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Andrew Sullivan and the Limitations of the Subscription Model


This new year, the big news on the “what the hell is the publishing industry going to look like in ten years?” front is Andrew Sullivan’s decision to forego financial backing and monetize his long-running blog The Dish directly with subscription fees. Within a couple of days of announcing the move, Sullivan collected over $400,000 worth of subscriptions. This is an impressive figure, and it seems likely that Sullivan and his staff of six will reach their $900,000 yearly goal, at which point they will feel fairly compensated for their work.

New-media pioneer and evangelist though Sullivan is–there was no blogosphere when he started blogging–in one respect his move toward independence sounds strikingly old-media: his site’s goal is to attract somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 subscribers (at $19.99 per year). This is a respectable circulation for an issues-focused print magazine, but The Dish gets 1 million unique visitors per day. In other words, Sullivan has built one of the most dedicated readerships in all of publishing, and yet only 5 in 100 of us, at best, are expected to pay for the experience of reading his publication.

So Sullivan’s move, even if it succeeds, might end up confirming the limitations of the subscription model rather than charting a path toward publishing’s future. If a publisher must reach a threshold of 1 million readers before enjoying financial sustainability, the subscription model will only work for the biggest fish in the new-media ocean. (It appears to be working for the New York Times, as well, and at a much higher price point.) It will be reassuring to many, no doubt, if important brand-name publishers are able to shore up their balance sheets, but the end result of a subscription model would be, it seems, merely a shrunken version of the old-media landscape, delivered via screens rather than hard copy. As long as there is a wealth of quality content available for free, it’s hard to see how even the most vital and influential publishers will ever return to the subscriber levels of print’s peak years.

Digital platforms, as everyone knows, offer one enormous advantage over traditional ones: publishers can instantly reach much larger audiences than ever before. The business model that will prove truly game-changing will leverage the value of this audience at a rate higher than 5 percent. Subscriptions may end up being an important part of this model. Advertising may be, as well (Sullivan has for now decided to forego advertising as a revenue stream, for the stated purpose of maintaining his independence). Many of the publishers Submittable works with have substantially increased their bottom-line by asking for editorial reading fees. As the ability to easily create and send out our work continues to grow, we see this as an increasingly essential part of the overall revenue picture.

Sullivan makes no secret of the experimental nature of his gambit. Here’s hoping that, as his experiment progresses, he is able to supplement the subscription model in ways that will generate revenues proportionate to his immense readership. If he manages that, he will have done far more than earn a living for himself and his staff.

Mark Lane
Mark Lane

Mark Lane is the Director of Communications at Submittable. He is also a writer with work in the American Scholar, the Oxford American, Denver Quarterly, New Orleans Review, The Believer, and elsewhere.