The Long (but remarkably funny) Version: I’ve always seen writing as an addiction of sorts. No matter how hard I try to quit writing and idle away my time with trivial things, I can’t put down my pen. Writing drives me to frustration, but I love it so much that I’ve given up trying to walk away from it. I assume that most other people who toil in obscurity feel the same way. When I come across something like Suite101, a website that teases up-and-coming writers with the promise of money, I get a little interested but I mostly get sceptical. After spending five minutes reading Suite101’s business model, my incredulity at their offer of money for writing was wholly justified. Suite101 plays out more like a Ponzi scheme than it does a way for new writers to break into the world.
Submitted for your approval, an episode of “Mystery Shaftoe Theatre” featuring an imaginary conversation between Adam Shaftoe and the Suite101 website.
“Hello, aspiring writer, would you like to get paid to write for our website?” Asked the polite website.
“Sure,” answered Shaftoe. “I like money. What do I need to do?”
“All you have to do is sign up and then send us one piece of sample writing.”
“Okay, then what?” Shaftoe asked with the innocence of a child who’s yet to have his drunken uncle tell him there is no such thing as Santa Claus.
“Once we approve your sample piece, you can start writing on topics from our broad range of editorial areas,” the website said with a smile.
“So, I could write movie reviews for money?” Said Shaftoe upon having his interest well and truly piqued.
“You bet, we have a vibrant film and television section here at Suite101. Why don’t you send us a sample piece?”
“Alright, what do I have to lose?”
Shaftoe spent the next fifteen minutes cleaning the swears and biting sarcasm out of his review of Gunless.
“And sent,” Shaftoe said with a triumph. Now to play the waiting game.
Eleven minutes later.
“Congratulations, Adam Shaftoe, you have been approved as a Suite101 writer.”
“Oh,” Shaftoe said hesitantly. “That was fast. I guess you guys run a pretty tight ship. So do I get paid by the word or per submission?” Visions of an iPad danced through Shaftoe’s mind as he waited to cash in his loot. He hadn’t been this excited about potential loot since his World of Warcraft days. Finally, he thought to himself, a chance to get paid for doing what I love.
“Neither,” the website answered cheerily.
“Say what now? How then do I get paid?
“Well here at Suite101,” it began. “You get paid based on the advertising revenue that your posts generate. We generously pass on a percentage of that money to you. However, if you get yourself up to the status of a featured writer, you will rate a higher revenue percentage.”
“Okay then, what do I have to do to be a featured writer?” Queried Shaftoe, his frustration growing in equal measures with his suspicion.
“Oh it’s nothing too difficult, really. All you need to do is submit 30 articles at a rate of no less than four articles per month.”
Shaftoe sat nonplussed by the website’s answer.
“Let me make sure I have this clear. You want me to give you 30 articles, at roughly 1000 words per article, before you will give me the privilege of being a featured writer wherein I will make how much of a percentage of the advertising revenue?”
“30 to 40 percent of all advertising revenue on your posts.”
“Fuck off out me kitchen!” Shaftoe yelled only moments after swallowing his coffee as to avoid the spit-take of all spit-takes. “You’re telling me that you could get 30,000 words out of me before I even have a chance to get in the top pay bracket? And even if I get into your elite writers club, there’s still no guarantee that I would make any money.”
“Some of our top writers make as much as $2000-$4000 per month,” the website non sequitur’d.
“Right,” Shaftoe said, raising an eyebrow as he leaned back in his chair. Shaftoe always enjoyed the office chair lean back as it is a pose that allowed the bullshit to wash over him with a minimal stick factor. “I’m sure they don’t write anything more than fluff pieces filled with keywords that will make for nice Boolean searches. What about copyright issues? When I submit an article to you, who owns it?”
“Well you do of course, silly,” the website chirped as if asking about copyright issues in the age of online publication was a stupid question. “If you submit an article to us, you are agreeing to give us one year of exclusive rights to the article. After that year has passed, we retain perpetual non-exclusive rights to your work.”
“Well what the hell, man? Nobody is going to want a second run on something where you hold non-exclusive rights until doomsday. This is total horseshit,” Shaftoe proclaimed having endured enough of the website’s pleasantries.
“Now that I’ve thought about it for a moment, it seems like the only people who stand to benefit from this website are the day one users who have been churning out content forever. All of the new users are giving you their words for free, forever, to support traffic on the website, but there is no way they will generate as much buzz as the people who have been around longer. Even if they don’t quit writing for you before they hit the first payment threshold, they will still be giving away their best work for peanuts all the while thinking that this is how you break into being a writer.”
Shaftoe slammed his fist on his desk before walking over to his booze station and pouring a stupendously large glass of scotch. The website levelled a judgmental eye at Shaftoe as if to say that it didn’t approve of drinking before 10:30 in the morning.
“Hell,” Shaftoe continued, wagging a finger before bringing the amber glass of scotch that is old enough to buy its own scotch to his lips. “When you consider the effort that goes into producing a piece of writing, I could make more money with the skilful application of online poker. At least that has the benefit of immediate results. Or if I really wanted to live on the edge, I could just have my own website where I keep 100% of the advertising revenue and all issues of copyright remain squarely with me.”
“I suppose you could do that, but you will never get as much traffic on your own website as you would if you were writing with us. With over 10,000 writers on our staff we generate a huge volume of traffic.”
“Bah,” Shaftoe harrumphed with contempt as he drained half the glass in heroic fashion. “That sounds good, but it is still a game of proportionality. People who have more posts on the most banal and picayune subjects are going to collect the most hits. I could give you ten NYT quality film reviews but there’s no way they would make as much money as somebody who wrote 30 posts a week on the most recent season of The Bachelor. So really, what’s the point? I’d rather write for myself and establish a portfolio where I retain all rights. Go sucker some other rube with your promises of riches.”
With those words, Shaftoe closed the window on Suite101, forever.
He then took a nap at his desk because, really, who drinks that much scotch before lunch?
The lesson, boys and girls, is that there is no such thing as a free lunch and content mills only benefit a very few of the writers who work for them. Sure my review of Sunshine is ranked 2 out of 13 on Helium.com, but what has that done for me? I have absolutely no control over that review, editorial or otherwise. I’ve seen no money for that review, despite its popularity with the user community. So why should I, or anybody else, give away their best material for free?
As much as I hate offering people unsolicited writing advice, I’m going to do so now. In my considered opinion, there is only one rule to writing that matters: get paid for what you do. If you can’t get paid, then make sure that you retain the rights to your work. The content mill, despite its promises and testimonials – which could easily be faked up by paid writers – preys upon the words of the stupid and the gullible, leaving them penniless and without control over their own creation. If all professional writing is an act of prostitution to some extent, make sure that you save yourself for a classy establishment.
And now, for no particular reason, Chris Cornell.