The Unfulfilled Promise of Publishing with Partner Programs

by Liz Gallo

In August of 2018, I joined Medium’s Partner Program.

For the uninitiated, Medium is a publishing platform founded by Ev Williams who also co-founded Blogger and Twitter. They started their Partner Program in 2018 as a way for writers to earn money from their content.

Medium appeared to be not only an alternative to more traditional online publishing models but also a new way of being a published writer. No longer did I have to wait months just to have a submission rejected or search aimlessly through digital publications and blogs trying to decide where to submit my work. I could publish my work instantly and start earning money.

Even better, I would soon discover, there was a community of Medium writers reading, sharing, and publishing each other’s work. The platform also gives you access to stats on the performance of your articles. I could see the number of views, reads, and fans for each article. An avid poet, I saw my poems being read and making money. It was exciting.

In an interview via phone, Medium writer Roz Warren said when she first started publishing on the platform Medium “felt like the future.” A freelance writer with numerous publications under her belt, including The New York Times blog, she had hoped to replace the money earned via other freelance writing work with earnings from the platform. I’ll confess I had similar hopes — hopes of my writing becoming a lucrative side-hustle.

Writers could earn money on Medium via engagement with their articles. There are no ads on Medium. For unlimited access to articles, a writer or reader must join the platform. Each Medium member pays $5 per month. This fee was distributed to the articles members ‘clapped’ for — fees were based on the numbers of ‘claps’ given to each article.

An abrupt change

But in October of last year, Medium abruptly announced a change to the earnings structure of their Partner Program. Writers would no longer earn based on claps but on the amount of time users spent reading posts. Reactions from the Medium writing community were swift and, in many cases, outraged.

Rollie, a Medium writer and illustrator, was very vocal in the comment section of the announcement saying, “Rambling, padded articles do NOT equal quality reading.”

Roz Warren and Rolli, with whom I had an email exchange, publish shorter form pieces of satire and comics, respectively. These pieces take time to produce but do not necessarily take a long time to read.

Both said that they had suffered a steep decrease in Medium earnings. Rolli says his earnings have decreased anywhere from 25 to 90 percent since the change. Warren is also earning less and says her writing hasn’t changed, only the Partner Program has.

Speaking out against the changes in the comments section of the announcement — as both myself and Rolli did — had little effect. Medium responded to our initial comments in October by reiterating what was said in the announcement. Warren says she feels Medium no longer values the type of writing she produces.

It’s important to note that the platform itself has not been profitable, according to Laura Hazard Owen in Nieman Lab. It’s possible the changes were spurred by economic realities. As of this writing, Medium has not replied to a request for comment.

Less-than-impressive earnings

Another Partner Program I have explored is the question-and-answer platform Quora. This program is ad-based. Writers earn based on views of the questions they ask, not the answers they give. The more popular your question is, the more you earn. A year ago, Quora also made changes to their partner program.

The changes to Quora’s program appeared less drastic. They decided that questions would make money based on visits to the question page not on visits to individual answers.

Since the changes, my earnings on Quora have been less-than-impressive. My top earning question, with over 68 answers, has made $24.67 over the course of nine months. A lucrative side-hustle Quora is not. I also contacted Quora to ask about the reasons for the change, but they have not responded.

Partner Programs for writers sound like a great way to supplement your income. They sound like the future: the gig economy for writers. The reality is, writers on these platforms have very little control over their own earnings. If a platform wants to change the earnings structure, they can. There is no way to negotiate a higher rate. In my dream future, I see writers and other digital creators coming together to push for better treatment from these kinds of online platforms.

The future is out there

I asked Warren and Rolli what they plan to do now that their earnings have decreased. Warren has resumed submitting her work to more traditional online publications. Rolli had hoped speaking out would move the company to revert back to the old system, but acknowledges this seems unlikely. Now, he is contemplating abandoning the platform.

Personally, I have been writing less on Medium. Instead, I started my own online publication, and have been submitting my work to more traditional spaces, despite the occasional long waits between pitching and publication.

While the excitement I felt when I first started writing on Medium has soured, all is not lost. There are other publishing models out there. Models that may actually represent the new model of publishing.

In the US, one print and online publication has moved to a co-operative business mode. Other writers have created their own online publications supported by ads or donations from readers. Medium may not be the future of publishing, but the future is out there. And I’m determined to find it.

Liz Gallo is a writer, multi-media artist, podcaster, and consultant. Her work ranges from explorations of the current media and entertainment landscape and niche-cultures to personal essays, poetry, and fiction. You can find samples of her work on her website and find her on Twitter at @lizgallo.

Posted on March 3, 2020 at 7:00 pm by editor · · Tagged with: ,

One Response

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  1. Written by Steven Threndyle
    on March 10, 2020 at 10:41 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Ugh. Content mills by any other name. Worse, even.

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