Will Publishers Embrace a Payment Model That Strips Out Ads?

If you use Apple’s (s aapl) Safari browser, or Amazon’s Kindle (s amzn), you may have experimented with a service called Readability that removes the graphics from a webpage and shows you just the text. Readers love it. Publishers, however, aren’t as enthusiastic, because it strips out all the advertising and other features that generate revenue. Now the company behind Readability has launched a new paid service that will give publishers a share of the proceeds they earn from users who read the ad-free content. But is that a tradeoff publishers are willing to make?

A Sustainable Ecosystem?

Developer Richard Ziade of the New York-based Arc90 came up with the idea for Readability in March 2009 as a personal side project, and the feature is now built into Safari (via a button called “Reader” that appears in the address bar) and the Kindle, as well as iPhone and iPad apps such as Flipboard, Pulse and Reeder. The original version will continue to exist, but now Arc90 is focusing on the paid model — and has formed a partnership with Instapaper, a web app that allows readers to save articles for later reading, and also strips out all the graphics and ads. Instapaper’s creator, Marco Arment (formerly with blog-publishing tool Tumblr and an advisor to Arc90) says the new service is “one of the most positive, constructive efforts I’ve seen in the online publishing world in a long time.”

Arc90 says it wants to create a “sustainable publishing ecosystem” by encouraging readers to pay the sites they read most frequently. The service keeps track of a user’s activity, then pays publishers a fee based on what proportion of overall reading they generate. Arc90 say 70s percent of the money raised via the new service — which starts at $5 a month — will go to site publishers who install a simple “Read Now/Read Later” button on their pages. One button shows the ad-free page immediately and the other saves it to an Instapaper account for later reading.

As a Readability subscriber, you’ll be a part of something bigger: a sustainable publishing ecosystem. Here’s how it works: every time you use Readability on a particular article, a portion of your subscription fees go right to the content creators. You get a fantastic reading experience. Publishers and writers get compensated for the content you enjoy. Everyone reads happily ever after.

The service already has a big fan in Anil Dash, formerly with blog-publishing platform Typepad and now the director of a non-profit startup called Expert Labs. Dash — who has joined Arc90 as an advisor — calls it “a brilliant and simple web experience that gives you the control to make reading on the web as pleasant as it ought to be,” and also rewards publishers by giving them the bulk of the fees paid for the service.

No Ads, and No Comments

But will publishers want to give up the revenue they get from advertising, even for the small percentage of users who decide to sign up for Readability? One risk is that if content sites install the plugin, they could decrease the overall number of viewers who see their ads, even if only by a small amount — which means sites will earn less money from the ads.

There’s another thing publishers will be giving up as well: namely, comments. Readability strips out any comments or other interactive elements that appear on an article page, which some publishers may not like, since engagement with readers is something many are also trying to improve.

That said, however, Readability does give readers more options when it comes to seeing a site’s pages the way they want to see them, and some of those readers might be willing to pay for the privilege (although they can also continue to use the old version of the tool without paying, or the Safari plugin or one of the iOS apps). As with other micropayment-for-content options that have been tried in the past, whether the number of readers who want to do this ever becomes large enough to generate substantial revenues for a publisher — or to cause issues with advertisers who have deals with that publisher — remains to be seen. Embedded below is an intro video about the service.


Readability – Enjoy Reading, Support Writing from Arc90 on Vimeo.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Luis de Bethencourt