From Blogger to Independent Writer: The Evolution and Prospects of Online Publishing Industry

Over the past several months, as I’ve struggled to adjust to the new norms of social distancing, mask wearing and intermittent self-quarantining, I’ve observed an unexpected byproduct of the pandemic: I’ve acquired more time to do certain things I love.
9 min read
10/12/20
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By Doron Fagelson
Vice President, Media & Entertainment
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From Blogger to Independent Writer: The Evolution and Prospects of Online Publishing Industry

While I live and breathe in a world brimming with the many wonders of modern technology (for which I should feel eternally grateful, for without them, would I even have survived this long?), many of my favorite leisure pursuits present as technology agnostic. I’m an avid walker and runner, I love making chocolate-themed desserts for family and friends, I enjoy expressing myself through the written word. And as I look back on this pandemic-stricken time, I realize I’m now spending more hours doing all of these things than I have in my life’s other, more prosaic chapters.

The skyrocketing demand for content and the various digital platforms designed to meet that demand have set a comfortable scene for those of us who like to write and to engage others through writing. Thanks to an increasing array of publishing tools and platforms at our disposal, we’ve been gifted more ways than ever before to pursue our passion for writing and be empowered as independent writers.

This trend might be described more accurately, and more poignantly, as the culmination of a remarkable journey in technology innovation. A journey that, for me at least, constitutes a new era for writing and publishing. So how exactly did we get here?

The Era of Independent Writing

Many of us first experimented with independent writing during the blogging boom of the early ’00s powered by the dawn of Internet and online connectivity. Later it became possible to monetize blogging through online advertising, and some bloggers even went on to make a full-time career from it. With the rise of blogging, the era of online publishing was born.

However, the ad placement system supporting monetization soon got out of hand. Some blogs became overcrowded with display ads which spoiled the experience and attraction for readers. At the same time, online publishing started to take on a different, more long-form direction, and, while the word counts of blog posts became longer and longer, the attention spans of internet users started shrinking.

With the rise of online video content, thanks to YouTube, the next generation of bloggers de-emphasized writing for a more visual form of expression, and the era of the writer-come-influencer was born. Blogging, along with the art of internet writing, was suddenly passé for a time. But not for too long.

Medium: Bringing Independent Writers and Readers Together

Online publishing made a big comeback when Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and a co-founder of Twitter, launched Medium as an online publishing platform in 2012. The platform successfully revived interest in independent writing via the Internet, but this time the approach was different.

Unlike Blogger and similar blog-publishing tools where blogs posts emanated from a single writer, the focus of Medium was less on the writer (or the blogger) and more on the topic. Medium also encouraged writers to keep their pieces medium-length to address the issue of shorter attention spans on the Internet.

Through the use of algorithms and personalized feeds, the platform makes it easier for writers to find interested readers. Socially interactive features like reader “claps” provide insight into the topics and the types of articles that appeal the most to specific readers, allowing the platform to serve up relevant content on their next visit, à la Facebook or YouTube. These features were not so much novel – they were present back in the blogging days. But crucially, they allowed Medium to capitalize on the network effects owing to the platform’s wide reach and mass audience.

The ease of publishing through Medium attracted ever more writers, creating vastly more content than traditional blogging sites, which enticed a bigger readership. As more readers arrived and stayed for longer on Medium, the more these feedback mechanisms were put to use, making user engagement more meaningful and helping to ensure that readers stay engaged with the platform. The approach really took off, and to date Medium has around 30,000 paid contributing writers and 60 million readers.

Fast forward to 2017, and the platform launched subscription memberships for users. Loyal readers wanted to get access to handpicked, high-quality content. Soon, the Medium Partner Program was launched to make exclusive content available only to paying members from a small selection of handpicked content creators. In return, these creators would earn money for their selected work.

The Platform-Based Subscription Model

Medium and Monetization

The paid membership business model was new for online publishing and came to replace the intrusive and unpopular online pop-up ads, which had been rendered by this time less effective due to widespread user adoption of ad blockers. Medium’s new, ad-free, sharp and polished-looking interface attracted many users since it emulated the feel of a professional publication online. A year later, Medium expanded its Partner Program to include all writers.

a screenshot of Medium’s homepage, an online publishing platform

Measured by the large number of professional writers who flocked to publish their articles, and the consistent increase in the quality of the content, the Partner Program can be judged as a success story. According to a BetterMarketing article (a Medium featured publication), top writers earn around $25,000 per month, while the rest, 94.6% of the writers, make less than $100 per month. To be more precise, author Zulie Rane’s rough estimates indicate that Medium pays writers around $15 per 1,000 views.

