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How to Succeed in Online Publishing: A Lot of Hard Work and a Little Bit of Luck

Forget fairness or handouts, and prepare to work for it

By Rachael HopePublished 2 years ago 9 min read
How to Succeed in Online Publishing: A Lot of Hard Work and a Little Bit of Luck
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Two years of almost-daily participation in online writing groups has shown me a pattern in the topics that come up for discussion on a regular basis. Two of the most common are the questions with easy Google-able answers (that’s just the nature of social media) and the complaints about the system.

People spend an inordinate amount of time online trying to crack the code. You know the one, the magic formula that will make us the next big thing. Complaints about enforcement of terms of service, changes to algorithms, and how platforms choose to function abound.

Recently, a complaint came up about some daily digest emails from a couple of larger publications. Seven articles from the same writer had appeared that day, and the person wondered how the policy of the publications was fair. How was it allowing new writers a voice on the platform? How were people supposed to find their writing if they never got featured? How was any of this fair?

The comments became a cacophony of accusations of unfairness and inequality. An implication blossomed that it is someone else’s job to make sure we all have a fair shot. That by doing business the way they do, these publications were doing something to harm us as writers. As I read, I began to feel like I was back in elementary school where participation is the goal and skill and quality take second chair. I had questions.

How would it benefit a platform to give all users equal air time?

In short, it wouldn’t. I suppose it might help to draw new participants and creators to that platform, but the bottom line is that websites like Medium, Elephant Journal, Buzzfeed, and Mamamia are all businesses. Sure, you can self-publish, but when it comes down to what they choose to feature, they’re looking for views and exposure. Sharing content created by people who have already proven they contribute to these metrics is just good business. Featuring well-read creators who have large followings drives readership and increases their bottom line.

It doesn’t make sense to expect a website to focus their efforts on making things fair for thousands and thousands of contributors. It is not the job of a certain website to give equal time to everyone who submits a piece of writing. In fact, that would be a terrible business model, and likely be impossible to sustain.

In the same vein, it isn’t any one publication’s job to accept every submission or to give every contributor equal time. There are hundreds of metrics a publication might use for choosing which authors to feature, including quality, subject matter, and size of following.

As writers, it is our job to produce the best content we can and to choose the right place to publish it. This contributes to our success. It is a publisher’s prerogative to feature things that help them achieve success. Asking them to ignore their bottom like to give people some idea of “fairness” is a ridiculous business model.

When did we start expecting life to be fair?

Complaints about life being unfair are nothing new, and they’re largely a waste of time. People talk about online publishing and say that if a platform chooses to highlight its own publications and the authors who publish within, they are being unfair. Where did the idea that it’s supposed to be “fair” come from in the first place?

As a writer, I have never focused on or expected “fairness.” It is quite obvious that there is an element of luck in being discovered and becoming the next big thing. I have never published on any platform that promised to give each writer equal exposure, including this one.

We’re faced everyday with countless choices about how we spend our time, where we expend our energy. Focusing on some fabricated perception that a large company is doing something specifically to keep down one writer among thousands is a huge waste of both those things. It makes much more sense to accept that life as a whole is not fair, and to focus on the things we actually have the ability to affect.

Whose job is it to make sure I get exposure?

It’s my job, and mine alone. I have the freedom to choose where I publish my writing, and when I make that choice, it is my responsibility to find the readers who connect with me and provide content they want to read. Part of being a writer is being your own marketing team.

There are certainly websites and services that may promise you a certain amount of exposure. But guaranteed clicks and views are not the stuff of free-to-publish platforms. If I’m going to expect a guarantee, I’m likely going to have to pay money to someone who specializes in marketing or content distribution.

Of course, hiring an agent or using that kind of service is a valid choice. But it’s just that- a choice. By choosing to self-publish, I am choosing to take responsibility for managing my own exposure. What I can control is the content I provide, and making sure it’s the best I have. I can control the time I spend on research and on pitching articles to publishing outlets I think will increase my exposure. I can educate myself on good writing practices and how to write good pitches.

We can’t rely on anyone to market our work for free.

