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Paying for VB Helper

(Actually a better title might be "How do you buy small things on the Web" but I thought "Paying for VB Helper" would attract more attention.)

Not long ago, I received a note from Amazon.com about their new Amazon Honor System. The way it works is a site owner places a link on his site that asks people for donations. You recommend an amount (minimum $1.00). The visitor enters the value they want to pay, clicks on the link, and Amazon arranges to pay the Web site that amount, minus processing charges.

Initially I had two thoughts. First, that this would be a cool way for sites like VB Helper to pay for itself. If it generated a little more revenue, I would spend more time on it and on its newsletter. (I think every Web master has dreams of managing their site professionally some day. I also think this is only slightly more realistic than those dreams we all used to have about becoming a professional video game player.)

My second thought was that noone was going to click the link, anyway.

Then after I thought about it a while, I realized that Amazon's handling fees made this method really poor for small payments. The fee is 15 percent plus 15 cents per transaction. I think that's a reasonable rate for credit card processing. The problem is, if you only pay one dollar, the fee is 30 cents or 30 percent of the total amount. That's bad.

So the more general questions are:

  • How can you sell something really inexpensive on the net?
  • How can a site that sells lots of little things support itself?

I saw a comic somewhere on the net (and now I can't find it) about this very issue. The comic book industry is dying. They just aren't in the same demand they once were and their costs have gone way up. So this person was promoting the idea of posting comics online and charging a much smaller fee for them. Without expensive printing and distribution costs, you should be able to charge much less.

Which brings us back to my question: How can you sell something inexpensive like this without losing everything to credit card charges. That comic was proposing a new money service that was geared for small transactions. That would be great but I'm not sure I can do much about it.

Some other alternatives I can think of include:

  • Buy in bulk. Users pay a larger amount initially so the credit processing fees don't wipe it all out. Then the Web site keeps track of your account balance as you download items.
  • Premiere content. Part of the site is available to everyone but the items are available only to members who have paid for admission. In this version, you typically pay for premiere membership for a period of time and you have access to all the "product" you like within that time period. You could read as many comics as you wanted, download as many magazine articles, etc.
  • Advertising. Keep the content free but surround it with tons of ads. I think the Internet advertising market is drying up a little bit so this option is not quite as easy as it once was.

If you have other thoughts, please let me know. I'm not realy thinking about doing any of these for VB Helper (see my first two thoughts), but I think it's an interesting issue.

Darryl Luther:

Rod, regarding the payment thing... Have you heard of PayPal? www.paypal.com. It provides for a way of making these payments. Just FYI...

[PayPal is free if you just want to send money to a friend, but they charge a fee for commercial users. It has the same problem as Amazon's: it's reasonable for moderately sized payments but for small payments it turns into a big percentage. For a $1 payment it's 30 cents or 30 percent of the transaction.]

[Another person said, "PayPals has a rep of losing money ... They have no customer support"]

Bob Ellison:

I think a premium section of a website is the best approach to raising funds.

The initial part of the site has to be free to attract new visitors. If visitors keep returning to your site, its because they like it.

These visitors should then be willing to pay for an even better service.

What consists of premium content is very different for each type of website.

For some it will be exactly that, a number of pay to view webpages. For others it will be services, such as subscription to email newsletters.

As for the Amazon scheme .......... Good idea, won't work.

[I tend to agree on both counts.]

I suppose I am typical of a lot of website operators.

I started my site just under a year ago, and have quickly built up to 1,300 registered users, with approx 5,000 regular visitors.

The site is unique in its category and provides a much needed resource.

However, gaining income from the site is still difficult. I am able to sell advertising space, but that of course has its limits.

I ponder continuously as to how to gain revenue from a dedicated and industry specific user base.

Eventually I believe all the better websites will be pay-to-view. This "free lunch" cannot continue. Many of the new UK websites, established in last year's greed frenzy are going bust. They simply did not do the maths correctly.

After all, you would not expect to call into your local store and expect to find that all the magazines were free !

[That's about how VB Helper was developed, too.]

Jonathan Watts:

PayPal and similar sites have no processing fees. The problem is how to make doing the payment as quick and easy as clicking on a link. Assuming the site and the surfer both have accounts it should be pretty easy to consumate the transaction.

Tim Rude:

Use one of the auction payment systems like PayPal. PayPal allows you to transfer money from one person to another without any fees. They make their money from the tiny bit of interest earned on the money between the time the sender sends it and the receiver receives it.

Alex Stewart:

Unfortunately there are problems with all of these ideas (I'm not trying to be negative here).

  1. How many web sites go out of business ? Unless the fee is very small, many people won't want to pay up front for say 6 months worth of something when the web site may be gone in a few months (doesn't apply to vb helper of course !).
  2. How do you advertise this premiere content without revealing what it is ? Would you buy a vb book without a good thumb through it ? I wouldn't. How much of your code have you seen around on the many vb sites on the net ? Quite a bit I would expect !
  3. It's good because the customer doesn't pay and so you can get a lot of them. As you say I think the adverts are in decline a bit though.

