Lim Cheng Soon’s story defies convention. It’s a story about the value of curation, the value of community, and, for some, the lasting value of print.
Lim is addicted to Hacker News, the popular social news site, and he wanted to solve his own problem of information overload — “to be able to go offline [entirely] and not to miss out,” he says. So he decided to start gathering up some of the most popular posts from the site and printing them in a magazine he called Hacker Monthly.
It’s gone from scratching Lim’s own itch to being a real business — one able to attract subscribers, advertisers, and money.
Twenty-one issues later, the magazine has about 4,700 subscribers worldwide, Lim said. Annual subscriptions cost $88 for the print edition or $29 for the digital .mobi/.epub/.pdf bundle. Only five percent of subscribers get the print version, he said, but that’s still a tidy sum of about $20,000 on top of an estimated $130,000 in subscriptions per year. He also sells full-page ads.
Lim quit his freelance and consulting work a few months after launching in 2010 to focus on the magazine full-time. “But the reason I quit wasn’t ‘making enough money’. More like ‘I don’t have time for anything else’,” he told me in a text chat from Kuala Lumpur. It was 5 a.m. and he didn’t want to wake his non-nocturnal wife. “Now it’s making a modest income to support myself and my family.” A niche, printed magazine, compiled from free content and buoyed by a digital edition, is turning a profit.
We’ve written before about the money to be made from repurposing existing content into ebooks and other forms, even when aimed at a highly digital audience. Ars Technica generated $15,000 overnight by selling John Siracusa’s OS X Lion review as a $5 ebook. Foreign Policy, ProPublica, The Huffington Post, the L.A. Times, even the small Fargo-Moorhead Forum are doing it, too.
Lim calls himself curator of Hacker Monthly; he also pays a graphic illustrator, Jaime G. Wong, who started as a volunteer, and two copy editors, Emily Griffin and Sigmarie Soto, whom he hired through the freelancer network oDesk. Every article is hand-selected, lightly copy edited, and dressed up for the page. The only criteria for inclusion in the magazine is that a story (a) has more than 100 votes on Hacker News and (b) satisfies the Hacker News ethos: “anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity.”
Hacker News, for the unfamiliar, is a lightweight social network for people in the tech and startup world to share stories they like. Paul Graham of Y Combinator created the site to try to recreate the feel-good early days of Reddit. Users upvote (but can’t downvote) articles they like and get karma points for sharing interesting stories. Civility is strongly enforced in comment threads, which are often better than the links themselves.
Lim has emailed hundreds of authors over 21 issues to get permission for each reprint.
Much of Hacker Monthly’s February 2012 issue is not for the programming-squeamish. There are pieces on the optimal length of strings in Ruby, how best to remotely work in Unix, troublesome corners of Python, and something called a fountain code. The previous issue had Matt Might’s “Translating Math into Code”, which goes deep into discrete mathematics, and stories about slopegraphs, the Haskell programming language, asynchronous user interfaces, and hiring “startup-minded” people.
Lim said he has emailed hundreds of authors to get permission for each reprint. The hardest part is figuring out how to reach them. He described the process on the Hacker Monthly blog:
A lot of people just doesn’t have a contact form/email address listed on their website. I have my own bag of tricks when it come to searching email address (worthy of a separate post), but when all methods fail, I will just leave a blog comment or message their Twitter account. After obtaining their email addresses, I email each of the authors personally to obtain their permission, biography and mailing address (if you didn’t know already, every contributing author receives a print copy + 1 year digital subscription). This takes another week.
Lim said only one author has refused permission, since he wanted to be paid; a few did not respond, and two or three had their own reasons for opting out. This tortuous workflow inspired a Hacker News user to make the case for more flexible open-content licenses such as Creative Commons and the GNU General Public License.
Lim told me he doesn’t mind emailing authors. It’s an excuse for him to introduce himself to people he admires. “I’ve even met up [in person] with some of the authors, from those emails. Some became my mentors too,” he said.
Lim said he enjoys a lot of support from the Hacker News community. Most subscribers are HN regulars. He did a “Christmas giveaway” late last year, and the traffic from Hacker News crushed his server within one hour — a high honor.
To see for yourself, you can download free copies of the first two issues and the November 2010 special issue.