Exploring the return on submission.
Something feels off. And if it feels off to me, maybe it feels off to you. And then we can feel off together and isn’t that what 2020’s all about? Since the great Membership move, the one that allowed writers like me to make money for screaming into a blank internet page (thank you!), writers on Medium have explored countless pieces of content of the “how to make more money on Medium” variety. Because we’re all experts, obviously. By the way, if you don’t want to read all of them, the trick is: write good shit. But I’m not really concerned with the tips and tricks, I’m more perplexed by publications. Specifically, are they actually doing anything for writers? In my experience, something doesn’t track.
I’m speaking of the countless publications on Medium managed by Medium members. A cool feature, for sure, I love any platform that helps writers grow an audience and helps evolve the publishing world beyond Mean Girls territory. This internet yawlp of mine does not pertain to the main publications run by Medium itself, namely Forge, Gen, Human Parts, etc. What I’m speaking about here are the member-led publications that reach out to me, letting me know that my content has met with their approval such that I’m “welcome to submit” it. That is, as I’ll soon make clear, clever wording. For a long time, I found that clever wording flattering, and so I did submit lots of work to the publications that reached out to me. But since all those submissions ever turned out to be was flattering, I have a few questions.
My content gets included in publications in one of two ways: I submit it to a publication I already have a relationship with, or more often, a private note from a publication is added to my content letting me know I’m “welcome to submit” that content to the publication, and that I’ve been added as a writer. I’ve also been added as a writer (with my permission) to a publication, but prior to submitting any content whatsoever to it, my name was used (without my permission) in the publication’s monthly newsletter as it boasted its roster.
There is a third way my content is included in publications, and it’s far more lucrative, but also historically very rare. I occasionally get asked by a Medium team member if I’d like my content to be included in one of the larger Medium publications such as Forge or Gen. This often comes with my content being edited by a member of the Medium team, the artwork is often updated, etc. There are times when I’ve been fully comfortable with these edits, the piece has run within the publication, and I’ve noticed a significant uptick in earnings. There have also been times when I’m highly uncomfortable with edits and have walked away from a publication feature. It goes both ways but has by and large been a very pleasant and mutually beneficial process. I do want to point out this third way, because in my experience it’s the only way a publication has actually financially (or at all) benefitted me as a writer.
The thing that happens after my work is added to a publication that’s not one of the major Medium properties is what’s most confusing: Nothing. Nothing happens. I notice zero uptick in views, claps, or earnings beyond what that content was pulling in on its own. More often than not what I notice is actually a drop, as engagement on all content naturally decreases over time. In fact there are only two reasons beyond Forge or Gen that my content has ever really pulled in significant earnings: First, the content was really, really, really good, or second: I frikkin hustled.
I have an audience that it’s taken me seven years and a shitton of work to build. Sometimes I promote my Medium content within that audience. My content then receives more views and claps. Naturally, only the Medium members are contributing to any earnings on that content, and not every member of my own personal audience is a Medium member. That is of course completely fine, as I have growth goals for myself and my content that extend well beyond Medium, too. But it’s my own hustle, my own sharing and promoting of my Medium content, that gets the ball of popularity rolling. Unless my content was of the aforementioned really, really, really good variety, then magic can happen that’s beyond my doing.
I have never seen a Medium publication put any effort behind the content they asked me to submit to them. What happens instead is that my content is submitted to the publication at their request, included in that publication’s content, and then nothing else happens. No promotion, no feature, not support of any kind that contributes to the success of the work the publication liked so much that they reached out to me to submit it. I gave them content, and I got nothing back in return.
So what do I think is happening, if I’m taking the time to bitch about it? I think what’s happening is that publications are using writers and our content to grow the audience of the publication, without giving anything back. I think my content is going into the bottomless bucket of content in each publication, only to be lost to endless scrolls and time. I think we’re being taken advantage of, and I don’t like it.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but follower counts don’t count for much on Medium. You can have…oh, let’s say 8.8K followers on Medium and still post an essay that only cleans up 500 views in a week. Or you can post one that grabs 50K views. It’s the Wild West in here. Those who are really actively writing on Medium know that content quality will win out over follower count every single time. But publications have those big follower counts, right? Wonder how they got them…
Whenever one of those “welcome to submit” private notes is added to my content, I’ve started asking that publication what support my work can expect to receive if I agree to let that content run within the publication, thereby removing the possibility that the piece can run in another, potentially more lucrative publication such as Forge or Gen.
The response is either a) nothing, b) a reminder of how many followers that publication has as if that’s how many people will actually see my content, or c) if the content “performs well” then it could potentially receive support. Did you catch that? Because that’s the catch. If the content performs well. But the content can’t perform well if no one sees it. And no one can see it if it’s buried at the bottom of a Medium publication. But the Medium publication that I’ve given my content to won’t support it unless it performs well. So how can content perform well enough to be considered worthy of support by the publication that asked for it in the first place? Again, the writer’s own hustle. If I share my content throughout my audience and my platforms, my content is going to perform better, and receive more views. The publication it’s in will thereby receive more views, too, and potentially more followers. And by gathering lots of writers and their content into a publication, that publication is helping itself grow. I just don’t understand what it’s helping the writers do.
I don’t submit my content to publications anymore unless that publication has clearly communicated to me the support they intend to give it. Will it be featured at the top of the publication’s page? Will they be including it in an email or supporting it on social media? This entire situation should be an even exchange. I give a publication my content, I want to know what it is I’m getting back. The wait-and-see nature, or the limp promise of “more eyes on” my content simply because of that content’s inclusion in a publication are no longer enough for me, because I’ve spent far too long seeing zero actual return. I’m not going to give a publication the opportunity to bolster its offerings with my content without any bolstering whatsoever to my growth or income. I only believe in an even exchange, and this ain’t even.
It’s very clever wording, “you’re welcome to submit.” Thank you for your interest in my content, but I’ve yet to see any concrete reason why I should be equally interested in your publication. My work is worth more than flattery. If you operate a publication and you disagree with my experience, I look forward to the day you prove me wrong.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.