Yes, Medium Can Pay Your Mortgage
In Andrea’s piece, “The Problem with Medium,” she writes:
…if all you ever get from your writing is exposure… what exactly are you gaining? You can’t eat exposure. It doesn’t pay your mortgage.
In fact, the exposure I’ve gained through Medium is putting food on my table and paying my mortgage. But even if it weren’t, I’d still say Medium offers the best value for writers of any publishing platform I’ve yet encountered.
BTW, I have no relation to Medium other than as a user.
Publisher-Author Transactions: Five Areas of Value
From 1996 to 2009, I worked as professional writer, selling freelance articles to print publications like The New York Times, Wired, and Inc. For four of those years (2002 to 2006), I was a full-time staff writer/editor at Time Inc.’s Business 2.0.
Early in my career, I attended a National Writers Union workshop in which a lawyer explained how freelance contracts work. It turned out to be one of the most useful things I ever did, because I learned that every publishing contract addresses five areas of value.
For each of those areas, let’s look at what writers get from typical pay-for-your-work publications, and what they get from Medium:
While rates vary tremendously, national magazines and prominent newspapers traditionally pay $2.00 per word for run-of-the-mill (not famous) authors. Blogs and content marketing gigs usually pay a lot less. At Medium, of course, it’s zero.
ADVANTAGE: Pay-for-your-work pubs (obviously).
Broadly, the pay-for-your-work publishing industry operates on two kinds of contracts with writers:
- Work for hire: In a work for hire, the publication owns the copyright to your work. The money you’re paid is solely for your labor, so you have no more ownership in your story than does the janitor who sweeps your editor’s floors.
- License: You retain ownership of your work. For the money you’re paid, the publication gets permission to exclusively distribute your story, usually for a limited time (like 90 days). After that, the publication can keep on (non-exclusively) distributing it, but you can publish it elsewhere, sell the movie rights, or whatever, and you don’t owe the publication a thing (except for a footnote stating that they published the story first).
When I started out, publications would send me a work-for-hire contract, but if I asked nicely for a licensing one, nine times out of ten they would acquiesce. In later years, consolidation among publishers meant I was negotiating with larger legal departments who wielded greater leverage, making licensing agreements harder to come by. When I became a full-time staff writer, of course, everything I did was work-for-hire.
Medium’s TOS clearly defines a non-exclusive licensing agreement:
You own the rights to the content you post on Medium. We don’t claim ownership over any of it. However, by posting or transferring content to Medium, you give us permission to use your content solely to do the things we need to do to provide Medium Services…
If the New Yorker publishes your story, you gain status from association with a high-end brand. If Java Developers’ Journal (my first publisher) publishes your story, not so much.
What about Medium? Though it’s difficult to measure, I believe that Medium’s brand has real value. For a short time, I hosted my Medium publication at a custom URL, but when I shared the links, I saw a drop in engagement. Although I have little evidence, my hunch is that it’s because the “http://medium.com/…” was missing. Of course, it remains to be seen how Medium manages the value of its brand as the company matures.
ADVANTAGE: Depends on the publication, but except for nationally recognized brands (NY Times, New Yorker, etc.), I believe Medium holds its own or wins.
In publishing, there’s always the possibility of lawsuits — particularly over libel and copyright infringement. Traditional publisher contracts force the liability burden entirely onto the writer, even in work-for-hire agreements. (That’s right: the publisher owns it, but you have to defend it in court!) As a result, individual writers — not exactly the richest 1% —are forced to fully indemnify publishers for legal liability that can total millions of dollars. Like licensing deals, reasonable modifications to liability clauses have become harder to negotiate thanks to publisher consolidation.
As far as I can see, Medium’s TOS is silent on writer liability and indemnification, though it does disavow Medium’s liability:
YOU UNDERSTAND AND EXPRESSLY AGREE THAT MEDIUM SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, CONSEQUENTIAL OR EXEMPLARY DAMAGES…
I’m not a lawyer, but this seems at least as fair to writers as traditional publishing contracts, and probably a lot more so.
Like brand, the value of exposure offered by pay-for-your-work publications varies a lot. If it’s The New York Times, you can potentially reach millions of people, get an agent, sign a book deal, etc.
However, getting your work into The Times — or even a publication with a fraction of their readership — is nearly impossible for most people, for the simple reason that an editor has to sanction it. With Medium, you can publish anything you want, any time you want. (This speaks to a sixth area of value: control over your work. But I’m writing this at midnight, so let’s move on!)
Also, unlike some random blog, Medium has an uncanny ability to find an audience. I once ran an experiment where I published 10 pieces on Medium, while simultaneously publishing the same ones on Linkedin. On average, my Medium posts reached 4x as many people — even though I started out with almost no followers on Medium (and nearly 2,000 on Linkedin).
The Case for Medium: Ownership + Brand + Liability + Exposure (+ Control)
There was a big outlier in my Linkedin vs. Medium experiment that I didn’t include in those results, simply because they would have been skewed so dramatically. The outlier literally changed my life by sparking order-of-magnitude revenue growth for my business.
For the last few years, I’ve been helping entrepreneurs craft strategic messaging and investor pitches. Back in July, I wrote a piece called Want a Better Pitch? Watch This, which dissects a successful pitch by Elon Musk. I posted the piece on LinkedIn, receiving around 250 views. I posted the same piece on Medium and got over 140,000 views. I can attribute 10x growth in my revenue directly to clients who found me after reading that piece on Medium.
Even for people committed to supporting themselves directly through their writing, I believe that Medium makes sense for some of their work. For example, if a writer wants to branch out into new subject matter, or to publish a piece that no pay-for-your-work publication would buy, Medium is a no-brainer. And if they’ve done licensing deals for past work, why not republish those pieces on Medium once the exclusivity period is up?
So yeah, Medium doesn’t pay you to post. And one day Ev is going to profit by non-exclusively distributing your work. But when you consider all the areas of value, I don’t know of another publication platform that offers a better deal for most writers.
About Andy Raskin:
I help entrepreneurs craft better strategic stories —for fundraising, sales, marketing, recruiting, and product. My clients include companies backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, First Round Capital, and other top-tier investors. I also lead storytelling workshops for teams. More at http://andyraskin.com.