If you do work out the answer though, you'll be a multi-multi-millionaire!

Bruce Boutet:

In the entire time I have received your subscription I have wondered why and how you have not charged for it?

[This reminds me of a Steve Martin talk where he tells his audience his goal is to give a concert where everyone pays him $20,000. One show and he can retire!

I figure I get about a million hits per month. If I can get everyone to chip in $1 per hit, for just a month, I can work full time on the site ;-) ]

Your site would be an excellent vehicle for publishing articles which readers could access for a fee and using those articles to gather feedback to complete another book. Your subscribers would own the rough draft. Many of your books could be serialized and refined for the web as monthly installments. I personally own four of your books and always look forward to your byline in any periodical I receive.

[It would be interesting to start a more professional online magazine like that, but I can afford the time until the site makes more money. But it won't make more money until I try something like that... Catch-22.

Serialization is an issue that would involve contracts with the publisher. They actually persued some of this with EarthWeb (before EarthWeb was bought by Internet.com). I don't think it was spectacularly profitable.]

Post some of the best answers from the list servers because I don't have the time to follow them.

Encourage some of your better contributors to post content and exchange free subscription for excellent content.

[I have also thought about something like this. Readers would rate the articles and authors would get paid according to how many people downloaded their articles and what ratings they got.

Experts Exchange (http://www.experts-exchange.com/comp/lang/visualbasic) does something vaguely similar with questions, though the people answering questions do it for fame and glory not money.]

I would be hesitant to make it all available to subscribers because someone will inevitably download the whole show and make it available to all his buddies on some server. Readers would have to grab it while they could but could buy it all on CD for reference.

[I've also considered making a CD-ROM available collecting everything in one place. But I would like to rewrite the examples to make them more useful first. But I can't afford the time to do that until they pay for themselves. Another catch-22.]

Wouldn't it be great if your site could provide you the freedom to do what you choose? For the vicarious thrill alone I would be happy to pay!

Good Luck and no matter what form you choose. Just Do IT!

P.S. Allow users to send you money in lieu of credit card payments. You shouldn't have to give up 5-6% in processing fees if you don't have to. I will wait for my subscription to become active until my check clears.

[A good idea. This will work with the large initial payment idea. I think people will be less likely to take the time to send in tiny checks.]

Rory McNeill:

Your messages usually have at least one item I find of interesting/worthwhile - a better hit-rate than most (that's why I stay with you)!

I remember back in the early days of the WWW there was some discussion in universities about "micro charging", charging (say) $0.01 to $1.00 for access to web pages and other resources. This idea doesn't seem to have progressed very much, perhaps due to the increased use of advertising (in those days commercialism on the net was taboo). There was a system, Hyper-G (since renamed to ??) from TU Graz (Austria) that had preliminary support for the idea.

Just some avenues for you to pursue if you're interested.

[I think that's exactly what a lot of sites would need to turn professional. Even a couple pennies per page view would add up to enough for most sites with any kind of loyal following. The cost to the visitor would probably be around 10 or 20 cents per day.

Perhaps a consortium of sites that automatically track visitors this way. Sort of a sub area on the Net where you get charged some tiny amount? I still can't see a reasonable way to do the charging except by having visitors pre-pay to gain access.]

Stephen Williams:

Here in South Africa, a major bank has launched an on-line currency called e-bucks. This currency can be sent by e-mail, transferred via banks etc. To learn more about how their system works check out ebucks.co.za. This would mean people could pay for things online without the high credit card cost.

[I think this is a promising idea. However, the site says, "You can exchange Rands for eBucks but you can't exchange eBucks for Rands." There must be some way for retailers to get their money back. ]

Another idea for a small site would be loyalty points, that the person pays once and then only uses up as he uses the site, if he uses it more frequently it drys up quicker.

Sriram Durbha:

I faced this problem personally. I had to subscribe to some magazines which are published in the USA but the shippin cost was prohibitively high (more than the mag's cost).

[If we figured out a way to make this work reasonably well, an online magazine would cost practically nothing to ship. You could spend a lot on it and still save money.]

Ordering in bulk may not suit all situations as only those who are one time buyers are to be catered to as well.

This is an interesting and useful question. I will bring it up for discussion within my group and post you a summary. You too send in any useful inputs you get on this.

As a matter of fact this is no small issue and a good and feasible solution could turn the tables around!!!

Christine Lee:

I have been wondering how to charge for small services from a website since I've done a couple of projects for home based businesses. I saw something in Yahoo.com that indicated transferring money between accounts if both people were yahoo members. I thought this idea was interesting and wondered if it would work for both your application and mine. Seems like you could have a field on the webpage that auto populates the sellers information and the user would enter their existing yahoo account or make a new one, enter the info and pay. I didn't research this, so I'm not sure but thought I'd mention it.

