Adventures in paid content, with actual payment 1

The check was in the mail.  I didn't cash it, however.

The check was in the mail. I didn't cash it, however.

Drowned out in the buzz about the yet-to-appear Kindle DX a couple of weeks ago was the semi-related announcement that Amazon was opening the gates of remunerated e-publishing not only to newspapers and magazines, but to everyday bloggers.  Among the first to “sell out,” as he headlined it, was my industry colleague Steve Yelvington, who blogs at

Yes, you now can pay a monthly fee to not just to read the New York Times or LA Times or Chicago Tribune on your current and future Kindle.  You also can pay them to get, although  “I don’t know whether anyone will buy it (and I have my doubts, since the idiot who manages this operation gives away the same content on the Web),” he noted.

Well, us journalist types at the end of the alphabet need to stick together. So as of today version 11.0 of “The next miracle” is also available in a Kindle edition (is that version 11.1?), and the low monthly price of $1.99 “includes wireless delivery via Amazon Whispernet.”

Line up, sign up, subscribe today.
Line up, sign up, subscribe today.

Plus, “Kindle Blogs are auto-delivered wirelessly to your Kindle and updated throughout the day so you can stay current.”

Plus plus, “It’s risk free—all Kindle Blog subscriptions start with a 14-day free trial. You can cancel at any time during the free trial period. If you enjoy your subscription, do nothing and it will automatically continue at the regular monthly price.”

Plus plus plus, I already know how to make money on the Internet!  Just look at the check at the top of this post!

Yes, in early 2000, I succumbed to another e-publishing siren song.  I signed up with, which billed itself as “a definitive digital marketplace for the written word.” According to Library Journal, MightyWords, which was launched by the evocatively named, “offers authors and publishers a new digital channel to read, write, buy, and sell written content, including essays, short stories, chapters, and additional works.”

“By creating the first digital marketplace to read, write, buy, and sell ideas, MightyWords will unleash a wealth of written content and will create a powerful distribution channel that will significantly affect the publishing world,” said Chris MacAskill, CEO. Well, who could resist?  Not me.  Even though it was available for free here at, I uploaded my 1997 travel essay “From Hong Kong to Hershey:  Or, I Liked the Thick Chocolate Shake More Than the Thick Soup of Snake” and waited for the royalties to roll in.

Sure enough, they did. Before July was over, I had made a sale.  And after the 50-50 split with Fatbrain, I had earned a dollar.

It was a great business, so great that Barnes & Noble invested $20 million for a 30% stake in MightyWords.  So great that shortly after I got my royalty check, B&N purchased Fatbrain itself and increased its stake in MightyWords to 53%, in a deal that included another $16  million in cash. So great that, according to Publishers Weekly, MightyWords received another $10 million in venture capital from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures and another $6 million from two other firms.

Yes, any company that would write me a one-dollar check definitely had the business model thing down.  And down is how its 23 employees felt when, on Jan. 12, 2002, shut down and laid them off.

Even though I had never cashed their one-dollar check. “The motivation for closing wasn’t that we’re running out of cash,” said CEO MacAskill, cheerful no doubt about all of us who had decided to treat our checks as souvenirs.  “It’s that the adoption for digital publishing isn’t happening as fast as we hoped.”

Well.  That was then. This is now.  We have the Kindle.  We have the Sony Reader.  We have the PlasticLogic eReader out there on the horizon.  We have fresh reports of Apple’s forthcoming flat tablet.  The time is right to make money with digital content!

See you at the teller window.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.

One thought on “Adventures in paid content, with actual payment

  • Chris MacAskill

    Hahaha, great post, and accurate too–which is quite an accomplishment considering how many years have passed.

    The untold part of the story was that we thought publishers would love us because finally we were making a marketplace for pieces longer than a magazine article, shorter than a book.

    In talking to authors like Clayton Christensen, who wrote the marvelous book, “Innovator’s Dilemma,” we heard over and over that “I didn’t have enough material to make a great book and to commercialize it in book form I had to blow air in it. It was really perfect for 35 pages.”

    And that turned out to be why publishers hated us. Authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin found she could write something really compelling for Mightywords, and she did. When she did, I got called into the President of Simon & Schuster’s office, him being livid that we were distracting her from her Lincoln biography (which turned out to be Team of Rivals.

    When we understood what we were doing was not going to be loved by publishers but bloody war against them, we understood what we were up against. You notice that the Kindle is really an alternative venue for books, not mid-length pieces, which so many people still want to see.

    Chris MacAskill

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