Breaking News: The New Medium Pays Writers by Reading Time, Not Claps

How will Medium’s new policy affect you?

Al Nelson
Al Nelson
Oct 22, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by Jhefferson Santos from Pexels (cropped by author)

If you’re a writer for Medium’s Partner Program, you need to read this. They just released a sweeping change that will affect how writers are paid.

Readers? You’re not immune from this either. Read on to find out how this affects you.

If there’s any constant (especially in the Internet age), it is change.

Medium recently announced a new model for determining earnings and engagement for pieces published in their Partner Program. You can read the full explanation on Medium’s blog post, but here are the key changes:

  • Earnings per story are now determined based on reading time instead of highlights, comments, or claps.
  • Earnings will be updated daily instead of weekly on the Partner Program dashboard. (Payments will still be deposited on a monthly basis).
  • Non-members who read an article and then sign up for a paid membership within 30 days will have their reading time calculated in earnings. This incentivizes wider sharing and new signups to the platform.

What they didn’t say

Of course, there’s so much more going on than the official stance. What does this mean for creators, for instance? How will this affect writers who make a living on Medium, and how will this affect writers new to the platform? Here’s what we know.

Content is (still) king

In the past, more articles meant more distinct “products” for readers to clap on.

Quantity (like it or not) tended to matter more than quality, at least to a degree. This new change turns that on its head. With reading time as the key metric for defining an author’s earnings, more than ever we need to catch people’s attention and hold it there.

No longer will clicking over to a friend’s article and clapping a few times then clicking away work to our advantage. This is actually a good move for casual readers because they do not need to highlight, clap, or comment in order for the writer to be paid. All they have to do is read, which is what we all come to Medium for in the first place, anyway.

By removing the gamification aspects of maximizing clicks, claps, and comments, Medium hopes that this will prioritize truly engrossing content.

Will this have the intended effect? We’ll see.

Size matters

Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Those hit hardest by this change will likely be poetry writers, comics, and flash fiction creators.

Listicles will also likely take a hit, as this change seems to favor long-form content. We’ve seen a tilt in that direction with Medium’s in-house publications, but this change further solidifies that position.

Readers pay $5 a month to read some of the best writing the internet has to offer. They could easily spend that five dollars on a national newspaper, popular journal, or big corporation such as Wired or The New York Times.

Medium seeks to be the place for thought leadership and engaging, personal stories that you can’t find anywhere else. Readers are not coming here to read your clickbait BuzzFeed knockoffs. They want something with substance for their $5 a month, and that gives us as writers a unique opportunity.

It levels the playing field

Articles complaining about Medium’s prioritization of their in-house publications have been rampant since the change came about this summer. It changed how many people wrote and did business on the platform. Suddenly, it felt like you “had” to be part of one of their “blessed” publications to get part of the spotlight. Writers with huge followings would, of course, get more claps and fans, just by the sheer weight of numbers. This made the rich richer, as they say, and made it difficult for newcomers to find their footing.

This new change levels the playing field, somewhat. A niche author who writes about a topic for a few, hardcore dedicated fans can make just as much as a generalist that is published in dozens of different places. It all comes down to the distribution of reading time, as opposed to the distribution of claps.

“Whale” readers that pore through many Medium stories per day will be contributing less of their monthly fee to each author, while readers that spend time contemplating a few stories they really enjoy will be worth much more.

Both paths can lead to success, but which brand strategy do you want to cultivate?

  • The generalist/mainstream approach where you try to get as many eyeballs on your work as humanly possible. This was more lucrative under the old Medium because in order for people to clap for your work, they first had to see it.
  • The specialist/niche approach that serves a dedicated tribe. They might not have the huge numbers of reads and claps that others do, but if it’s consistently engaging content and keeps readers coming back, that will translate to their earnings.

The winners are the ones who keep writing

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Every time a platform changes its rules, be it Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, or Medium, people go into a panic. They bemoan that things have changed when just the day before they were bemoaning the very things that Medium is attempting to fix.