Also, just wanted you to know that I really do appreciate the site and all it's content. I've learned so much from it. Because of your site, I've purchased two of your books, "Ready to Run..." and "Bug Proofing...". I intend on purchasing two more soon, the Custom controls one and VB Algorithms one.

[To the extent that VB Helper is cost effective, this is how. People buy my books. I also needed to build a site to provide updates for the books anyway so then I just extended the site a little bit...]

In addition, I would probably be pretty desperate to pay a dollar for a snippet of code....but I **have** been pretty desperate for a snippet of code in the past...so maybe I would pay a dollar! LOL.

[There are times when most professionals would be willing to pay a small fortune to get past some annoying bug. The trick is most of the time I think people are too cheap to pay for these sorts of tips and code snippets. I know I am ;-)

Thought there have been commerical Add-In products that did little more than provide code snippets and help you organize them.]

Tim French:

As for the payment plan: I think buying service in reasonable blocks via a billing service provider like Amazon makes sense, depending on your volume of course. Just let people know they should pay a minimum at anyone time OR let them know how much credit they get for the dollar they pay. Say you can recommend they buy a minimum of 6$.

Of course if Yahoo is charging 15%, wouldn't it be cheaper to go directly through VISA yourself, setting up your own merchant account? I always thought they charged less than that. If you have a mailing list it's just one more field in the database to add a Visa account number?

[I think it is less expensive that way, but you may need to do a certain minimum volume to make it worthwhile.]

OR: You could get a number of information based web sites to get together as a Co-op that handles the billing for services.

I'm thinking on the fly but your options as in all business are

  1. Outsource your billing.
  2. DO it yourself
  3. Do it as part of a co-op.

Does that make sense?

[I think so. A co-op might be able to scratch together enough volume to make having a merchant account cost effective.]

Randy Cornish:

I have only thoughts, not solutions:

It seems as if the answer might lie in using Debit (not Credit). Perhaps companies are more likely to charge a lesser processing fee if there is no "float" involved.

A well-established third party(or parties) (i.e. Microsoft Passport) would be a way to centralize this service to keep costs down. This service could "bulk" transactions (monthly) from all subscribing websites. After a few months, they would have a general idea what service fee they need to charge to remain viable. [This could fit in well with Tim French's idea of a co-op.]

I don't think this problem will go away. I think it will grow as websites raise their hand and say "I have that very same issue.". I think that the first company to "step out" with a solution on this one may make a lot of money.

I am all for paying small amounts for some of the services available on the web and I do believe it will improve the quality. Very few companies can produce quality product at a loss for long and remain in business. I'd rather pay nickels today and have a company stay around than pay nothing and have them disappear in 6 months.

Edwin Weston:

Love the newsletter and site, but I would have a hard time paying for something that has always been free. But until I know the cost of something, it is hard to say what I would do.

[I think this is a very real issue. My guess is a lot of people would have a hard time paying when they can say, "I'll just surf over to some other site that's still free." Even if the other site isn't as good, it might be hard for people to part with their hard earned money.

Things I can think of that would help are:

  • Clearly better content. But it's going to have to be really obviously better somehow.
  • Really tiny fees so noone cares much.
  • Charity. There are times when you get so stuck, it's worth a lot to get unstuck. Particularly for professional programmers where an hour of lost time can cost a lot of money.

Yaron Budowski:

  1. Premium Service - Like you suggested, the premium serice is a good idea: Users will pay a small monthly fee to receive "extra" how-to's, news, tips, access to special premium service pages and perhaps even small discounts on your vb books.
  2. Advertisement - You could put banners on top of each page (or prehaps on only the most popular pages in your site); you could try and get the advertisers on your own, and you could try and use sites like ValueClick.com which give a couple of dozens cents per click (depending on how many users your site receives monthly).

Rob Gray:

VB-Helper has been free up to now, so you have to ask yourself, "Why have I been doing this, if I did not expect to make money out of it?" The answer to this question is the reason why there are so many top quality VB sites out there for free. Remember the answer to this question.

When you start charging money for it, you cease to be one of those many people helping out in the VB world for free, and you become one of those people making money out of it. Now there's nothing wrong with making money - I'm a capitalist living in a capitalist society - but the reason for your site's existence will change. The culture and spirit of your site will change. This is fine if this is where you want to take your site, but don't forget the answer to the first question.

If you want to charge for premier content, you have one of two options. Either you have already been giving it your best, so the "premiere content" is the stuff that has been free up to now (and is free all over the net), or you have not been giving it your best, and you plan to add some extra effort to add stuff that is better than anything you've done on the site so far. So the following questions come up: "Just how popular will your site be if you start charging for the main attraction?" and "How much extra effort do you have to add to come up with a continuous supply of saleable stuff?"

It seems to me that in the first case, people will simply get their free information elsewhere, so that's not really an option. In the second case, your extra effort will be paid for by selling the extra content. The effort of doing the free stuff, will still remain unpaid. The creation and maintenance of the premier content is exactly the same as getting a second job, and has no effect on the fact that you do not get paid for doing what you are doing on the site now.

