A Medium writer made $49k in September. Should we care?

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A Medium writer made $49k in September. Should we care?

Medium does an interesting thing at the end of every month. It sends out an email that contains a few stats regarding the amount of money writers are generating through its partnership program. For the uninitiated, anyone can publish to Medium’s partnership program, and doing so places your work behind its metered paywall. In exchange, you get a cut of the company’s revenue, doled out based on the amount of engagement your content received.

September’s stats were particularly interesting. Medium revealed, for instance, that “68.7% of writers or publications who wrote at least one story for members earned money” and “6.4% of active writers earned over $100.” The most eye-popping numbers came next: “$49,705.40 was the most earned by a writer, and $16,685.5 was the most earned for a single story.”

I screen grabbed these stats and posted them to Twitter, noting that “most midlist authors don't even earn $49k a year on their book sales. Hell, most midlist authors don't earn $16k a year on their book sales.”

Based on those numbers, there’s a writer who hypothetically makes over $500k a year on Medium, and $16k is as much as what a top-tier magazine would pay for a big cover story. It’s possible to make real money on Medium.

But immediately after I posted that tweet, I got pushback from one of my followers. “Most authors on Medium don't even earn $4.90 a year. In a power law-driven world you shouldn't care about the extremes. What I really want to know is the median.”

On the one hand, the person is simply stating something extremely obvious: that the vast majority of creators on any platform won't generate any significant revenue. That can be said for YouTube, Substack, Twitch, or any other social media site that allows for some kind of revenue share.

But on the other hand, I think it’s fair to ask not only about the likelihood of a creator generating significant money, but also what kind of content they’d need to create to do so.

Unfortunately, Medium doesn’t put out a public-facing ranking of its top earning writers. But luckily for us, many of those writers publish articles bragging about how successful they are on Medium. Perhaps you’ll find a click baity pattern in all these headlines:

  1. “How I Went From Zero to One Million Views on Medium”

  2. “How I Reached 1 Million Views Per Year on Medium”

  3. “How I’ve Gotten Over 1 Million Views on My Medium Posts”

  4. “How I Got 6.2 Million Pageviews and 144,920 Followers”

This is just a random sampling. There are literally hundreds of Medium articles like this. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that virtually all of them are placed behind the metered paywall. That’s part of the gimmick; by purporting to tell the “secrets” of succeeding on Medium, they’re hoping that the post will go viral and generate more money and followers on Medium!

Whenever I see one of these articles, I often click to the user’s profile and scroll through their recent output to see what’s succeeding on the platform. In doing so, I’ve noticed several patterns that seem to apply almost universally among the high earners, or at least those that write posts bragging about how much money they’re earning. Here are a few of them:

Competent writing: I purposefully use the word “competent” and not “great.” These aren’t literary essays by any stretch of the imagination, and most are written at an eighth-grade reading level. They feature extremely short paragraphs and very liberal use of subheaders and bullet points. One writer bragged that he uses “no more than 25 words in a sentence.” Bizarrely, they often eschew basic writing conventions and formats. That same article I just linked to didn’t even bother with an intro paragraph. Its opening line is “I will get straight to the point since I have so much to share.” It has over 4,200 “claps” -- the closest thing Medium has to a share button -- and dozens of comments.

Extreme frequency:  Succeeding on Medium seems to be a numbers game. The site uses human curators to promote articles to the front page, and I’ve heard it can be extremely hard to get traction on a story if it’s not chosen for promotion from a curator. And because you never know for sure if a curator will promote your story, you need to put out a high volume of content. Also, stories can continue to be recommended for months after they’ve been published, so you can start accruing a lot of passive income in aggregate by having a lot of stories in circulation. Most of the high earning writers I looked at published at least once a day. 

Some published even more frequently. A write named Tim Denning brags in his profile that he has over 100 million views on his content, and he published six separate articles yesterday! As of this writing, he’s already published four today.

Very broad topics: So if you have to publish upwards of six times a day, what are you going to write about? Certainly nothing that requires a lot of time to research. And since you’re incentivized to appeal to as large an audience as possible, you can’t go too niche. The vast majority of the articles I reviewed fell under the broad category of the self help essay. Most of these adhere to one of two subcategories: career advice or personal growth. 

Take Tim Denning as an example. Here’s a sample of his recent headlines:

  1. “3 Microscopic Habits That Take Your Life to the Next Level”

  2. “8 Habits of Quiet Winners”

  3. “Treat Each Area of Your Life like an MVP to Achieve Your Goals Faster”

These mostly rely on personal anecdotes and cite very few outside sources, if any. 

***

So let’s return to our original question: could a writer with the right amount of grit and luck reasonably expect to make a good living writing for Medium?

Well, does that writer have the financial runway to spend several months churning out articles every day? Are they interested in sufficiently broad topics and able to quickly brainstorm new article ideas on the fly? Do they have the capacity to generate clickable headlines?

If so, I think they have a shot.

But what if you’re the kind of writer who likes to write long pieces on niche topics that take several days to research? What if you want to pick up the phone and call sources and comb through scholarly journal articles before you even begin writing? 

I’m not so sure that kind of writer could thrive within Medium’s partnership program.

To be sure, I’ve talked to some good writers who’ve told me they can make anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a month by simply cross posting articles from their personal blogs or Substacks, and they see this as decent side income for content they’d already be creating anyway. It’s certainly worth some experimentation.

But my guess is that if you want to pull down the big paychecks -- the kind that result in $10k+ being deposited in your bank account every month -- then you’ll have to adhere to the criteria I outlined above. Slow writers need not apply.

He edited newsletters for the Chicago Tribune. Then he built his own

Charlie Meyerson had the kind of background that was perfect for launching a Chicago-focused newsletter. While majoring in journalism at the University of Illinois, he worked at the student radio station, and his first job out of college was at a station in the Chicago suburbs. In 1998, he made the leap to the Chicago Tribune, and he ran the email newsletter program there for a decade.

It was about eight years later that he launched Chicago Public Square, a daily newsletter that now counts thousands of subscribers. It’s formatted as a simple news digest, something that can be scanned quickly before a reader goes about their day. It’s won local awards and managed to convert 15% of its free subscribers into paying members.

I interviewed Charlie about his process for compiling the newsletter, how he attracted his initial subscribers, and what lessons other potential local news entrepreneurs can learn from his success.  

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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