What Andrew Sullivan's Declaration of Independence Means for Publishing

The Dish's decision to break away from legacy media fulfills a long-time dream of prominent writers to control their means of distribution

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About twenty-five years ago, Jason Epstein, then the editorial director of Random House and one of publishing's most far-sighted visionaries, put forward the notion in conversations that someday prominent authors might decide to create their own portals to sell books, sidestepping publishers and booksellers. At the time, the concept seemed unlikely because the writers would have to subsidize the expensive infrastructures of sales, promotion, and accounting. But as was so often the case with Jason's insights, he was on to something. As a young editor, he had devised what became known as the "quality" or trade paperback. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. He was a co-founder of the highly regarded Library of America. In addition, a decade ago, he began the company that markets the Espresso Book Machine, which prints books on demand in bookstores and other venues.

Now, Jason's idea of the writer breaking away from a formidable backer to strike out on his own is about to have a major test in a way appropriate to the digital age. Andrew Sullivan's announcement that he will be leaving the Daily Beast, his base since February 2011, to launch an independent site, completely reliant for revenue on reader subscriptions and contributions, caused a mighty stir in the media world--as well it should have. Sullivan's blog the Dish is enormously popular, with an average of 1.5 million unique visitors a month during last fall's political season. What's more, his readers tend to stay for longer periods than most digital readers. Sullivan's concept of a community of loyal fans willing to pay $19.99 a year (or more if they choose) for total access to his blog on politics and whatever else he fancies is an important breakthrough in the emergence of personal "brands" that have no need for association with a major (i.e., corporate) parent.

In his declaration of independence, Sullivan wrote, "if this model works, we'll have proof of principle that a small group of writers and editors can be paid directly by readers, and that an independent site, if tended to diligently can grow an audience large enough to sustain it indefinitely."

Sullivan's initiative got off to an exciting start. In only two days, he said he had received nearly $400,000 in subscriptions and donations, close to half of what he (and others knowledgeable on web economics) had estimated it would cost to sustain his small team of staffers and interns for a year. At the $19.99 price point, that means something like 16,000 subscribers, a very good beginning.

Sullivan's subscription model is definitely a different version of commitment than those of the past. In the first place, it is much more flexible than just an annual fee for any access, with periodic reminders that a deadline for renewal is approaching. Readers will still be able to reach most of the Dish through links on social media and search results, as well as through his RSS feed. Sullivan's use of a metering system, the practice adopted by hundreds of newspapers in the past year or so, is in line with the widespread efforts to develop a sustainable revenue stream while so much on the Internet remains available for free. Sullivan is counting on his most fervent of fans to pay for total, unfettered, access.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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