And besides, you are already making money out of your "premier" work: The books you write, and the work you do for your employer. Are you willing (and able) to take on a third job of creating saleable web content? All that, while still supplying free web content to maintain your hit rate?

I think that the only way that you can keep the spirit of your web site unchanged, and get a little extra money for your effort, is by donations. There will be those who won't pay anything, and there will be those who pay a lot. And there will also be those who make $1 donations, and you will only see 70% of the money, but that's tough. It's the way the world works. We cannot demand that the people and the company that has to process our transactions do not get paid. Any company that sells something, whether retail, wholesale, product or service, will make more money with a few large transactions than with lots of little transactions. This will not ever change.

So in summary:

  1. Making your site commercial will change the spirit of your site,
  2. You will not get the hits you do if you start charging for the things that are currently free, and is available all over the internet.
  3. Adding premier content is like getting another job - the job pays for itself, and you will still not get paid for the free stuff.
  4. Paying people for the service of processing your transactions is normal, and it's just tough luck if the transactions are so small that you pay as much as 30%.

[There are several good points here. I started VB Helper to support my books and to share some tips just to be helpful. Making the site more commercial would let me do a better job. I envision a better search facility with keywords that lets you view code with descriptive text and comments, or download example code. I don't have the time to make those changes (the site has gotten too big) right now. If I could make the site pay for my time, I could spend more time doing things like that. And doing a more consistent job of writing tutorials, essays, etc.

It's possible that people would go somewhere else for free information if the site cost money. The site would certainly have to have some advantage or content worth paying for.

I'm not already making money out of "premier" work (books and the work you do for your employer). I think the site makes about $1,000 - $2,000 per year, mostly through Amazon sales, for about 1,000 hours of work. And I don't have an employer, at least not one who pays for me to maintain the site.

As for fees: charge fees are based more on what the market will bear rather than cost. There was probably a time when it cost the same amount to process a small transaction as a large one. The additional fees covered losses due to non-payment and interest lost while the charge sits unpaid. I can't believe that $1 payments generate more losses than larger ones or that they lose interest faster.

Whether the fee structure makes sense or not, I guess the bigger question is, "Does this fee structure kill off a potential market for very small fee items?" Don't just think in terms of this Web site. Think about comic books, daily newspapers and magazines, articles for pay from news services, one-at-a-time jokes and stories, etc. Rigth now you can only reasonably buy those things in subscriptions. If very small payments were more cost effective, it might be possible to buy them when you want them.

Or not. It's entirely possible that noone would want to buy Dilbert cartoons and news articles one at a time.]


Just a quick thought based on a cross reference between this subject and the book buying essay. You mentioned that you had tried selling the idea of short 100 page books on short, limited subjects to your publisher but had it rejected.

Have you considered e-books? Despite the spread of Rocket Editions, the probable future expansion is in MS Reader, particularly in Europe. Since the software is free, you could provide a link to the software download. Each copy of the ebook downloaded is keyed to the specific copy of the reader software, protecting you from unauthorised copies being made.

I am sure that with your reputation as an author, resellers like Barnes and Noble who already sell e-books would seriously consider selling your material. You could also sell them direct from vb-helper at a greater profit.

The content could be of various types of course from beginner to hardcore. Since you can keep the content to small specific subjects, those of us who already use your site and books as a reference would provide a market for ebooks on specialised programming topics.

This does not address your initial question of how to make small payments for your existing content type but perhaps you could consider this change of direction as an alternative.

Sriram Durbha:

if a customer pays for say five months' worth of content in advance , however small may the amount be, if a reasonably large number of them pay , the total amount accrued would be enough to generate sufficient interest to pay for one more month's content; if the payment is made in advance the seller is paid not only the value for the content but also the interest which other wise could have been earned on the amount; hence the buyer has to be given the value equal to the interest also; this subsidization could happen at an aggregate level {as suggested above} or at a component level {which would make it a still smaller sum } if the payment is on a volume basis rather than a time frame basis{ ten dollars for 10 issues instead of ten dollar every ten weeks} those who skip issues pay more and thus generate more interest and end up paying more!!!!{of course however they do lose some loyalty points ..}

another option is to allow access to regitered users only; after a significant amount's worth of content is accessed by the registrant access is forbidden unless the amount is paid;

the only way this differs from an outright paid service is that the first installment of payment is not made until after its worth has been used; looked at from the seller's view this means that the seller "lends" to the registrant with the hope that the pay ment shall be made and loyalty exist/ continues/ builds ;

however cheating is possible and should be dealt with properly;as solutions to this could lead to deviation forom the question at hand it is assumed for now that cheating {like with a new registration id every time the old one expires}does not occur or is taken care of;

as for my favourite issue of one time buyers which brings out the real problem being addressed better : a compensatory model has to be utilised. that is the buyer should possess an asset which is worth the amount and is transferrable with the cost of transfer being not significant; money is found to be a less preferrable candidate as the cost of transferring it found to be ubsuitable for small amounts;

now the question is is there any other asset which is useful for both parties?and if yes can it be expected that all prospective buyers possess it?

i had visited a few sites which run tutorials on www ; most of them were run made and maintained by university students; along with the tutorial and some other useful links i found an appeal for monetary contributions; on furthur enquiry i found out that very few people paid and even those who paid , paid paltry sums ; and i felt that the amount was given top help the students rather than in exchange for the value gained; however a slightly modified version of this scheme could attract/retain visitors !!!

