Chances are, many of your favorite online writers are using a blogging platform like Medium or Substack to make money from their writing.
There are a variety of blogging platforms that don’t directly pay writers for their work, but instead use revenue-sharing models that allow writers to get paid for views, clicks, subscribers, etc.
These platforms reward writers for high-performing content, while allowing writers a lot of creative freedom in tone and topic. They are an increasingly popular way to get paid for blogging, so let’s take a closer look at these platforms.
What are Paid Blogging Platforms?
Paid blogging platforms are usually popular websites (often paired with an app and/or newsletter) that provide readers with a stream of written content. Readers often follow specific topics or specific writers, may pay for membership or a subscription, or have other ways to participate with the site and curate their feed.
For writers, these sites usually allow writers to join and contribute for free, but then allow writers to earn money based on how popular their content is on the platform.
Advantages of Using a Blogging Platform
For writers who are interested in personal stories and memoirs, criticism and analysis, or simply longer-form writing, there are a lot of reasons to use these platforms, including:
- Revenue sharing. These sites typically pay writers for clicks and views, rather than hiring writers to create specific content. Many sites also offer additional monetization opportunities, creating more ways to make money from your writing. As with everything online, the most popular content usually generates the most revenue, so it can take time to find your audience.
- Reaching a wider audience. For writers, a paying platform can be a much simpler alternative than trying to drive traffic to their own blog. Generating views to your own blog can be a huge challenge, and involve a wide range of factors beyond the quality of your content. An existing platform can make it easier to simply focus on writing and finding your following without building and marketing your blog.
- Creative freedom. Although platforms have different editorial guidelines, joining a paid blogging platform gives writers the creative freedom to choose their topics, write in their own style, and express their own opinions, rather than finding clients and then writing content for hire.
In other words, for writers who simply want to write, and spend less time building a following, finding clients, or growing a business, a paid platform can be a great choice.
Best Blogging Platform: Medium vs Substack
Medium was launched in 2012 by Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger and Twitter. It’s an online publishing platform featuring professional and amateur journalism, with a mix of staff writers and member-submitted content. Medium has 170 million readers.
Like many startups, Medium has had a range of monetization and editorial strategies over the years. Medium wants to support “insightful and dynamic thinking” from industry experts and outsider perspectives alike, promoting content with substance and authenticity. Readers pay $5/month to access unlimited articles, and writers can join and publish for free.
Medium writers enjoy a suite of writing tools, similar to having your own blog. You can create a personalized blog, use Medium’s writing and publishing tools, and even add a custom domain. A Medium blog can be promoted with a newsletter or with social media accounts, and each writer gets a dashboard that shows their stats and analytics.
You can simply write on Medium as a blogger, or you can join the Partnership Program to earn money from your writing. Medium Partner writers get paid based on how much time readers spend with their content, and also earn a percentage of member subscriptions based on the percentage of time a member spends with their work.
In 2019, Medium published a great post on writer earnings on their site. According to that piece, only 7.1% of the site’s active writers earned more than $100 in a month, but that may be because so many writers join and only write one or two pieces. At the time, the highest amount earned for a single story was $4000, and the highest-earning writer in April 2019 earned over $11,000. A more current piece indicates that, in Feb 2020, 8.3% of active writers earned over $100, the most earned by a single writer was nearly $18,000, and the most earned by a single story was $7,700.
Medium pros for writers
Reputation – Medium is big and has been around for a long time, so, although they may change their terms over time, they are unlikely to disappear.
Monthly pay – Every month, writers get paid based on how much time was spent reading their content, and what percentage of paying members’ time was spent on their content.
Quality – Medium focuses on quality content that isn’t biased by advertising. They have high editorial standards, and their readers do too.
Flexibility – Writers can simply use Medium as a blogging tool, or to monetize their writing. You can choose to monetize a single post or all of them, edit posts after they are published, or de-monetize your own content. Writers have a lot of control over how they manage monetization on Medium.
Growth – Medium continues to grow, and writers can earn money off of social views, the app, newsletters, and other channels that Medium uses to promote content.
Medium cons for writers
Requires commitment – While it is always possible to have a single story go viral on Medium and earn a lot of money for the writer, it almost never happens. Instead, success on Medium means spending the time to build a catalogue of high quality content, so that someone who enjoys your story may click through and read more of your writing. Like any platform, it may take some trial and error to find a voice that appeals to Medium readers, and committing to the platform is the best way to make money at it.
