Can You Actually Make Money Self-Publishing on Medium?

By Jackson Knapp September 29th, 2020

With 120 million readers and a Partner Program that pays writers, Medium is worth a look for freelancers thinking about self-publishing. But is anyone actually making money on Medium? And if so, how much?

According to the Medium Writers Newsletter, 66 percent of writers or publications who published at least one story for members earned money in August. Medium touts that the highest-earning writer raked in more than $49,000 that month—damn near impossible to replicate elsewhere.

But here’s a more telling statistic: During the same period, only 6 percent of writers made more than $100.

Hanna Brooks Olsen, a Seattle writer, made about $60 in passive income in August from past stories. She saw the platform’s upside when she joined in 2014 and has since gained more than 18,000 followers. But few writers can count on a built-in audience that size.

How can those with modest followings cut through the noise and earn a sizable payout?

To gain traction, focus on value over volume

When Jess Shanahan, a UK-based freelancer and Contently managing editor, first started using Medium, she found that her opinionated musings on topics like embracing failure weren’t getting noticed. So she switched up her strategy.

“I realized the value-based, ‘I’ll show you how to do a thing and make money,’ [pieces] work really well on Medium,” she said. “I evolved from ‘here’s me ranting about female superheroes and how that affects us in business,’ to ‘here’s a thing I did and how you can replicate it.'”

There’s a huge self-help ecosystem on Medium—many popular writers traffic in the genre. Shanahan was able to find an audience of writers who wanted financial advice and started consistently making $30 a month.

Medium’s new payment system often rewards writers who can carve these niches. Last October, the site did away with paying writers based on a story’s “claps”—the platform’s version of a “like”—and instead created a formula based on reading time.

For instance, if a Medium subscriber spends five percent of their monthly reading time on your story, you get paid five percent of their subscription fee. (Medium members pay either $5 a month or $50 annually to read unlimited articles.) So even if you don’t have a huge audience, a cult following of a few loyal subscribers who spend big portions of their Medium diet reading your work could bring in steady income.

While Olsen sometimes targets specific audiences, she’s had luck making money with topical pieces that are reactionary but stop short of hot takes, like her response to Marie Kondo’s “Tidying Up” trend. She also thinks memoir-like personal essays mixed with research, quotes, and data—like an explainer on how she paid off her student loans—perform well.

“That’s really the spot,” she said. “Not only does it appeal to the people who relate to it, it also feels like something useful to people who maybe don’t relate but are curious about the subject matter.”

Get your name out there

So long as being prolific doesn’t mean you’re churning out junk, an obvious starting point to earn money on Medium is to write as often as possible. But that alone won’t do the trick. There are other ways to engage with the platform that’ll expand your reach.

Shanahan found some success tailoring her posts to Medium’s owned publications—like The Startup, its small business blog—which have big audiences baked in. You can cold-pitch a lot of these outlets, but the dream is to get curated, which happens when a buzzy post is selected by the Medium team to be distributed across the platform. There’s no surefire way for this to happen, but according to Medium guidelines, the curation team is on the prowl for the same qualities that make any story stand out—work that’s honest, readable, and rigorously researched.

Olsen preaches being active in the Medium community by following writers you admire, “highlighting” passages you like, and leaving thoughtful comments. “The more that you interact with the platform, the more people interact with you,” she said. “It’s very symbiotic.”

Olsen and Shanahan also urge people to link social media accounts, newsletters, and personal websites to Medium to maximize its promotional value. “You have to hype yourself.” Olsen said. “It’s hard, but you have to do it anyway.”

Medium, for its part, has its own writers blog, which offers helpful tips for newbies looking to cash in on their work.

Should you self-publish on Medium or pitch?

If you’re confident in your story idea, it’s worth considering the tradeoff between pitching a traditional publication that’ll pay you a fixed rate versus self-publishing on Medium.

Even after six years, Olsen admitted she’s never totally sure what’ll do well on Medium. She appreciates the guaranteed $250 to $400 she’d get writing for conventional outlets. However, roughly a quarter of the publications she used to pitch don’t exist anymore, and if one of her Medium posts picks up heat, there’s potential to earn several times more than the going rate at any media outlet. One month, for instance, she made about $2,000, mostly coming from a single post about navigating relationships amid mental health issues.

Since those types of paydays are rare, Olsen considers Medium the perfect “slush pile” for ideas she believes in that editors in her rolodex won’t take on. She likes that you can have a strong voice while being able to access traffic data with detailed breakdowns of earnings.

But not everyone has Olsen’s reach. If an editor green-lights a piece and you don’t have a loyal following, you might be better off with the guaranteed payout from a commission versus the gamble on Medium.

Jackson Knapp is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

Contently proudly pays freelancers upon submission of their work.

Photo Credit: katemangostar

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