On the New Readability.
A new version of Readability is out. The hook is a system of revenue sharing for publishers registered through the site. Seventy percent of subscriber fees are re-distributed to publishers twice yearly.
The site is nicely designed, the tone is clear and purposeful: by agreeing to donate at least $5 / month to Readability you contribute to a sustainable system of writing and reading on the Internet. It’s a clever and hopeful premise along the lines of Kickstarter, tip jars, shareware, and myriad other altruistic revenue schemes designed to convince users that something they already get for free deserves to be paid for directly. The twist is that you’re still actually supporting your favorite authors only indirectly. Readability reserves 30 percent of your monthly fee and, at least for now, offers no way to control the distribution of the other 70 percent.
By tracking the number of articles you read from each publisher, Readability determines how to divide your donation. Right now, that means clicking a Readability button embedded on the site, hitting your personal Readability bookmarklet, or saving the article to read later in Instapaper. If profiting from Readability (the service) is something publishers desire to do, it seems inescapable that readability (the experience) will suffer. Prodding people toward using Readability means at minimum including Readability links and could conceivably entail yet more site advertising to further segregate those who will tolerate ads and those who resort to services like Readability to escape. This is an admittedly cynical view of the publisher reaction, yet it is but one of many perverse incentives of the new Readability.
If Readability is in fact tracking only clicks and not time spent on the site, what type of writing does that promote? More frequent, disposable articles at the expense of considered analysis and user-friendly features. What of feed readers, competing time-shifting apps, and system utilities like Safari Reader? On this point, at least, Readability appears to be well prepared. The API ought to allow Readability tracking as ubiquitously as Instapaper integration.
Everybody wants to see the new Readability succeed. Independent publishers (like us) will be happy to accrue pennies here and there as an article gets picked up by a larger publication and readers stream in. Full Stop is registered for such an eventuality. Ironically, these sites are frequently the most well-designed and, thus, least in need of Readability’s service. The best way to support your favorite publishers will always be directly.
Still, Readability may want to consider expanding their offering to include an easy-to-update whitelist of sites that are automatically tallied as you browse. For sake of example, each time you end up at Marco.org and have the Readability add-on installed in your browser the clock starts ticking. Alternatively, a one-click way to mark an article as read without necessarily invoking the Readability interface would suffice.
Whether larger publications like the New York Times get on board is difficult to predict. It’s unlikely the Readability community will achieve enough mass in the near future to make a noticeable contribution to the revenue of something of that scale, yet the process is so simple and the risk so low there appears to be nothing preventing just that from occurring.
Will Readability succeed in displacing advertising? Perhaps, but only by proxy and even then only partially. If the burgeoning success of utilities that hide obnoxious ads and simultaneously encourage readers to pay directly for services rendered is heeded, we may well be on the precipice of better-designed, more respectful interfaces.
Most likely, this is wishful thinking. The vast majority of people are predisposed to trade time and irritation — not money — for information. The best outcome that can be reasonably expected is a minor overall shift away from visually loud pages, a decent alternative for those willing to pay, and a foothold for thoughtful, tenacious people like Marco and Arc90 to purvey delight.