If the government began charging for publications that used to be free, how many people would continue to subscribe?

When the Agriculture Department decided to begin charging most of its subscribers, it posed that question to the Government Printing Office and Commerce's National Technical Information Service. The word came back that probably only 10 percent of the original subscription list would be willing to pay to get the publications. And two months after USDA's Economic Research Service began charging for its periodicals, it's found that to be the case.

USDA--and other federal agencies--have been moving more and more to charging for government publications that previously were free. The Economic Research Service began to charge for its reports in May; a typical situation report on a particular crop, running 32 pages and appearing quarterly, will now cost $8 to $10 a year. The Statistical Reporting Service followed suit in June. And on July 8, the Agricultural Marketing Service announced that it will begin charging for its reports on Aug. 1; an annual subscription to the daily reports of the Fruit and Vegetable Division, for instance, will now cost $120 ($240 by air mail to a foreign country).

A big surprise, according to Ben Blankenship, a USDA spokesman, was the small number of complaints that rolled in: the ERS heard from academics and college and state librarians, and the SRS mostly heard from members of the out-of-town press who now had to pay for mail delivery. The department has limited free distribution to only 1,000 copies of each report, and Blankenship said a number of people are trying to qualify for free copies now.

The ERS and the SRS each project they will save $1.2 million in fiscal 1983 by cutting their list of freebies and charging subscription fees.