I’ve been meaning to write another of my occasional posts about the local online publishing scene in Melbourne, and this post will touch on this topic but will mostly focus on the perplexing issue of entrepreneurial electronic publishers who ask writers to contribute unpaid labour while they develop commercial businesses around the content they source for free.

These aspiring digital media robber barons don’t appear to realise that they’ve lost their monopoly on publishing platforms and hence most of their power. They naively think that because writers are always keen to be published that they’re willing to write for free and to have their labour and intellectual property exploited. Some aspiring writers are equally naive and vulnerable to exploitation, which is a significant problem for them.

Publishers and writers alike need to understand how the digital revolution has fundamentally altered the economics and politics of publishing. In the print era publications were expensive to manufacture and space in them was finite and scarce. There were more aspiring writers than page space and publishers could choose the best content and pay its creators poorly or not at all.

All this has changed with the internet. Anyone can establish a publication using free online platforms like WordPress.com or Blogger.com. The space for content in now effectively infinite. The biggest expense in establishing a publication is not money but time and expertise. But despite the fundamental structural changes in this area, some publishers still behave like they have a monopoly on publishing platforms and thus the power to treat writers poorly.

When online publishers announce that they are seeking free content from writers I have to laugh in disbelief. Any writer with ambition and the desire to be read by the public should publish their own site using a free online platform and promote their content directly to audiences via social media like Facebook and Twitter. They don’t need to give away their content in exchange for having it marketed to audiences by publishers.

Two recent examples illustrate the mismatch between the approach taken by publishers and the reality of online media. First, Top Melbourne Restaurants is a Facebook page with over 50,000 fans (and it is also on Twitter).

It is planning to develop its content into a new site, which will presumably continue to feature free user generated content while being based on a commercial business model, such as advertising. It explains on Facebook that ‘We are setting up a website topmelbourne.com.au and an iPhone application :) shortly but it costs time and money.’

It is searching for feature article writers who are willing to contribute for free (‘successful sources will not be paid’, see the screen capture below of the callout on SourceBottle).

topmelbourne successful sources will not be paid

The second example is the new generic guide site Milk Bar Mag (screen capture below). I received a request from the publisher to contribute content for free and I politely declined. What’s in it for me? This is the fundamental question all writers should ask. Why should I help you build your business? Why work for someone else when you can work for yourself?

milkbarmag successful sources will not be paid

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of hosting your own site and managing your own server and platform setup, using a free hosted platform is the best option for aspiring content creators. Some of the most high profile and influential sites in Melbourne like Meet me at Mikes and Melbourne Gastronome use free platforms.

If you’re writing about food, WordPress.com is beginning to develop ways to better index and aggregate the content it hosts. It has recently published Foodpress, which aggregates the food related posts from thousands of its users.

Online readers are caring less and less about the brand of the publication and more about the content of the individual articles they read. They find relevant articles more through searching (Google) and by social recommendations (Facebook and Twitter) than they do by regularly reading particular publications.

In the era of granular content, the individual item is more important than the anthology. Content is being unbundled from the antiquated structures created by physical media. In digital musics stores, sales of individual songs have become the norm, reflecting the buying preferences of consumers. Albums are less popular. Audiences have similar preferences for the texts they read: give me what I want and only what I want, not all this other irrelevant and uninteresting stuff.

Aspiring writers and other content creators (such as photographers) are advised to not give away their content for free to digital robber barons. If you license it to them set the conditions carefully, such as ensuring that you retain copy, moral (your right to be identified as the author) and intellectual property rights, that they cannot reuse your content in another publication and that they cannot resell it. You have the power.

successful sources will not be paid

2 thoughts on “successful sources will not be paid

  • 27 November 2010 at 9:29 am
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    I always get annoyed by calls for free (or poorly paid) writing, unless it’s from a charity. But unfortunately, the reality is that there’s always people willing to write (or contribute in general) for free. Just look at YouTube.

    Still, I can’t help but cringe. If someone wanted to write for free, it’s easy to make their own blog. If they want to write for a profit, again, it’s easy to do it themselve.

    But well, that’s reality sometimes.

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  • 28 November 2010 at 8:09 pm
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    I think a lot of it involves awareness raising among writers, which I’m grateful to you for doing a lot of. Young writers or writers more used to other mediums are likely to believe the lie that they’ll get exposure submitting their stuff for free. It’s not surprising to see the old media moguls banding together to propagate that lie.

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