Chris Wagg:

The answer might be so easy, I wonder why nobody has thought of it before: have you ever considered Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), or some subset thereof? I think it's worth looking into.

As far as I know and understand, there are no transaction fees (unlike Credit and Debit cards). I may be wrong here, but I'm sure the fees, if any, are minimal. If you already have a checking account, your bank should be willing to work with you and help you out - free of charge! (banks and their personnel are usually eager to provider assistance for new money!)

We use a subset of EFT here at work called Direct Deposit. Any bank can provide you with the details. Pick up a copy of NACHA while you are there (National Accounting Clearing House Association - or something like that). This booklet describes what you need to package transactions into a flat file format, provide some kind of checksum for it, then how to submit it via a modem connection (or Internet connection?) to the nearest clearing house location. It is so simple, even a newbie programmer could figure it out (I did ours in VB3!).

Since more people have a checking account than have a credit card, all you need is the number on the bottom of the check. This includes the bank number, account number, and routing number. I know it might be difficult for customers to trust you with this number, but no more difficult than giving out a credit card number. If you keep all the information offsite and secure, and promise not to charge over a certain amount per day or per week, I think you could get a pretty good trusting relationship going with any customer - even customers outside the US.

As for how to do all this, you could get really fancy or keep it as simple as you want. For example, just like any credit card transaction, you probably want to collect the check number over a secure and encrypted pipe, like HTTPS. Once you have the check info, all a customer would need to do was "login" to your website (or check cookies?). Since you're charging small amounts anyway, you probably want to limit how much a customer can "buy" (view or download), then "batch" the charges via EFT at the end of the day or end of the week.

To verify the check number, you could setup some elaborate scheme or just trust that the number is correct and legal. As for insufficient funds, most people have at least $5 in their account, so I don't think you have to worry much about "bounced" checks. Most stores that take checks accept the risk that there will be some kind of insufficient funds or fraud, and "write-off" that amount into the equation. Either way - collecting or not collecting - the IRS has a line on any tax form for "bad debt" which you can use to offset your income. You could go further by halting all downloads for any user that submitted bad bank info or bounced checks until the problem is cleared-up (or just be happy that you collected SOME money versus none!).

You can set it up any way you want. Like anything, I'm sure there will be snags and problems that need to be worked out. But I'm positive EFT is worth your time to investigate.

[This is a good idea. The biggest downside I can think of is the setup. Everyone understands credit cards but some may not like the extra steps needed to get EFT working.]

Gregory Hampton:

I don't know too much about web sites, I admit. I have a small site that really isn't publicized. I do know that I find your newsletters, How-to's, Tips and tricks, and other articles to be quite informative and useful.

As for myself, (not meaning to sound like a cheapskate) I would probably not continue to visit your site or receive your newsletter if you were to charge for the privilege. There are quite a few VB Helpful sites that are free, including Microsoft's. Rob Gray is correct when he says that the "Spirit" of your site will change. But if you don't have a gimmick or some other useful unique item that would differentiate your site from the rest, then it would probably hurt your site's popularity in both the long- and short-term. All of these arguments make it very difficult to change to a premium site.

As for making more money, maybe offering CD's for sale, loaded with the how-to's, tips & tricks, etc. Or, like has already been suggested, an e-Zine(Maybe more advertising $'s here). How about compiling your how-to's, tips & tricks into a few more books, or publishing a tutorial? Sell a couple ad's in your newsletters? I wouldn't mind (if they were clearly marked, like your list-bot sponsor ad :-).

[As I've said before, I'm not really planning anything for VB Helper. I think anything other than donations wouldn't work. I'm a cheapskate myself and identify.

I have thought about CDs, small booklets on subjects that full-sized books don't usually cover well, etc. Visual Basic Code Library is a compilation of some HowTo-like techniques. They're covered in more depth than the examples on VB Helper, which are pretty minimal. (Actually that's probably the main thing I wish I had more time to do: provide more documentation, discussion, etc. with the HowTos.)]

Rod Stephens:

The ZD Net News article MS HailStorm demands pay to play talks about Microsoft's new Hailstorm initiative. It's services use Microsoft's Passport authentication system to give secure access to Web services available from any Internet-enabled device (computers, cell phones, palm-tops, toasters, etc.). This should enable providers of the services to charge for them.