Being a part of the digital economy means being open to change and being able to pivot when necessary. Here’s a little secret:

If you spend the next few days worrying and agonizing over the new payment model, someone else is putting their head down and doing the work.

We can vent. We can reminisce. But worrying has no place, especially when the game has changed. You can accept the new rules and learn to play by them, or you can give up. Give in. Stop trying.

At the end of the day, the writers (and readers) who come out on top are the ones that stayed the course. The ones that took feedback, changed strategies when needed, and didn’t let any single moment get them down.

Drama with other writers? Keep going.

Medium changes their policy? Keep going.

Everyone is freaking out about a recent trend on the platform and how it means writers are doomed? Guess what? Keep going.

Forward momentum is far more precious than worry. Don’t give it another second of your time.

Look at your writing. Look at your strategy. Adapt.

I think we will see a new class of Medium superstars emerge from this change. Will you be one of them?

If you are worried that this is a new and untested model, certain to bring about ruin and despair, here’s a case study for you.

This has been done before

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

This change is not unfamiliar to those involved in the indie publishing world. In June 2015, Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) department radically changed how they would pay their authors in the Kindle Unlimited program.

Under the initial version of Kindle Unlimited (KU), readers would pay $9.99 a month to read an unlimited number of books enrolled in the program. Touted as “the Netflix of books”, this allowed readers to “try” many new authors with limited financial risk. For authors, this gave new and independent authors access to a book-hungry demographic.

For authors, there were two major caveats:

  • In order to be a part of this Kindle Unlimited program, authors had to enroll their books in KDP Select. This gives Amazon an exclusive right to publish your work, so you cannot sell your work anywhere else other than Amazon if you are a part of this program.
  • Readers had to read a certain amount of the book (I believe the number was 15%) before the author would get paid. This was to discourage mass borrows from people who would never actually read the book. Once that 15% threshold was passed, a set payout would be credited to that author’s earnings. No matter how long or short the book was, the author would get paid the same cut.

Now, this worked very well for some authors. As you can imagine, this system encouraged quantity over quality. Why publish a 1,000-page book that has to be 150 pages read when you could get paid the same rate for someone reading 15 pages of a 100-page book?

The system was not sustainable and led to the market being flooded with low-quality, shorter-than-short reads.

Amazon recognized this and instituted a new earnings framework for the second version of the program. Writers dubbed this “KU 2”. Under this new model, writers would get paid a certain amount per page that was read, instead of having to meet some arbitrary threshold.

Sound familiar?

Photo byMediaModifier on Pixabay

I was around during this “ku-pocalypse”, and I saw authors’ earnings slashed overnight. I saw people griping and complaining about how this only benefitted long-form writers and how it was going to encourage worthless padding. While the system has had its own growing pains, this model of payment has existed for Amazon Kindle-exclusive authors since 2015.

It’s still going strong, despite some bumps in the road (they put a cap on how long one “book” could be, for instance.)

There were authors that lost a majority of their income when KU 2 came along, and there were authors that suddenly rose to stardom under the new model.

I know people who have been successful in both iterations of the program. And you know what they have in common?

They weren’t tied to one way of doing business. In other words, they were not putting all of their eggs in one basket or one way of doing things.

Diversification is important now more than ever. When things can change on the turn of a dime, we as creators need to be prepared. Writers such as August Birch tout the importance of owning your tribe with an email list, and this will be more important than ever to keep those loyal readers coming back to the (digital) page.

If you haven’t started an email list for your work yet, what are you waiting for?

A new era of Medium is upon us. There is much that is uncertain, and we will see how it all shakes out in the coming days and months, but one thing is for sure:

The game has changed. It’s up to us to change with it.

Will you join me?

Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Game Of Words

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Al Nelson

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Game Of Words

“In the Game Of Words, you write or you die.” Stories from the trenches of the indie publishing world.

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