Readability and Collection of Money for Others

I was chatting with a friend the other day about Readability’s model. The question that he asked was (paraphrasing): “So after 12 months, what happens to the money that is unclaimed?” You see “premium” members pay a monthly fee (that they choose, mostly) and 70% of that fee is evenly distributed out amongst the sites that the person reads.

This is an incredibly noble cause, and I believe that Readability only has the best intentions, but there does lie a significant flaw in the model. In order for a site to get the money, the site actually has to sign up, as a publisher, with Readability and then they get a check every 6 months.

So after 12 months, what happens to all the money that would, should, have gone to a publisher that did not opt-in, or actively chose to not participate?

The obvious answer is that Readability keeps that money and its just a bonus to them for pursuing this business model.


I was a huge fan of Readability when it came out because of the fact that I may make more money. I’m not going to lie, I like things that impact my bottom line in a positive way. I never once had a problem collecting, and continuing to collect, a check from them every six months.

But I think they are going about this wrong. If my assumption that Readability pockets unclaimed money after 12 months, I think as both a publisher and formerly a paying member, we should be upset.

If a site doesn’t claim money after 12 months, I think the left over funds should be dispersed equally amongst the sites that actually are setup to collect the money — on a user by user basis. That is if Tom paid out $5 to 5 sites ($1 for each site) and 1 of those sites didn’t collect their money, after 12 months the 4 sites that Tom already paid each now get $0.25 more — this seems far more “noble” that taking the money and sticking it in your pocket.

This would be better, but it’s still not great. The next part, I don’t have a good solution for.

Last Night on Twitter

You see last night on Twitter David Chartier tweeted:

Readability makes it drop-dead simple for readers to thank publishers, publishers to get paid. I love it

That tweet set in motion one of the most interesting discussions I have ever followed on Twitter, because Kontra (@counternotions) responded:

@chartier How do you know publishers get the money?

I am going to skip ahead here, but first a short recap of the conversation. Kontra doesn’t sound like he is a Readability fan, and eventually Anil Dash (Readability advisor) and Marco Arment (Instapaper founder) chime in to the conversation. Everything is very cordial and there is some nice discussion and debate. Then Kontra sent four tweets that really blew my mind and completely changed how I think about Readability.

Tweet 1:

@chartier Is it OK for a 3rd party to collect money in the name a publisher w/out its knowledge or content? (See, books, Google, courts.)

Tweet 2:

@chartier For avg user, Readability is collecting money in the name of the publisher. There’s no way of getting around that.

Tweet 3:

@anildash When somebody collects money in your name w/out your consent (with a cut), it’s called something else in many boroughs of NYC.

Tweet 4:

@anildash Any act is not always better than no solution. Readability has no right to claim agency for publishers w/out consent.

After reading those four tweets I really started to have a problem with Readability’s business model. Because the mysterious Kontra is right — Readability has no right collecting money in my name without my consent.

Now, realistically, I have given Readability consent by signing up — but what about other publishers that have not only not signed up, but have actively chosen to not sign up? Is it still OK for Readability to be collecting money in their name?

I think not.

But how do you solve this problem? I don’t know, but it is a very real problem.

(Note: I just want to reiterate that I don’t think Readability has any malicious intent. The model is complex and inherently flawed.)

Originally posted for members on: November 18, 2011
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