The article argues that this could spell the end to free ad-subsidized content. I think that's a bit too pessimistic. Opinion articles like this are often a little over stated to make a point an encourage discussion. I think it's likely that many companies will have a new avenue for charging for their services. Lots of other companies, however, provide services for other reasons. For example, Microsoft provides the Knowledge Base and lots of other resources because they want customers to be happy with their products. Noone wants to use a compiler that they cannot figure out. (I certainly hope Microsoft doesn't start charging for this sort of information. I think they would be fools to do so, but you never know what a big company will decide to do in the name of revenue.)

I don't know whether Hailstorm will allow the sorts of small, easy charges we have been talking about. If you find out, let me know.

David M:

Of course I wouldn't expect to go into a bookstore and help myself to their stock without paying.

However, I don't know of too many magazine publishers that do not pay their authors and contributors.

Unless I'm mistaken, most of the content on your site comes from users / readers. Now, it's good quality material, but I don't think that you are paying for it.

It's just a thought, and not much of one...and I love the site. I WOULD pay to use it.

Rod Stephens:

I've written most of the material.

Paying people for contributions brings up the chicken-and-the-egg problem again. Unless the site generates some revenue, I can't afford to pay anyone. I have thought about schemes where people pay to visit parts of the site and then express their opinions to determine which articles deserve the most payment. Being able to distribute micro-payments might help with that approach.

I've also heard of schemes where the articles that draw the most traffic get the biggest payments. That matches well with advertising because the article that draws the most traffic displays the most ads.

The only sites I've heard of that pay for content go for longer articles, tutorials, etc. not the small tips and HowTo's that VB Helper has. The only sites I have personal experience with either:

  • Have a tough time making this work.
  • Are associated with a print magazine which subsidizes the Web site. Generally the magazine buys the articles and then posts some on the Web "without paying."
  • Charge for premium content.

Paying people for material is a good idea, but the only ways I can figure out how to do it are complicated.

Deborah Richardson:

[In response to my question "would use use electronic books"]

I would purchase an ebook if it had Access, VB, or Oracle reference info. I have a Visor which runs the Palm OS. I use PDF2DOC a free Adobe Acrobat plugin that let's me extract text and convert it to a format that can be read by my Visor. Actually, I wish that someone would come up with a module for the Visor that had reference materials.

The devices are small but the print is probably about like what you'd find in a paperback book. And, my job requires that sometimes I work from the user office away from my desk (and big reference books). It's nice to be able to have something that fits in my pocket. Sometimes, even a laptop is too much of a hassle to deal with.


After reading all the ideas, the ones I like the most are the eBook ideas. But there are all sorts of issues. Here's some of my thoughts with eBooks...

When it comes to paying for something on the Web, I am very cautious about giving credit card information. I would more quickly go about writing a check and mailing it than filling in a form for credit card payment. So how about something more subscription based.

Microsoft's Hailstorm with the ability to pay for every little part of a web page sounds like a nightmare to me. To me it sounds like this: "Want a calendar on "your personal MSN homepage", that's a separate fee. Local weather, another separate fee. Current headlines, another fee."

But what I find attracting is the eBooks idea. Now, I don't own and eBook reading thing, but would providing there was something I wanted to read. If eBooks software allow for hyperlinking to a web site, and if VB books were published for eBooks, purhaps access to a web site for additional code, or code with better examples, could be done as a subscription. First buy the ebook, then to have access to the code snippets a subscription.

Get reader involvement to improve the examples in VB-Helper, or even have a contest to develop a database system for the files and descriptions to be used with a more fancy search engine.

There's a lot of things to work out.

Ian Metzger:

One of the posting has already said that they would find it hard to pay for something that has always been free. I too feel the same. A lot of magazines that I have subscribed to were fun at first but after a time became boring and were never read. Alas I had already paid in advance for them.

I liked the Earthweb forum for Visual Basic not only its layout but because I could ask questions and get answers for free. This is my preferred method. If the forum does not bring forth a reply that I can use then I would consider a payment for the information. The problem here is that should I pay to ask a question, what happens if the reply does not work? Do I need to pay again.

Also with magazines I often find that a lot of the content does not interest me. An annual subscription may be a better idea then a pay to ask basis but how do you attract new users. They may not want to pay to subscribe without seeing and testing the "magazine". The annual subscription would still need to be low.

I like sites that are free and are visited and run for fun as opposed to money.

[Take a look at Experts Exchange. It's pretty useful and fun.]

Allen Nugent:

I don't think EFT is the go. It still involves two banks (at least), and the charges are substantial, especially if currency exchanges are required. Credit card companies are much better equipped to handle such transactions.

I like South Africa's idea of e-bucks. Actually, I thought of it too, some while back. My model is more useful, because the online currency CAN be redeemed for cash by the bank that underwrites it, albeit for a fee that discourages frequent, small cash redemptions. I'd like to tell you more, but I want to find out if my ideas are worth anything, first!

