Money or market share--do you write for one or both?
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: September 2, 2008
|Sometimes it comes as a surprise to even the most experienced writer—publishing is not a static industry. Within the last decade, publishing has undergone dramatic changes and some of those changes have hit self-employed writers hard. No longer is an accomplished portfolio of published clips a guarantee of continued work. |
It's my opinion the industry is at present glutted with workers. Some days everyone I meet seems to want to be a writer. Check out the various news aggregators and blog directories. The written word has exploded. A somewhat troublesome side effect is a tendency for many sites, some of them at the top of the search engines, to pay writers nothing or almost as bad, to pay writers strictly on the number of readers who click through and spend a certain amount of time on your page. Along with the click-through method comes the tempting possibility of building yourself a new audience. With the write-for-free method, widely popular with all the top political Web sites, the only benefit other than feeling good about expressing your views is that of an increased readership. In effect, you get to tie your own brand to the brand of a bigger operation.
I've probably provided content based on every model under the sun. I experimented with a click-through model last year, a new startup that basically blogs by categories. The startup had a careful application process, somewhat reassuring me that my own writing wouldn't be showcased alongside someone who fabricated, plagiarized or came up extremely short in language skills. My initial stats looked pretty good, but after a month I realized the site wasn't going to offer me a return any time soon. I would literally need hundreds of thousands of page views for a real return. I think my first revenue reports came to around $30. That was for doing a 300-word post once a day excluding weekends. I did the wise thing by jumping ship. If I blog or provide content, I ask for straight pay. Otherwise, I can just blog for myself.
While this pay-for-traffic model didn't work for me, that doesn't mean it isn't a useful model for some. For instance, if you are an educator and perhaps want to do a book and build an audience prior to that book coming out, the model might be useful. Or if you're an expert hoping to build a loyal readership before presenting a book proposal, click-throughs, if the numbers are impressive, might help you sway an agent.
But for a person hoping to make a living writing, the click-through model is a bad option in my opinion. Providing content free is even worse. If you're going to do that, the tools are available, often free, for you to build your own Web site and audience and collect the total ad revenue on your own. Truly reputable organizations may offer a bonus based on traffic, but they also offer payment for the content. A good example is about.com, where guides collect a content fee and are offered incentives for building traffic. The caveat there is that about.com has a lengthy arduous application process. If your initial application is accepted, you and other candidates will go through a training period whereby you build the site using templates. At the end of that period, about.com selects a site and you may have done all your work for nothing. The training setup is one reason I don't enthusiastically recommend the site as an option for writers—you may be competing with others, basically in a vacuum, with no guarantee that even if you do everything required you will end up with a contract.
There are a number of other troubling factors in writing for free or for fees based on traffic. Often, the contract asks for all rights—a stipulation that I rarely find acceptable. There will usually be very little editorial control, even when glaring errors exist in what others have written. Many of these contracts will also pass the liability along to the writer who may literally be working for pennies. So you haven't been paid, but if someone files a lawsuit, you're the target.
I often tell aspiring writers there is no single path to carving your career in this industry. But I also warn that if something looks too good to be true it usually is. Each writer has to decide what brings you closer to your objective and what's good for me may not be good for you. In my case, I can start writing for free when my dentist cleans my teeth for no charge and the grocer gives me food gratis.
Right now a lot of writers are handing over permanent rights and working very hard for pennies. That's never a good way to do business. If content is worth a reader's time, it carries a value. Sites should pay writers for the content that brings in readers and ad revenue. But only when writers insist on being treated fairly and only when writers reject unfair contracts will Web models change.
Note: I am deliberately not recommending websites that pay based on clickthroughs. We covered websites that pay for content in these past columns:
Writing for Web sites that pay, Pt. I
Writing for Web sites that pay, Pt. II: Digging for Markets
Be sure to check out the new staff blog here at The Writer:
--Sept. 2, 2008
Next: Can a professional organization for writers help you reach your goals? Join us as we look at top writers' organizations and what they may offer.
Kay B. Day
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News.