Takes time to earn money – Almost every single Medium writer gets paid every month, but 92% of them make less than $100.
Medium is a great platform for writers who meet their editorial standards and are willing to take the time to cultivate a following on the platform.
Unlike Medium’s online publishing platform, Substack is optimized for creating and publishing subscription newsletters. Founded by Chris Best, co-founder of Kik, in 2017, Substack initially appealed to high-profile journalists and professional writers, using the email newsletter as an alternative to traditional print media. In Feb 2021, Substack had more than 500,000 paying subscribers.
Substack was started to create a way for readers to pay writers directly for their work, bypassing traditional publication methods. Newsletters also create a stronger sense of connection between a writer and a reader than a book or magazine, giving both readers and writers more of what they want. Because communication is directly between writer and reader, Substack does not have editorial standards or guidelines, and has minimal content moderation.
Substack writers enjoy a suite of simple, beautiful tools that let them create, customize, and publish their email newsletter. Writers can choose to publish for free, or make them available to subscribers only. In 2020, the minimum rate for a subscription was $5/month or $30 per year. Substack takes 10% of subscription fees, while payment processor Stripe takes 2.9% + 30 cents for each subscriber. In total, Substack fees can amount to approximately 20.7% of the total revenue.
Substack is still in a start-up phase and adding and changing services. In 2019, it began supporting podcasts, although they still are not part of the core services. In March of 2021, Substack announced “Substack Pro”, a program where they pay certain writers an amount of money in advance, to give them time to grow on the platform. While this program appears to have been intended to reduce risk and attract high quality writers to Substack, it did generate some controversy. By simply announcing it in a blog post, the company did not make it clear who “Pro” users were, how the program works, or who qualifies for these advance payments.
Substack does not publish average earnings, and puts the most positive spin on their earning potential, with a calculator that shows that if you have, for example, 800 subscribers at $5/month, you could earn $3,244. The truth is that payment processing fees are also deducted from subscriptions, and that it can be difficult to convert email list members into paying subscribers. It is likely that more average writers will have something closer to ~100 subscribers, and earn more like $420 per month.
Substack pros for writers
Open platform – Substack is famous for having virtually no content moderation, since all content is distributed directly to subscribers who have signed up for it. Their content guidelines ban hate speech, plagiarism, doxxing, impersonation, spam or phishing, content that promotes harmful or illegal activities, or sexually explicit material. However, writers are free to otherwise write on any topic, in any style, with any perspective that they choose.
Devoted readers – When someone subscribes to your newsletter, they want to hear what you have to say. There’s less pressure to get views, create clickbait headlines, or try to go viral. It’s easier to grow community and feel connected.
Simple payment model – With Substack, people simply subscribe to your newsletter and pay for it. Substack and Stripe take their fees as a percentage, but there’s no need to track complex analytics.
Substack cons for writers
Designed for high visibility writers and publications – The most successful writers on Substack are people who already had highly visible careers in journalism or as authors. When a writer is already known and has an existing fan base, it’s easier to attract newsletter subscriptions.
Substack even pay high profile writers advances to attract them on to the platform and have deals with a number of famous authors. You can read more about this aspect of the Substack business model in this Guardian article.
Growing a subscriber list is challenging – Substack will allow you to import your existing email list, but there is a big difference between people on your email list and actual paid subscribers. Substack doesn’t have robust tools to boost discovery of your writing for new readers, or gain more exposure. It also doesn’t have tools to help you convert readers into paid subscribers. Their blog has helpful tips, but writers have to do that work on their own.
For writers who already have robust tools to find and grow an audience, and already have a fan base, Substack can be a great way to monetize a subscription newsletter. However, there are a number of sites (Patreon, Ghost, Revue, etc.) that also offer subscription newsletters, and Substack may not be the best of these types of tools.
There are dozens of publishing platforms online, but most professional writers right now are using either Medium or Substack. Medium is a great platform for writers who want additional visibility, the ability to grow an audience, and to be part of a platform that keeps on growing. For writers who invest the time to master their style and connect with Medium readers, it has solid income potential.
For writers who already have a fan base, and who want to communicate one-on-one with their community, a subscription newsletter is a great way to connect and grow a community. It can be difficult for new writers to build such a community, so Substack isn’t a great choice for freelance writers who don’t yet have a following.