Nigel Young:

Just a few notes on the practical uses of eBooks which might add some value to the discussion or help you to think about possibilities:

In the past I have bought a couple of books which come with an electronic copy of the book on an accompanying CD. Since I do a lot of travelling, this is of great use, particularly with MCP study guides. Carrying a 1200 page book around the world can be a real pain, but if it is on the hard drive of my laptop, there is no longer a problem. The ability to copy and paste code samples is a huge advantage (and a huge drawback with PDF format)

So given an eBook, the advantages lie in being able to carry it in a small format for reading and to use it on your PC while working. I find it much easier to switch between windows rather than use a book with my PC. I have picked up some free guides on HTML, SQL and C which, although they are not the best written books contain useful information.

What has begun to happen is that major publishers are releasing eBook versions of their paper manuals in parallel for the same price. This is obviously done at a huge profit since there are no priting costs.

What I would like to see from sites such as vb-helper are small, specific guides on limited topics with an appendix of code samples (hyperlinked). Since the cost of production is low, these could be produced and sold cheaply.

Although the major publishers are starting to move into the market, there are a host of smaller publishers who deal exclusively with eBooks, though these usually concentrate on novels. However, it is also possible to self-publish, using a tool to convert from HTML. If sales were made directly from the vb-helper site then this would not be a problem but to make real profits, some kind of arrangement would have to be made with the major book e-tailers.

[Note that publication costs are still non-trivial for a book publisher. Paying the author, acquisition editor, managing editor, assistant editor, copy editors, technical editors, all the people who do layout and design, marketing, etc. It all adds up. I'm not sure what fraction of a book's cost is actual printing, but there's a lot more in that $50 you pay.]

There are thousands of free ebooks on www.rocket-library.com. These are of variable quality since anyone can submit a book. However, there are many classics available, including most of the ones available from microsoft for the Reader software. However, there are also IT related books. Recently I downloaded an SQL reference and a teach yourself C in 5 days, but have not yet read them. There are also archived newsletters on Linux and other subjects. There is a link from the site to get the free eRocket software.

One word of warning though, some of the books are 3-chapter samples of the full books, particularly with novels.

Luis Ferro:

Paying 1 dollar for a snipped isn't pratical as i've download tons of them but to use just one or two... how can i test and see if the snipped applies to my needs???

As it is, two questions arrise...

1st. are the tip autores that get downloaded gettting some reward for the trouble of making it?

2nd. and more important... Have you seen sites like DevX? I have... and they stink... They charge for a premium and their content isn't up to the cost... that is, one is robed as the content present there is superficial and very newbie oriented... if i'm paying, i require quality service...

My experience says that the internet isn't a business by itself... Get a business, place it on the net and it works... Have a business plan, place it on the net and it's doomed... the diference... the "tangibility of things"... Also, when one have a business, one already knows the market constraints and acts acordingly... when only have a plan, then it's all venture capital and hopes (mostly wasted and unfunded)...

Johnathan Schumacher:

I read through all of the possibilities for helping to fund the site. I see that there really is no good answer.

I feel that in the short time that I have been looking through the code snippets and free projects, I probably have saved myself many hours of time by seeing what someone else has done first.

I know that my time is money. I would be happy to donate money in compensation for the time I have saved. I think of it as paying for access to the software, similar to paying for shareware.

WHAT!!!??? Someone paying for something voluntarily? I guess that is old school, huh? Well, maybe so. It won't be the first time I have been accused of being too honest.

But when I first perused VB helper, I was impressed by the simplicity of the site. I can't stand sites full of graphics, banners, and "click me I'll make you rich" crud.

I felt that there were a lot of things I wanted to do with VB, but really did not have the time to learn. Here was a great site to augment my learning process. I looked for a button to click where I could sign up as a member and get some member privileges and pay a member fee. No such thing.

So, I say: ask people for voluntary fees. You all may laugh, but I know the value of something when I see it. And, I am willing to pay for it; even though I could get it for nothing...

Thanks for the vote of satisfaction, Johnathan! I appreciate it.

I'd rather not ask for voluntary payments, partly because I don't want to be depressed when Johnathan is the only one to contribute ;-)

However, if you like VB Helper and really want to make me happy, buy one of my books. Be sure it's one you want--I wouldn't want anyone to waste their money on a book they won't use. I don't get a big enough royalty to make it worth causing you that much annoyance.

Then tell me whether you liked it or not.


Pacha Nambi:

If you charge $25/year then I think many users, including me, would not hesitate to pay for it. I have your graphics programming book and the next in the list is the VB activex controls book. Of course I am a book addict (being an instructor)! The best general VB book I have seen is Balena's book. What do you think of Balena's book?

VB-Helper is a great site - not flashy - but rich in content. That is what really matters to me.