If you want to be successful as a writer, you’ll have to learn to market yourself. We all have hope we’ll hit the jackpot and get discovered, but relying on that isn’t a plan. Beyond that, luck is not something any of us have control over. It’s a much better use of energy to figure out the things we do have control over and work on them.

Big writers who make tens of thousands publishing online write like it’s a full time job. They spend 8 hours a day, 5+ days a week working, but it’s not all on content creation. They are also hustling to edit, run their social media, send newsletters, provide unique content like written guides and classes, interact with other writers, and more. Part of their job as writers is working on marketing themselves.

I love to write, but there is a reason that I keep a day job. I work a 9–5 so that I can write what I want to write and not worry about the grind of trying to make a living with my words. The life of a full time writer is not easy. Even authors who have had books turned into big-budget movies face a struggle in marketing future work and end up living in their cars or struggling to afford groceries. The starving artist is a cliché for a reason.

Trust that readers will seek out content and work for you.

The nature of creating written art is that readers will come to you because they seek out your work. Whether you’re writing personal essays, how-to guides, short fiction, or novels, there is an audience looking for that content. I don’t find most of the writers I read through email daily digests. I find them largely through social media shares and reading about topics I’m interested in and clicking through to the related topic suggestions at the bottom of the articles.

If there are readers who only read what they see in the emails, or who use the app but don’t have the “luxury” to go foraging? Perhaps those are not, or should not, be the target audience for writers in the first place.

As a writer, I choose to trust that readers will find my content. The argument that readers won’t see content that isn’t offered up to them on a silver platter assumes they’re lazy and a little stupid. As a reader, I don’t waste my time reading articles by popular writers just because they’re popular. I read articles that focus on subject matter that I’m interested in. I don’t care if you’re making $10,000 or $10 a month, if you write about feminism or fat acceptance or Jurassic Park, I’m likely to read it.

These readers, the ones who seek us out and connect with our work on a deeper level, are one of our biggest advocates when it comes to increasing exposure. Consider the New York Times Bestseller list. The books found there are driven by what people like and what people read. It makes sense that the more people read someone, the more exposure they get, because that’s how the algorithm works. Someone writes something interesting. People like it. It speaks to them. They share it. More people see it. Media outlets or publishing platforms take note. This is the snowball we’re all striving for.

Everyone started out as a “little guy.”

One of the problems with acting like the “little guys” don’t have a chance is that everyone began as that little guy at some point in their career. Everybody starts somewhere. Expecting to be treated the same as someone who has done a lot of legwork, spent hours and hours on all the work that successful self-publishing requires, when you are just starting out is irrational.

There is a whole lot of concern about algorithms and home page placement, and a lot of complaining about the people who have managed to succeed and support themselves as writers. I don’t understand it. Supporting fellow writers only until they become successful and surpass you in followers, exposure, or earnings is not actually supportive.

It’s better for writers if writers succeed. It proves that it’s still possible, that hard work can pay off. As long as platforms for publishing still exist, and we still use them, there will be opportunity.

If you are a writer, write. Don’t quit your day job. Very few people in this world are able to make a full-time living as writers. Writing as your only career isn’t easy, and expecting a magical platform to come along that gives you a leg up and equal treatment to someone who has already proved they can make money for the platform is naïve at best. No one starts out as being “chosen,” they all started from nothing. Complaining about the success of others does nothing to contribute to your own future success.

Nobody owes us a special advantage.

Of course the best way to get exposure on a platform is for the platform to market you. That’s basic business and marketing 101. Expecting publications or platforms to go out on a limb for unproven authors rather than pushing things from authors who’ve brought them success is not reasonable. That’s literally how any business works.

No platform has the responsibility to be your agent. It’s not a website’s job to give everyone equal time to create success for us. By choosing a website as a publication point for our work, we are agreeing to use the system in the way they have it set up. If we don’t like it, we have 2 options: write somewhere else, or adjust our expectations.


About the Creator

Rachael Hope

Polyamorous, loud laughing unapologetic feminist, rad fatty, and epic sweet tooth. I might overshare, but I'll also share my fries and shake with you.

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