A couple days ago I started following an interesting debate on twitter. I use the terms ‘interesting’ and ‘debate’ loosely actually because really it was an all-out attack on an individual person – Mia Freedman. (If you want to see what it was all about, read Mia’s response here).
Regular readers of this blog already know I am a Mia fan so I was going to stay out of this whole thing because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to present an objective viewpoint. But really, this isn’t about Mia – this is about writing, blogging and business models. And I can be totally objective about those. So here goes …
As far as I can see there are two major ideas/suggestions at play here:
- OMG there are people writing for FREE. NO ONE should write for free. Us creative folk should value our time better.
- Mamamia is a blog whose whole business model is built on people writing for free.
Us creative folk should value our time better
Back when I was starting out as a graphic designer I did absolute boatloads of design work for free. Honestly, the hours numbered in the thousands. I did this for two reasons. The first is that I needed to build a portfolio of work to show potential paying clients. The second is that I loved being a designer and I loved helping people. When I did stuff for people for free it made me happy and it made them happy. Yay!
Fast forward to now and I have been a graphic designer for 12 years. And you know what? I STILL do stuff for free. Why? Because I love being a designer and I love helping people. Some of the people I do stuff for free for are commercial entities (gosh I hope Ant isn’t reading this).
Are they exploiting me? No they’re not because I am not stupid. If I provide my services to a commercial entity for free, it is because I see some benefit to myself for doing so. That benefit might be exposure to a new set of potential clients, increased credibility, or simply the ability to call in a favour down the track.
As a writer, all of the above applies. Any publication or website for whom I write for free, I don’t do it out of the goodness of my heart. I do it for exposure and credibility. I have written for MANY websites and publications for free and every single time I do so, there is a cost-benefit analysis involved. Once the costs to me (in time and creativity) outweigh the benefits … I stop doing it. Simple.
On to Mamamia
Many people look at the publishing juggernaut Mamamia is today and don’t realise that it started life as Mia’s personal blog. She wrote on that blog for near on three years from her living room and made stuff-all from it in those three years. Then she (with her hubby) figured out how to monetise the blog so that she could make an income from it.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is the story of how ALL the mega blogs of today got their start. Off the back of an individual slowly and organically growing a following over a long, unpaid period of time.
In the last 2-3 years Mamamia has grown from a blog with one writer (Mia) who made no money, to a blog that now employs 30 odd people and has multiple income streams. Comparative blogs include Digital Photography School (DPS) here in Australia and Copyblogger in the US.
When someone submits a guest post to DPS or Copyblogger, and either of these two websites publishes that post, that person is thrilled. Because both these websites have readerships in the millions and suddenly that person is being exposed to a readership of millions.
This is why whenever Mamamia (with their readership in the millions) publishes a piece of mine I am thrilled. It gives me great credibility as a writer and that credibility has led to other opportunities which have been paid.
Should DPS, Copyblogger or Mamamia pay for unsolicited contributions to their websites?
No they shouldn’t.
If I submit pieces to these sites, I do soknowing fully that I won’t be paid for it … but that I will be getting some other tangible benefit. No tangible benefit for me? Then I wouldn’t do it.
As Darren Rowse from DPS said to me today, it’s all pretty transparent stuff:
We publish info for guest posters saying what they get in advance so they only ever submit if it is acceptable to them.
Some of our guest posters who have submitted semi-regularly have gone on to launch themselves quite successful careers from the profile.
As these three websites make more and more money should they look at paying for unsolicited contributions?
No they shouldn’t.
All of these organisations have full-time staff to pay. If there are profits left over after paying these full-time staff, those profits should go towards growing the business. OR those profits should go to the site founders who worked thousands of hours for free to get their sites to where they are today.
On to business models
When I hear Mamamia being accused of having a business model that relies on writers providing their services for free, I have to laugh. Mamamia have a team of paid writers who produce the bulk of the site’s content (same as DPS and Copyblogger). For all three of these sites, their business model is heavily reliant on their founders and their paid employees. There’s no doubt unsolicited content adds in a positive way to all these sites, but the sites would also happily survive without this content.
But they should still pay! Even if it is a token amount
If you can get paid for your writing elsewhere, then for Pete’s sake, go there and get paid! There are several sites paying a token amount like $30-50 for 800 word pieces. I think it’s nice they are paying a token amount as it’s better than a slap in the head. But for me (and this is just me), $30-50 is almost like writing for free. Especially when those sites sit on the pieces you have submitted to them for several months, before telling you whether they’ve decided they’re worth publishing or not, and then take another month to pay you.
Another thing I find amusing is when people compare Mamamia to new lifestyle sites and magazines that have started their life as commercial entities. These sites are not being grown organically over 3-5 years by someone happy to make nothing until a certain level of readership is achieved. They are aiming to make money straight away. And the irony is that they are not making money. And they are asking their readers to contribute to funds that allow them to pay their writers.
I have always wanted to start a magazine or lifestyle website but every time I did the feasibility analysis, it returned this: it takes a LONG time to grow an engaged audience/readership. And during that time, I would not be compensated adequately for the hours I was spending.
That’s why you’ll never hear me criticising the business models of highly visible online ventures who ARE making money and managing to pay staff. Because I know it took years and years of thankless hard work to get to the point of ‘success’.
And as far as being responsible for the stress and responsibility of generating sufficient turnover to pay 30 staff? Well thanks but no thanks. I will happily leave that to you Mia