Stefan De Prins:

I have been reading thru the essay (yeah even us 100h/week coders have some time to read on the net), and I wanted to know what your main objective is : making money or wanting to expand the site (but not without making it worth your time)? When your answer is just making money, then I think everything has already been said. But when your main concern is expanding the web-site,and making it an even better place for coders to "surf", I think there are numerous opurtunities. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most content is provided by authors all around the world, for free. Most likely because for them that is a way of paying back for the information they get, and I still think that is a much more valuable payment then 1$ (minus 30%). Why not expand the site even more as a "by coders for coders" site? Get some of those people to help you expand. It will only improve overall quality. A nice chat where you can actually talk with fellow programmers would also be a nice addition, just to name one ;-)

I for one wouldn't mind paying for the content, as it has saved me hundreds (actually more like thousands) of dollars, and has given me the chance to actually get some sleep now and then. But I seriously doubt just adding "premium" content is the way to go. There are so much more options, and if you handle it the right way, you don't have to do any extra work. Cause I still believe people rather deliver content as a payment, and know that on vb-helper they CAN find the answer to their problem, than pay for a snipplet on a site they'll never come back to anyways (allthough I don't think in your case that is an issue). And maybe you could try selling your books online (or did I miss anything and are you already doing that),cause I have a hard time finding them here,allthough this is Europe ;-)

My main goal is to build a useful site that provides support for my books. I need to have a book support site anyway. As it is, I spend a fair amount of time each week on the site and newsletter but there's so much more I could do. The question is, is there a way to make the site profitable enough to justify even more work on it?

It would be great to get more people involved. Unfortunately that would be a lot more work for me. It may seem like others would do all the work, but putting something like that together and keeping it under control would be non-trivial. Doing a good job would be comparable to running a small magazine. This sort of thing is on my list of things to investigate when I finish my current contracts.

I've also had some problems with my ISP. VB Helper generates enough traffic already that I cannot increase its traffic a lot without exceeding my ISP's limits. In that case, I would need to pay for enhanced service and the site doesn't justify that right now.

My book are for sale through the site via Amazon and Amazon.UK. I don't do any direct sales.


Ken "Mac" MacIver:

Bought the book (with my own money no-less) and through that, I found the VB-Helper site.

I read the section about payment and here in Europe/UK the micro-payments is starting to take shape.

We've got the Beenz internet currency for purely net based purchases but I'm not sure how well that is going but I know that has problems. Like all digital currency schemes the infrastructure and reliability just isn't there yet. Far better to take micro payments from an existing system.

Securicor (one of our major armoured car/cash carrier/security companies) is looking at acting as a trusted third party for credit cards. You register your details with them once and you authorise payments through them to on-line retailers. The retailer never sees your details.. Not sure how it works yet but it is a thought for cash collection maybe. But again for small payments the cost is high and it is using a device designed for higher value transactions.

How about premium phone lines? A pre-recorded message saying "Thanks for your support" maybe with a one time password to download unzip the latest goodies...?? But again there is the problem of accessing out side of national boundaries. So you pay a fixed rate premium call to get the 'key' to download at your flat rate ISP rates. Then people don't feel ripped off downloading big files at premium rates.

Could one number in each major market/nation be accessed for many Authors? A bit like the TV shopping systems. You phone the one premium number and then touch tone your authors code number and the price of the call gets routed to the nominated author (less the TelCos cut of course.). That way you guys could share the cost of hiring the line, maybe O'Reilly could help.

"Become a Wiley supported Author and earn more from your website" Whaddya say Tim ??

Also there is a growing move to pay for things via a mobile phone. There's the i-mode stuff in Japan. Europe has got WAP phones ( In joke what's the similarity between WAP phones and RAP music? both got a silent 'C') and our next generation phone system should allow payment to content providers directly from your phone.

Don Bleyl:

When I was in college, I used the internet as a research tool. Anything that required a paid subscription was off-limits, for reasons financial and ethical(I'm not paying anyone to have the satisfaction of writing a term paper). Not much has changed. I find it hard to alter my perception of 'content' as something other than free. In regard to VB, there are too many sites that offer free content--including MSDN and newsgroups--to pay for it.

The number of times I have to track down a bug or solution per day would be cost-prohibiting. I would almost rather hack a solution then pay for a tip. I have lots of books on my shelf: graphics programming, algorithms, best practices. When I can't find an answer there or in a FAQ, I post to a forum. What I *would* pay for is experience. Especially when I first started. Personal accounts of what worked or didn't work in specific situations: landing contracts, dealing with co-workers, learning languages etc. No generalizations, just real scenarios put on a CD.

One book that is sort of like this is The Mythical Man-Month. It's a software engineering classic that explains such things as why adding more programmers to a project makes it later, why schedules slip, and why the Tower of Babel fell. It explains good and bad ways to organize large projects. The author draws a lot on his experiences working on some really BIG projects.

Jon Watts:

Jon recommended this interesting article: Let's Get Small: The Idea of Ideas and One Reader's Thought on How the Web Might Pay for Itself, by Robert X. Cringely.

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