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The great Readability conundrum (Or – If you provide a service, charge for it)

Readability, if you didn’t know, is a service that reformats web articles so they’re easy to read. If you’ve ever been confronted by a great article set in justified Times New Roman, you’ll appreciate what a godsend it is.

Better still, it can send articles to your Kindle. No matter how well you format text on a screen, it’s always easier to read from a Kindle. If you read a lot of stuff on the web it’ll change the whole experience.

So from a reader’s point of view Readability is wonderful. But if you’re a publisher, things are murkier.

Making things readable and getting paid

Until June 2012 Readability ran a subscription service (egregious is surely online word of the year). All well and good, you might think. After all, it’s worth paying for something that improves your online experience so much.

But Readability purported to do something more. Every time an article was sent to the service for reformating Readability would set aside a small fee for the article publisher. The idea was that readers would pay publishers for the content they received – the holy grail of web publishing.

Again, you might think this was OK. Writers need paying, just like everyone else. But the business model logic was seriously flawed:

  • Publishers didn’t opt in to the scheme so Readability ended up collecting lots of fees that went unclaimed. The fact that the unclaimed fees went to charity doesn’t make the idea any less bonkers.
  • Readability stores a copy of the reformated article on its servers without the publisher’s permission. This is normally called content scraping.
  • Perhaps most oddly, the scheme encouraged poor design. If I signed up as a publisher and placed the Read now button on my blog it wouldn’t have been in my financial interests to format posts properly.

Online contracts should be transparent

What I think the Readability story tells us is that if you want to charge for something you should just charge for it. Readability is a first class service that I’d happily pay for.

Making payment something more ‘noble’ than a simple exchange of money in return for a service is ultimately misleading.

If you’re a publisher charge for your content. If you provide a reformating service charge for a reformating service. Be like Flickr, not Facebook.