SK Babu


What if Medium puts a paywall for writers

Because writers will do almost anything to get published

A designer friend and I were discussing Medium’s recent announcement about starting a consumer subscription model during this quarter. My friend is primarily a designer, and though he does write, it’s mostly to support his design. He agreed with me that Medium has a lot of interesting reads, but he doesn’t believe people will pay to read on Medium. He says that if at all he would pay to read anywhere, it would be on Apple News or Flipboard.

I had to admit he had a point. Internet content has always been free, and breaking that habit won’t be easy. That why the advertising model works. Businesses are the only ones who will pay for their stuff on the internet, as they hope to make money by hooking us with their ads.

Ad nauseam.

This eventually led to a stalemate between users and content providers with the latter crying plaintively, “We notice you have your ad blocker on…” Well, we wouldn’t be blocking them if they hadn’t swamped us with ads that deceptively ask us to click on the ‘X,’ and then pop up another million ads that maddeningly refuse to close, and cover what we were trying to read.

So if readers won’t pay, who will? I kept chewing on this fact like a dog on a bone, hoping it would crack. And that’s when it popped up. A thought I mean, not an ad!

The only people who will be willing to pay are writers. Hear me out, please.

Writers like to publish stuff, and they are willing to go to great lengths to make it happen. Like this old college mate who recently wrote a book. He published it at his own cost, and enthusiastically went around marketing it. I don’t think he recovered his investment, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

And that’s the thing. If you give a writer a bit of hope to cling on to, he or she will be willing to gamble a fair bit on their writing.

So why not ask writers who want to publish their stuff on Medium to pay for the privilege? Of course, writers are generally a broke species. So Medium might want to keep that fee quite nominal. The successful App Store model of micropayments like 99 cents sounds doable to me. Say 99 cents a month.

Let’s say 100,000 writers on the platform pay up. That’s $1.2 million a year. Is that enough to run a company like Medium? I haven’t the faintest idea. But the way, I see it, that’s just for starters. What’s important is what Medium does (or should do) next.

Medium must find some basis to reward good writers. The obvious way seems to be those who bring in the most traffic. Fair enough, but I don’t think that should be the only criteria. Again, this needs to be worked out.

Let me give an analogy.

It’s award season in the movie industry now, and there are many categories where people can win an award. Winning an award is a life changing event. An Oscar can make the winner’s reputation, which in turn makes it possible for him to earn his living by practising his craft. And it doesn’t have to be an Oscar for acting, or even an Oscar per se. It can be an award from the media, or from the actors’ guild, or from the critics. It can be for comedies, drama, musicals, biopics, animation… the possibilities are endless.

My point is it’s not just the box office stars who shine in the movie industry. There are a whole lot of great actors whose movies may not be minting money. But industry recognition makes it possible for them to practise their craft, and earn a decent living from it. And the world is a better place because of that.

The parallel is obvious. It shouldn’t just be the high traffic generating writers who get paid. Great writing which does not appeal to the everyone, does not make it any less great. Poetry, short and long stories, non-fiction, haiku, stories in different languages, entertaining posts in tech, sports, music…

I think this is a mind boggling opportunity for Medium.

Medium can be to writers, what Google is to search. Building on its existing base of writers, Medium can establish itself as the only platform where all types of writers can gain recognition, and eventually make a living by practising the craft they love.

Once writers begin to view the platform in this light, established writers as well as would-be-writers from every corner of the world will flock to Medium.

All Medium has to do to make this work, is to put the reward system into place. The details need to be figured out, but I think it’s possible.

Here are some thought-starters.

The obvious way is to pay certain writers, say with articles generating above a 1000 reads. The payment goes up proportionately as ‘reads’ go up.

Other ways would be to get existing users to vote for the best articles in different categories. Or get panels of famous writers to choose the ‘Oscar’ winners in multiple categories. Or ask the media to vote for best stories covering a variety of topical issues.

Once the momentum of writers joining the platform speeds up, the 99 cent fee can even be reduced, or even done away with, while keeping Medium viable. And it may be possible to do this without Medium being bogged down in the swamp of commercial advertising.

To do this, Medium could again take a leaf from Google’s model, and have advertisers on Medium’s terms. A-la the text ads of Google on its search pages that are related to the content of the page. Of course, this will lead to the same privacy issues that Google has, and may cause unrest among Medium’s core users.

To avoid that, Medium can maybe avoid advertising altogether, and instead get the industry to support writers financially by subtly branding themselves, rather than having in-your-face advertising.

For instance, Medium can tie up with Amazon to publish and promote the top 25 short stories as a compilation. Or Penguin can give a book deal to the top five writers in different categories. Or Warner Brothers can adapt the three best drama stories into movies. Or McDonalds can institute an annual prize of $ 1 million to be split among the ten best health related stories. Or Tesla can give away cars for the best environmental related stories. Or Apple can sponsor cash prizes for the ten best tech stories of the year. Or Disney could sponsor cash prize for the top ten humour stories.

While we are at it, why not take another trick from Hollywood? Let’s take the main image in this post. Maybe there’s a phone placed besides the writer’s hand so the company’s logo is visible, and the company pays Medium for the exposure. This means Medium will need some good designers to subtly photoshop in company logo onto images on posts that the advertiser wants to be on. I know this sounds impractical, but why not?

Moving on, good writing will bring in many ‘read-only’ readers. As Medium is not using a paywall, how can it make money from them? If they enjoy an article, they may be willing to voluntarily donate, something along the lines of the Brain Pickings newsletter model.

Maybe, Medium can go a step further, and insert a donate button at the end of every post, next to the green heart. And if Medium does an Apple, and sets a revolutionary fee of just 10 cents per click, it’s just possible that the reader may click on the button, provided we make it easy.

Wait a minute, thinking on my feet here, but I see interesting possibilities here. Let’s say every Medium user has a voluntary option to open a Medium payment wallet on the site with a minimum of $1. Clicking on the ‘donate button’ can be set to instantly deduct 10 cents from this wallet. No further effort required from the reader.

$100 for 1000 clicks is not much. But for a broke writer, it could be just enough to motivate him to keep writing.

Of course, there are a lot of loopholes.

The biggest one is writers are investing their time and energy to write. I believe they will pay to publish, but I also believe I am likely to get a good kick on my backside for believing this.

Another issue is if someone hacks the number of reads, just as clicks were once faked on ads. Maybe the techies will sort this one out.

There will definitely be many more loopholes. If I try to figure them all out, I’m going to end up strangling myself in all those loops! So I’ll generously leave it to my readers to organise a loophole search-and-plug party.

I would like to add that the above are just suggestions on how Medium can generate income to pay writers. Some may have been considered and discarded long ago as being basically flawed. Some of it may be impractical. Some may be plain dumb. Some of you may completely disagree with me.

That’s fine. I’m just a layman, and I’m sure those in the writing industry know a lot more about it than me. But instead of just shooting my thoughts down, why not use them as stepping stones to come up with better ideas?

Because there is one indisputable fact. No one has cracked how to make online writing remunerative for writers (ignoring the ad model). So I’m sticking my neck out, and hoping my head doesn’t get chopped of. If what I say sparks off something which leads to a solution, I’ll be delighted.

If not, I’ll sleep happy as I’ll know I gave it my best shot.

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