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Forgive me for being so vocal, Vocal, but...

An open letter to Vocal CEO Jeremy Frommer

By Jon McKnightPublished 3 years ago 10 min read
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Questions, questions... but why won’t CEO Jeremy Frommer answer them?

You and I need to have words. Yet you seem to be rather short of them for those of us who don’t happen to be either Nasdaq or your shareholders.

That’s odd, as words are your business. Indeed, you’re attempting to commoditise them by encouraging people to pay you for the privilege of writing for your Vocal+ platform in return for what appears, in reality, to be the paltriest of sums.

Your Facebook ads tell a different story in the hope, I imagine, that we will wish to tell our stories on Vocal+ so you can boast to your shareholders and would-be investors about how your paid subscriber-base is growing fast.

One of your Facebook ads in the UK says it’s possible to earn $6,000 a month through Reads alone on Vocal+, and I suspect a lot of people have signed up to the premium part of your platform in the hope of doing just that.

But is it actually possible? Is anyone actually earning that much? Who are they, and how consistently have they been able to do that?

Those are legitimate questions, yet your press office has ignored both of my e-mails asking them; your moderator (or moderators, if you really do have more than one) won’t tell me, either; and you haven’t responded to my connection request on LinkedIn.

According to your website, you pay Vocal+ creators $6 for every 1,000 reads, so a creator would need literally a million reads, month after month, to earn the $72,000 a year your ads claim is possible.

It may well be that there is the odd J K Rowling among your Vocal+ creators, but I doubt if there are many. And if any were able to clock up a million reads, month after month, I suspect they’d be earning a telephone-numbers salary as a national newspaper columnist rather than dabbling on Vocal+ with all the frustrations that beset your contributors.

novelist

I’m no J K Rowling, more’s the pity, but I have been writing professionally for 40 years as a journalist, a copywriter, a scriptwriter, an editor, a novelist and a blogger.

You’d think, therefore, that I ought to be able to put one word in front of another in a reasonably pleasing order by now and, perhaps, have something of an advantage over many other Vocal creators who are learning their craft and haven’t had the benefit of my professional training and four decades of experience of having to write well enough for publisher after publisher to want to pay me.

Nevertheless, I was excited when my first contribution was chosen as a Top Story and, indeed, was given pride of place on your home page.

With 900,000 creators in the Vocal network, I was looking forward to tens of thousands of reads as a result of having my work featured so prominently on your platform.

I got 147.

Imagining there might be a lag between people reading stories and the Stats page recording them as reads, I wrote more stories to see what happened.

Some of those stories took me half a day to write, I created some original graphics to catch readers’ eyes, and I thought I’d at least be in with a chance of some more Top Stories and an awful lot of reads.

But despite spending most of my waking hours for a week writing and publishing stories on Vocal, I managed to accumulate only 287 reads - not even each, but between them - and total earnings from reads of $1.72.

Does that mean a professional writer like me with 40 years’ experience would need to work thousands of times harder in order to earn the $6,000 a month your adverts claim is possible, Jeremy?

Coutts

One of the international measures of poverty is having to live on less than a dollar a day, yet my earnings on your platform have fallen way, way short of even that.

It’s possible, and you might argue this, that I’ve suddenly become out of touch at the age of 60 and am kidding myself that anyone would still want to read anything I write.

Yet I edit a magazine that’s prized by the millionaires and billionaires who bank at Coutts, and I earn a living as a copywriter whose work is enjoyed and paid for, every day, by strangers who don’t have to approve a single word I write if they don’t wish to.

A newspaper I used to work for had 57,000 sales of its print edition and about 100,000 readers, so pretty well everything I wrote for many years had a large and receptive audience.

But here on Vocal, it would be simpler if I picked a dozen people at random and e-mailed the stories to them individually rather than putting you to all the trouble of publishing them on Vocal.

As a former hedge-fund manager, you ought to know a thing or two about money, and it seems you certainly do.

handful

By luring people to write for Vocal with claims that they could earn $72,000 a year from reads alone, you’re getting them to produce an awful lot of content for next to nothing - and by expecting them to pay a monthly fee if they want to enter Challenges that are only open to Vocal+ subscribers, you’re able to demonstrate the company’s growth to your shareholders and potential investors.

Only a handful will win the Challenge prizes - and even then, all that generosity isn’t coming out of your pocket, or Vocal’s, is it, Jeremy?

No. The big prizes are sponsored by your brand partners - ie, you encourage your vast number of subscribers to write nice things about the partner’s brand, and they put up the money for the prize.

It wouldn’t be so bad if you made any serious attempts to guarantee your subscribers an audience for their writing, but you don’t.

You expect them to bring the audience themselves, and suggest they should promote their work as much as they can on social media, as if that were easy or likely to result in large numbers of readers.

And yet, as a supposed believer in the power of social media, Vocal’s own Twitter account has only 5,778 followers.

How come? You have 900,000 creators beavering away to provide free content for you, so if they were each to follow you, you’d suddenly have a huge number of Twitter followers, with the result that stories you featured in Tweets might just attract an audience.

fattened-up

The trouble is - and I’m guessing here - you might suddenly have to dig your hand far deeper into your corporate pocket if lots of writers really were earning $6,000 a month from you.

Would that make Vocal unviable, or is your business model so fiendishly clever that you just haven’t shared it with anyone yet?

