My first online article went viral! It wasn’t quite as contagious as the video of little Charlie, who’s been seen biting his brother’s finger over half a billion times on YouTube. But starting at TomDispatch, my piece got re-posted on some 30 blogs and Web zines, from the Huffington Post to Island Breath. For a day and a half, the ratings of my book on Amazon surged and I received greetings from eight old acquaintances who seemed happy to learn that I was still alive. So, if not quite viral, I’d gone bacterial. But none of those paperless magazines planned to pay me. Perhaps that’s a petty concern; I have my Social Security to live on. But what about young writers? In the online era, who will send first-time authors those small checks that prove to their parents (and themselves) that they’re professionals?
My online publishers aren’t getting rich off my writing. Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch scrapes by on contributions and clicks. When readers order books by clicking the Amazon link on his site, Tom earns a commission. He uses his Amazon kickbacks—about $1,000 a month—to pay editorial help.
As a “content originator,” Engelhardt solicited, edited, and disseminated my article, giving me all the before-and-after help provided by a traditional book editor. Unfortunately, he can’t figure out how to make readers pay for my words.
The midsized “content aggregators” that picked up my piece, like Salon and Common Dreams, rely on some mix of foundation grants, reader contributions, volunteer labor, and author vanity. But like TomDispatch, they haven’t figured out how to pay me.
Neither has Arianna Huffington. With about 54 million visitors a month, the Huffington Post is the largest, by far, of the sites that used my article. In 2011, AOL paid Huffington $315 million for the Huffington Post. AOL will recoup its investment by selling ads targeted to readers who open particular pages. According to Alexa, a Web analytics service, the Huffing Post attracts many “moderately educated women who earn over $60,000 a year.” Since I and other writers lure these “moderately educated” eyes to the site, we authors created at least some of that $315 million value.
In this vast content-industrial complex of content originators, content aggregators, content analytics, and agencies that place ads next to the right content, I am the content provider—and I don’t get paid!
My resentment evaporated when I phoned one of my smallest online publishers. Island Breath, a website based in Kauai Island in northern Hawaii, gets about 1,200 visitors a day. Before he went digital, publisher Juan Wilson put out a local print newspaper, which lost more money the more copies he sold. Kauai abuts the U.S. military’s main underwater weapons testing site. These days, when there’s a proposal to renovate the sea shore with a scenic road wide enough for submarines that turn into tanks, Island Breath’s circulation can jump from 1,200 to 12,000 at no extra cost to the publisher.
Which weighs more, an issue of Island Breath or an issue of the Huffington Post? I don’t know which is the lead and which the feathers, but online, they both weigh the same. With paperless publishing, the Huffington Post can disseminate reams of liberal commentary without cutting trees, and Island Breath can post the entire text of a deliberately opaque land-use proposal without losing money. This is obviously beneficial.
But how will we pay writers in a world awash in free words? It’s technically feasible to pay writers based on the number of times their work is viewed online. British libraries have long paid British authors a small royalty on each borrowing. In Sweden, published authors are simply awarded an annual income. In both cases, the money comes out of public funds created to sustain a national literature. This may not be politically possible in the U.S. right now, but if the publishing wave of the future is virtual, somatic authors and editors will still need real money to buy physical food. Happily, six weeks after my article went viral (okay bacterial) I received a check! Engelhardt scrounged a grant to pay each writer $100 per article. Before that check arrived, writing online felt like vanity publishing. Now I’m a professional again!
Barbara Garson’s latest book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live (Anchor, 2014), includes her “viral” article “The Mystery of the Missing Unemployed Man.”