Powell’s Book-a-Day versus Paid Online Subscriptions

I subscribe to a well-run and totally free service, Powell’s Book-a-Day at Powells.com, which sends me a book review every day. The reviews come from The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The New Republic, Salon.com, and the TLS. Powell’s does a good job selecting them. Yesterday I received an excellent review by Clive James about a new translation of Madame Bovary. (James had his problems with the book.) The review was originally published in The Atlantic. Out of curiosity, I went to see if I could find the essay in its original context on the Atlantic site. No such luck; you had to pay to see it ($2.95 per article). But at Powell’s, it is available for free.

What a curious state of affairs. The Atlantic is hoping it can sucker readers into paying for web content that it makes available for free elsewhere to promote itself. But the promotion backfires because the only thing I learn from this process is that I can get good book reviews every day from Powell’s for free.

What is the web for, anyway? I’d like it to be a kind of new 21st century encyclopedia, where information is exchanged freely, and where digital archives of great writing can endure. The Atlantic wants it to be an advertisement, essentially, for their “real” product. I think that in the end magazines like The Atlantic and The New Republic will lose out on their internet strategy, at least with readers like me. One reason why: savvy readers know that writers are not ever, ever paid a dime more for a story that is published online as well as in the print version of a magazine. So there is no guilt about not paying.

Obviously, magazines could not long endure if they made all their content available for free online and everybody stopped subscribing as a result. But would this really happen? If a magazine is worth subscribing to, it is worth having around the house; it is worth supporting and paying for. Did the e-book kill the book? I think the system of The New York Times makes a good compromise. Most everything it publishes is available via a free online registration while it is current, and then on a paying basis after its topical relevance has expired. I haven’t noticed that The Times has collapsed financially as a result. The Atlantic – and the most arrogant offender, The New Republic – should follow suit or risk losing increasingly web-savvy younger readers over the long haul. At any rate, the system of internet magazine archiving has not reached its philosophical bedrock yet.