Thoughts on Paying Writers

I believe that great writers should be paid for their work. Writing takes a rare combination of skill (which can be learned) and talent (which cannot), and when those qualities are present, the words that are crafted can humble, excite, encourage and challenge us.

When I think of writers who are paid for their craft, I primarily think of those who publish books. A great writer can build a career around the regular publication of written works, supporting themselves and enriching the lives of their loyal readership. Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Cecelia Ahern and just a small handful of examples of writers who have carved out a living for themselves in a very fickle, often overly entitled world.

Those from my generation have watched writing online come of age in the last few years. When I first encountered the internet in college it was similar to the United States in the early 1800’s. There was a lot of room to grow, endless possibilities and undiscovered country, but it was also empty of many of the conveniences we take for granted today. Personal weblogs (or “blogs” as you kids have come to call them) only came later. But their arrival ushered in a new breed of writer.

Since then we have watched individual online writers ascend to the top of the mountain. People like John Gruber, Gina Trapani and Shawn Blanc have built careers with their writing, taking it from a hobby in their spare time to something that supports their families completely.

Some of us are jealous. We love the romantic notion of getting paid for our words. But the honest truth is that writing is damn difficult. You can clock in at the office without fail, but sometimes the ideas and paragraphs that become a book or a post simply don’t show up. Where carpenters and mail carriers can settle into routine and dependability, the writer’s Muse is much more difficult to pin down. That’s why writers deserve to be paid.

A little over a year ago a service came onto the scene that looked to affect that. Readability had a unique approach to paying writers: mere readers like us could agree to pay a monthly fee into a pool, and writers of online content could add little Readability buttons to their sites. The buttons allowed the reader to customize the view (making it more “readable”, thus the name) while also letting Readability know that you, the reader, had read that particular post on that particular site. At the end of the month your monthly fee was split up among the sites you read, proportional to the attention you gave each one.

The potential was huge. The reality, unfortunately, was disappointing. Readers were able to contribute money to any site they wanted, even if the author of that site had not registered as a publisher. What happened over time was the collection of a massive pot of cash, and a tiny list of payouts to the few writers who signed up.

In a recent post, the folks behind Readability have announced that they will stop taking reader fees. The system wasn’t working. After a year, a collection of people ranging from hobby bloggers to full-time online writers have managed to squeeze out a meager $17,000 from the Readability account. Out of $167,000 collected. In their own words, “it didn’t work”.

I have no desire to judge or ridicule this failure. I’m not even sure I want to call it a failure. For maybe the first time writers were able to take the temperature of a vast audience of readers and discern their opinion regarding value. Readers, it turns out, want to pay writers, and that is a good thing.

Which leads me to one final point. Read & Trust exists to bring together some of the best online writers around and make it easy for readers to experience and follow them, without wasting time through trial and error. These writers cover a wide range of topics, from politics to tech, and travel to…well…even writing itself. And they’re damn good at what they do.

Readability’s “writer payment system” might be gone, but you still have options when it comes to supporting your favorite online writers. Many of the Read & Trust members have membership programs. Stephen Hackett, for example, offers a membership of $2 per month. Chump change to most of us, but it adds up when you are trying to build a website into a career. Pick a handful of the writers and support them. Take the $5 each month that you were putting into Readability’s bank account and split it up between a couple of your favorite sites.

If you’d prefer to get something more tangible in return for your investment, consider buying our monthly Read & Trust Magazine. We have one, did you know that? Each month, five members of the network each contribute an exclusive article focused on a monthly topic. Things like music and work, heroes, the contents of their bookshelves or even predictions for the future of tech.

This is content the writers don’t publish on their personal sites, and we only charge $5 per issue for it. This money doesn’t go unclaimed, either. Each month’s income is split among that month’s writers. When you buy an issue of the Read & Trust Magazine, you are directly paying your favorite writers.

Like I said before, I believe that great writers should be paid for their work. There are still ways to do that. Find what works and support your favorite writers today.

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