Call me cynical, but I couldn’t help wondering if you were using Challenges funded by sponsors at no cost to you to lure people to write for you for free, while paying you for the privilege each month, so you can demonstrate in your statements to Nasdaq that your company is growing its paying-subscriber base phenomenally - so much so that you’ll be able to flog off the fattened-up company, only for the buyer to realise, too late, that the business model doesn’t work at all.

I’m sure that’s not the case, and indeed sought reassurances from your press people, but they’ve stonewalled me repeatedly.

In the meantime, one of the forums that Vocal members have set up themselves on Facebook is abuzz with speculation as to why the Stats upon which their income from Vocal depends haven’t been updated for days.

unacceptably

Their enquiries, which have to go through the snails-pace support ticketing system, have either been ignored, or they’ve been fobbed off with non-answers.

Are your investors aware of that, Jeremy? Well, they are now.

They might also be wondering why a platform that’s already getting people to write for it for free, or next to nothing, has an interface that’s less user-friendly than the blogs I was writing and publishing without anyone else’s help or intervention more than 20 years ago.

Anyone with a topical story to tell may as well forget it, especially if they’re on my side of the Atlantic, as the delay between submitting it and seeing it published can be unacceptably long, especially at weekends.

I suspect that’s because you have far too few moderators, and with the best will in the world, they have too much work to do because we writers can’t change so much as a dot or a comma after submission without raising a support ticket and waiting for your people to get around to it.

In my limited experience, I decided to write one story straight into Vocal instead of writing it elsewhere and pasting it in. I wish I hadn’t, because an e-mail came back, eventually, saying it hadn’t been accepted for publication because it was too short.

What a pity your interface doesn’t show a word-count, or have an algorithm that alerts us if we haven’t reached the 600-word minimum you demand - but no, we have to wait for someone to tell us, by e-mail, in their own good time, before we can add to the story or correct it and go through the submission process yet again.

cannibal

Your moderators, bless them, seem to suffer from more than their fair share of off-days, too.

They decided, arbitrarily and without any reference to me, to place my story about having lunch with a cannibal into an entirely different category to the one I’d specified.

Despite the story being non-fiction, someone published it under Horror and the sub-category Urban Legends.

I protested immediately, pointing out that the story was true, and received a patronising, standardised reply saying that the moderators knew best and would place a story in the ideal category, regardless of where I’d submitted it.

Eventually, a moderator changed the category... and published it under Fiction.

No, my story was still true, even if Vocal’s treatment of it was becoming more and more unbelievable.

Next, the moderator changed its category again and published the story in the Fact Or Fiction? section.

stressful

No, I protested, I didn’t want people to have to guess whether it was true or not because it was true. I was there. I had lunch with the cannibal. There were witnesses. And it was filmed.

Two entire days after I’d written the story, the moderator finally relented and placed it under the How To category.

Having lunch with a cannibal turned out, after all, to have been rather less stressful than trying to get a Vocal moderator to publish my true story in a non-fiction category.

You might be wondering, as I am, why I’m still here and writing for your platform, Jeremy.

I’m clinging on by my fingertips, and tempted to jump, but I rather liked the freshness of it all, the idea that I might find a whole new audience for my work as well as making a useful second income.

But the writing interface is clunky and 20th Century; the moderators literally can’t tell fact from fiction even when I’ve explained the difference to them several times over two days; the Stats on which creators’ incomes depend aren’t being updated, and Vocal won’t say why; you do almost nothing to help creators find or increase their audience; and the supposedly-achievable $6,000-a-month income from Reads that you claim in your Facebook ads looks like it might have been more deserving of a place in your Fact or Fiction? category.

bankroll

So what are you actually doing to deserve all the money you’ll make when you sell off Vocal as a writing platform full of writers who actually pay every month for the chance to win prizes that someone else pays for, Jeremy?

Let’s recap. You’re advertising an earnings potential of $72,000 a year that writers could only attain if they had a million views every month; they have to pay you a monthly subscription if they wish to enter Challenges to win prizes that you’ve persuaded someone else to bankroll; they’re expected to bring their own audience with them, to save you the trouble, and if they don’t, they’ll earn little or nothing from reads; you don’t trust them enough to let them publish direct, but make them go through the glacial procedure of submitting and waiting for someone at your end to get on with it; and when the Stats page fails to update for days on end, you ignore their protests and offer no explanation.

A former colleague, exasperated by the amount of work he was being expected to do, told the boss that if he’d care to stick a broom up his backside, he could sweep the floor for him as well while he was at it.

I trust it won’t come to that, Jeremy, but I do believe you might be expecting just a little too much of us and might be merely using us as a means of fattening up your company so you can sell it off. And I see you even have a little box under your stories inviting people to give you, a former hedge-fund manager, Tips.

I might be completely wrong, and I hope I am, but wouldn’t it be good if you, as a fellow Vocal+ creator, were to respond by open letter and reassure all those other writers out there that they’re not wasting their time and that they, like you, can actually make serious money from Vocal?

Or will you be lost for words?

• Jon McKnight is the author of the comic novel A Prize To Die For and of the consumer self-help handbook Throw The Book At Them! The Art Of The Well-Aimed Complaint (both available for Kindle).

business
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About the Creator

Jon McKnight

I have left Vocal.

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