While Medium’s Partner Program is competitive, and not something many writers can rely on for their primary source of income, the number of writers profiting from it appears to be rising.

The Writer-Based Subscription Model

Substack: Connecting with Readers through Email

Alongside the more traditional blogging model of publishing content to online platforms or individual blog sites, content distribution through email has been gaining more traction. Substack, an online publishing platform supporting subscription-based email newsletters, is a very good example of this model.

Launched in 2018, the platform allows freelance writers to create email newsletters for their readers with ease and without mediation from any algorithm. Substack offers writers the option to create paid subscriptions, allowing readers to pay writers directly for access to exclusive content from the writer.

Substack is free to use, just like Medium, and charges a 10% commission from every paid reader. On the other hand, writers who decide against monetizing their content can keep using all the tools for free.

a screenshot of Substack’s homepage, an email subscription tool for independent writers

In contrast to Medium, Substack’s approach to supporting independent writers is quite different. Substack puts the focus on the writer, and in doing so harks back to older blog-publishing tools like Blogger. This is not by coincidence but rather by design on the part of Substack.

Chris Best, their CEO, maintains that Substack is filling an important vacuum today created by a legacy media business model that was broken by the Internet, which has in turn driven people to social media feeds for news and entertainment. These social media feeds are sucking up our attention spans and serving up incendiary content which is bad for our culture and society. This has created a vacuum for services that offer a way for people to regain control of their time and attention spans. There is no automated, algorithmic content discovery function in Substack like there is in Medium. Content distribution relies on a conscious decision by the reader to subscribe to receive a newsletter by email. While Substack is not completely walled off from social media – it does allow users to find writers they already follow on Twitter thanks to an integration with the social media platform – that is about as far as the synergy goes. This distribution model does not offer the same discoverability that Medium’s topic-centric model does, but it is entirely intentional and core to their business model. It is a platform designed to give writers the independence and freedom to write what they like on their own terms, to develop their own audience and to build closer relationships with readers as a trusted voice.

One can argue that Substack in practice serves as a secondary or “premium” platform for content creators. It is similar in this way to Patreon for video content creators. Many YouTubers have a Patreon account where they offer extra content to their loyal fans who are ready to pay more for exclusive content. Patreon is not really designed to be the place where people discover these creators. And the same might be said of Substack. It is unlikely readers will be willing to pay for content from writers they are not yet familiar with. Budding authors looking to Substack for exposure should be therefore be cautioned: a relatively low public profile or a lack of an established following may mean finding other ways to be discovered in order to build a loyal and large enough fan base to support their paid subscriptions on the platform.

The Outsourced Content Creation Model

Verblio: A One-Stop Content Shop

The popularity of content marketing has grown to a point that now it is a must for many companies. As a result, platforms like Verblio have launched to meet the ever-increasing demand for content creation.

Founded (in what now seems a lifetime ago) in 2010, the platform is an on-demand content creation service, where companies may request various content pieces. When registering, companies specify the tone of voice their brand is after to make sure that the tone is consistent across the content created by different authors for them. Achieving this consistency of tone is no simple matter, hence many companies who outsource their content marketing usually have a tone of voice document they present to the writer before hiring.

a screenshot of Verblio’s homepage, a content production platform

Verblio brings a refined and unified experience to the process of outsourcing content. While companies can find writers for such work on other freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, what sets Verblio apart is the way it simplifies the process and eliminates the need to interview and sign multiple contracts with different individuals.

For independent writers, on the other hand, Verblio is yet another platform that allows them to monetize their work. But unlike Medium and Substack, in many cases they will not be credited for their work through Verblio. So, if you are looking for recognition as an independent writer, Verblio probably is not the ideal platform for you.

If you have a passion for writing and a desire to share your ideas and engage with others through your writing, the good news is there are many options to help you to publish and potentially make money from your work. The challenge is in deciding which of them are best suited to you. Ultimately that choice rests on your goals as a writer, the time investment you can make, and on the type of writer you aspire to be. It is an exciting time to be passionate about the craft of writing. And the new era of writing and publishing is well under way.

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