June 16, 2009

Monetizing Documents: Ecommerce, Advertising, Paid Services

The recent announcement that Simon & Schuster would be offering eBooks for sale via Scribd reminded me that I've been meaning to do this post about monetizing documents. It's also a reminder that bookmarking a good idea rather than going ahead and blogging about it is almost always a mistake. If you put off the post, the situation will change and become more complicated and instead of having something on which to build, you have a more complicated post that's even easier to put off!

Selling Documents and eBooks

Last month, Scribd, a social site for posting documents, announced that they were adding an e-commerce aspect in the form of the Scribd Store from which people could offer documents for sale. This wasn't a new concept though it was a new move in the social document site game and got a lot of coverage on tech and business blogs.

paidContent.org quickly did an interview with Scribd’s VP of Content and Marketing, who revealed that the terms were generous with 80% going to the sellers. Scribd, which has created a "copyright database", has integrated that service with the Store to ease blocking copyright violators from using Scribd to pirate their work.

The copyright database is a particularly smart move for Scribd, which allows people to upload documents for free without any real screening process regarding copyright, because a lot of the animosity towards YouTube, in my opinion, came because they made the process for copyright owners to get material removed extremely difficult. Of course, a database for text is a lot easier to create than a similar tool for video.

As noted at Book Business, numerous publishers were already using Scribd for marketing purposes and companies like Lonely Planet got involved with this new initiative from the beginning. The announcement of Simon & Schuster's use of the Scribd Store was important due to their size and is quite validating news for Scribd as well as for independents who benefit from the platform's validation.

If you have documents that you might want to try selling, from eBooks to research papers to recipe collections, other outlets to consider include Lulu, which offers free setup and just takes a commission on eBook sales, and the Amazon Kindle, which is a little more complicated and is accessible to a smaller audience but has the sexy quality of being new and trendy.

Advertising Revenue for Posted Documents

Docstoc, a Scribd competitor, also made news last month when they announced the launch of DocCash, which basically offers folks who upload documents via their free service the opportunity to get a 50/50 split of revenue from Google ads placed on the pages in which one's document is embedded.

This announcement actually preceded Scribd's by a day or two, if I recall correctly (which I would if I had created this post in a timely manner!), and got blown out of the water by Scribd's move. I think this is partly because there were already a lot of options for posting content online and getting a rev share and also partly because getting a cut of Google ads is just not a big money maker except in increasingly rare circumstances.*

That said, if you're simply trying to get documents distributed more widely, why not go ahead and make a little money out of the process if possible. The reality is that a large number of people who write do it for the attention and the income is quite secondary. However, if they're able to get a little income, they seem to really appreciate it even though it doesn't work out to a reasonable hourly wage if they're doing anything at all time consuming.

The desire of writers to distribute their work, as well as the need of marketers and propagandists to distribute various documents, has opened up the possiblity for web publishers to create platforms that monetize the long tail. However, there are many such platforms emerging from social document sites, like Scribd and Docstoc, to sites such as Associated Content, which pay upfront on some assignments as well as paying per page view, to sites like the newly emergent Examiner.com, in which writers have particular topics and also get paid for page views.

If one expands to other forms of content creation with payment related to pageviews, such as Squidoo, one has to consider the fact that there are an awful lot of people making content for a rev share based on traffic that's mostly fueled by search engines.

That means not only that monetizing one's documents and related writing via the sites that allow document posting is becoming difficult but getting mindshare for one's documents is becoming ever more of a challenge.

Paid Document Distribution

Obviously there are a lot of options for monetizing documents and, as was the case before the web, making real money off one's content remains difficult although it seems easier to make small amounts of money than was the case before the web. One can also profit from paid services for folks creating documents who need support, from editing to distribution.

I actually started investigating document posting sites not to make money off the documents but off the distribution of those documents. I was working on a project inspired by Hip Hop Press, my free hip hop, r&b and other urban stuff press release posting site, that was intended to move away from ad supported press release distribution to paid services because monetizing documents via ads is tough and you can't sell press releases!

One aspect of that service was to be paid distribution of press releases to free press release and document posting websites. So I'd get paid for distributing the documents and saving other folks the trouble. That in itself isn't a road to riches but it was one service that would be bundled into other services that would have been offered through the site and eventually would have been taken over by other workers, since it's a pretty simple thing to do once you've figured out the appropriate sites on which to post.

I mention this because it offers a third path to monetizing documents, in this case the documents of others, and is a reminder that, if one thinks flexibly, one can leverage a service created for one purpose and find other uses for that service, just as app makers are building profitable ecosystems around such platforms as Facebook and the iPhone.

More directly relevant examples can be found on Lulu's Services page which includes their paid offerings, free marketing tools and the Community Services Marketplace which links Lulu publishers to third party providers.

Ecommerce, Advertising, Paid Services

The above examples of monetizing documents point to three major paths for making money in web publishing. Selling goods, selling ads or selling services. Another and somewhat different game involves brand building via web publishing, though I would recommend blogging over most of the above routes for that approach, and then profiting from one's brand through other means than monetizing that stream of writing.

Whatever route you choose, the world of document and related content posting is a microcosm of the web publishing universe, as is blogging, that can allow one to consider the issues of the business of web publishing without having to consider web publishing as a whole. But, if you dig into such a microcosm and deeply engage the wide range of issues that you will encounter, you'll eventually find that the lessons learned there will carry over into other spheres.

Related Resource at Squidoo:
Get Paid to Write - Make Money Writing Articles Online

*[Note: I'm currently running a small Google ad to this blog for two reasons.  One, to let people know that this blog is carrying ads in case I pursue related options.  It saves certain kinds of readers from feeling 'betrayed" if I go that route.  Two, I want to see what happens though I'm not loving the ads I've seen to date.]


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