Even though I do words for a living, I had to call my sister to decipher my first blogging contract.
I needed an attorney’s perspective because I previously thought of contracts as something one signed in exchange for payment, and Thing & Thing was not paying me for two personal essays about parenting.
Really, I was paying T&T, handing over the exclusive rights to my words for 30 days and the further non-exclusive right to publish my work “for the full term of the copyright,” which my sister told me meant that, if the company ever included my piece in a book it didn’t have to pay me. That’s actually true for “any and all media whether now known or hereinafter discovered or developed,” which means that the folks over at T&T can turn my reflections about scones and children’s books into whatever format emerges in the post-podcast era.
It didn’t seem like a great deal. I signed anyway. Getting paid wasn’t nearly as important as the exposure, because the conventional wisdom for new bloggers is that publishing your work on big websites will lead people to your much smaller one.
In my first year of blogging, I was thrilled to publish at T&T, One Thing & Another Thing, The Thing Post, and many other parenting sites that will remain nameless. None of these sites pay freelancers, but nearly all of them do promise exposure.
If you can name the author of the last parenting article you read, I'll accept the argument that people should write for exposure. I'll bet you a dollar that, unless you're a longtime reader, friend, or family member (love you guys!), you don’t even know my name. KJ Dell'Antonia, contributing editor of the NY Times' Well Family page and one of my favorite podcast hosts, reminds us that “exposure” might mean fame and fortune, but it just as often means death in the wilderness.
Obviously, the exposure model is not great for writers. But it’s also lousy for readers. Many of us are trying to be savvier media consumers, identifying the biases of news sites and considering how sponsorship drives content. But even the most discerning media consumers among us, people who actually pay for quality newspaper subscriptions and write letters to the editor, can be filterless readers of parenting websites.
Following reputable publications that pay their writers helps ensure quality. It also ensures less panicked nonsense about invisible dangers. An additional two hours of research time is the difference between a site publishing a panic-inducing piece about why pregnant women shouldn't get flu shots and a site publishing a careful analysis of a preliminary finding and its implications for future research.
Paid writers also tend to write more. You know that feeling you get when you read a really great book, and only then learn that the author has written a dozen more books? The same is true for writers you find online. Paid writers often leave a trail. If you really like a piece someone wrote, you'll probably like other things they wrote. If they're getting paid, they can do more of this work, so there’s more for you to read.
Paid writers ensure more of the kind of writing you want to read. But how do you find out whether or not a website pays its writers? There are some relatively simple tips to figure out how writers are compensated.
Read the “write for us” page
Most of the big-name parenting websites do not pay writers, which may be why the writers aren’t generally called “writers,” but instead “contributors.” This secret is open to anyone willing to read the “contribute” or “write for us” page. If a site doesn’t mention pay, assume that its freelance contributors are free labor.
Ask why the site doesn’t pay writers
If a site does not pay its contributors, find out why. If the contributors page doesn’t make this clear, the about page sometimes will. Some sites are labors of love run by individuals or groups of friends who write for the fun of it. Other sites ask contributors to be actual contributors, donating their time to a cause. If a website does not offer a socially-conscious reason for not paying writers, look elsewhere.
Be wary of share bonuses
Some parenting sites offer a share “bonus” if an article goes viral, which in most cases means “we’ll pay you if enough people read this.” As a general rule, then, freelancers tend to get paid more if they terrify or outrage you. The pay-per-share and pay-per-click models have created a need for fear-inducing parenting articles about one mom’s terrifying mistake or nonsense about human traffickers at IKEA.
Look for bylines
Whether or not a site pays writers, if you cannot find a writer’s name alongside his or her piece, start looking for a new favorite parenting site. How is that writer ever supposed to get that coveted exposure if the site doesn’t name her? Once you’ve found a writer whose work you like, follow her everywhere.
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