I don’t want to be married to a certain format because my e-reader cannot handle a different one. If I buy ebooks I want to able to read them on my portable device and on my computer with no formating problems whatsoever (hey I’m paying for them!).
    – A nicely displayed article is always pleasant, but the design should be fitted to the display ( scientific articles are the best example of this, they have an awesome display for paper but are painful to read in the computer ).
    – Paying for article should be made easy ( maybe not paying per article but per issue, which is what you would do if you were buying the magazine ), it’s boring to fill in your credit card details every time.
    – Easy automatic backup system for e-reader libraries.
    – No matter what you do, if its electronic someone will crack it and make it free, yet if the trouble of getting the free version is bigger than getting an easy to buy and cheap article you might make the same profit and still avoid piracy (to some extent).

  58. I, too, am in the situation where I am reading each week at least two print magazines -but it’s my media who’s paying. If it was out of my pocket, I would not be able to sustain.

  59. arrgh! and heavy sigh. most of the questions I could not truthfully answer and so left blank, this will not help you get insightful results if there are other people like me. Who wrote your (flippant) questions? My answers either fell in between or were not choices you gave. I’m an avid science reader. I get a good deal of my science from public radio. One of my favorite programs is Radio Lab, but there are others. I read mostly non-fiction science books throughout the year. I prefer to own my books so I can refer to them whenever I want. I don’t like to read my books from an illuminated screen, I like the tactile sensation of reading, I like to carry my book around with me, so I haven’t gone in the direction of ebooks. Perhaps at some point I will, but for now I’m not interested, the system I have works great– radio, podcast, books, lectures, magazine articles (analog and digital), webinars, dvds, museums and other outings. I enjoy going to lectures the most, but getting out when you have little kids is difficult.

    [CZ: I wrote those flippant questions. Thanks for leaving your comments.]

  60. How many e-books do I buy a year? More than 4 a year … but it’s more than 4 a week (because they’re half the price (or less) of print. Doesn’t stop me buying paper but I do buy less. (As my father remarked, running out of shelves is another contributing factor.) Most of those are fiction, but science books are about 20%.

  61. Dani

    Is the poll closed already?

    [CZ: Yes, just closed. I’m writing up the results now.]

  62. Patricia Ottesen

    I WANT to PAY for an iPad app that ill let me get each edition of Discover Magazine and read it on my iPad. I don’t want to carry paper around or decide exactly what I’m going to read before I leave the house. I want to pay just as I would for a subscription, but take delivery on my iPad and maybe a synced version on my iPhone. Then I will have Discover Magazine with me wherever I go.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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