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Revenue Sharing 2.0 (& Why it Still Sucks for Writers)

Read Time: 27 min

Revenue Sharing 2.0 and why it still sucks for writers - AllFreelanceWriting.com

I can’t believe the issue of revenue sharing models is still relevant today in the writing community, but here we are.

In this past week alone, companies exploiting these models have come up twice right in my Twitter feed. So, clearly, it’s time for a fresh look.

Summary: Revenue share models are never about helping you as a writer, but they’re almost always marketed this way. They are never a smart idea. They can be difficult to leave without having to fully start over. And even if you can leave with your content you risk losing readers, links, income, and subscribers.

In other words, think long and hard before you fall for their promotional claims.

Let’s take a brief look at what revenue sharing sites are, and the history behind them. Then I’ll explain why these aren’t smart decisions in the long-run and what you can do instead.

What are Revenue Sharing Schemes?

Revenue sharing schemes targeting writers most often fall under the “content network” umbrella. They generally don’t pay writers directly for a license to use their content. Instead, they pay contributors a portion of the site’s revenue.

There are different kinds of revenue sharing schemes. For example, a company might pay:

  • a percentage of ad revenue earned on a contributors’ articles;
  • based on traffic or views of a writer’s content;
  • for interaction from visitors (shares, “claps” as in Medium’s old pay model, etc.);
  • a percentage of subscriber-based income.

In other words, writers make money only when the larger companies benefit. And those companies avoid any up-front investment in the content that serves as the backbone of their business model.

How Revenue Sharing is Often Marketed to Writers

One thing has long been consistent when it comes to revenue sharing schemes targeting writers: the sites tout themselves as some kind of savior for the poor professional writers struggling to get paid fairly for their work.

All. The. Damn. Time.

Their marketing tends to focus on how much easier they’ll make it for you to earn a living from your writing. Sounds good, right?

The reality is they’re insulting you.

They’re saying you aren’t capable of doing this on your own.

They’re saying you’re not ambitious enough to build your own distribution model.

They exaggerate the time required to maintain and grow a blog of your own.

And they tend to largely ignore the freelance side of things – you know, where clients actually pay for your work outright instead of hoping you’ll work for peanuts now with the hope of earning more later.

The next time you come across a site or service offering revenue share, take a closer look at their marketing and how they’re trying to appeal to writers. You’ll see the same strategy used again and again.

Revenue share sites tout themselves as some kind of savior for the poor professional writers struggling to get paid fairly for their work - AllFreelanceWriting.com

That’s because it works.

Writers want to earn. Many don’t want to do the work of marketing to reach readers and earn income on their own. Many also don’t want to figure out how to sell their work to more legitimate clients. So those writers sign up for these promises of easier money.

Eventually though, these services usually fail. Or they drastically change their business models and how they pay writers. And many of those writers are left out in the cold.

When enough time goes by, new revenue share schemes pop up.

Some of the more experienced writers forget how they got screwed over the last time. And there are plenty of new writers around who don’t know any better because they weren’t there to witness what happened previously.

Because of those two things, these sites will usually be pretty profitable for those running them. But they’re far less reliable income sources for the writers doing much of the work.

A History of Revenue Sharing for Writers

Those of us who have been involved in the online writing and publishing communities for a while have seen our share of revenue sharing sites come and go – since at least the 90s, but especially since their boom in the early ‘00s.

And these weren’t all little no-name companies at their start.

About.com

About.com, for example, was owned by the New York Times Company when I was briefly involved with them around 2005.

If you aren’t aware, the site later changed ownership and rebranded to DotDash (with sites like VeryWell, The Balance, Investopedia, and more).

I can’t speak to its current incarnation, but back in the early ‘00s, About.com was one of the biggest content networks around. And it operated on a revenue share model.

Writers, called “guides,” were paid a base amount per month as long as they saw growth in traffic.

At the time I joined, guides were paid $500 for the first month, then guaranteed that amount each month as long as pageviews increased. The company estimated guides would spend 10-20 hours per week on their site. So better than most revenue share sites, but not great base pay by any means.

Each site a guide ran would have its own pay rate per 1000 pageviews beyond that. I don’t know the exact formula, but I remember this causing tension between some guides at the time, where you could benefit or be punished depending on the niche of your expertise even though you might do the same amount of work.

It was a very hit-or-miss revenue sharing scheme. Some guides in well-paid niches earned what seemed like obscene amounts of money each month. Others earned very little. And most fell somewhere in-between.

In general, it wasn’t a great deal for writers. When some other guides and I left, we got the then editor-in-chief to authorize a release of our content right away so we could take it elsewhere immediately. They didn’t have to, so we got lucky. I know some guides who left later and couldn’t get that agreement.

I took my own content to another network after that. It was much more independent. You essentially managed your own site on a separate domain on an inter-connected network, and you earned through advertising revenue share rather than pageviews. Much of those advertising decisions were also under the writers' control.

Not long after though, I moved all that content, including my old About content, to my own site – BizAmmo.com (one of my former "Big 3" sites, and currently in the process of being revived and rebuilt). In just a few months, I took that site to earning several thousand dollars every month with far less of a time investment than was required at About.

The lesson was simple:

You don’t need massive traffic numbers to earn well from your own sites, but you do if you want to earn well from revenue share sites.

That’s because it was never about the value of your content to your audience. It was about their expectations in building a massive search presence to drive network-wide ad revenue – for them, not you.

Suite101.com

One of About.com’s biggest competitors was Suite101. (Amazing enough, I saw the domain name go up for registration recently because no one even bothered to preserve it for redirect value, and it now goes to a rather spammy “sleep guide” site.)

I wasn’t a freelance writer with Suite101, but instead joined them as an editor when they went under new ownership and were aiming to clean up the mess of a reputation the former owners left behind.

I do believe they had good intentions at the start. But things went as they often do with these kinds of companies – horribly wrong.

Over time, the respect for writers disappeared. They stopped giving a damn about what editors had to say. They cut the editorial staff in half, making the rest of us take on double workloads that were never fairly compensated for. It just spiraled.

I’d had enough.

I left. Some of my writers left with me. And seeing later changes to the way writers were paid and how it screwed over some who stayed behind, I couldn’t be happier about my timing.

You see, initially under that ownership, they paid writers a set amount of $2.00 per 1000 pageviews. So you ran into the same issue About had (only there was no base pay for writers here). You had to take new content to significant traffic numbers before you’d see any pay.

Like most revenue sharing schemes, you're not really being paid to write. You're also expected to spend your time promoting content on someone else's site, and your pay could largely tie to how successful that marketing was, not the value of your work.

Even when it’s part of a large network, that traffic isn’t instantaneous. Plus, you’d have promotion of some writers’ work and not others, which again led to an unbalanced playing field.

A while after I left, a big change happened. They stopped paying based on pageviews, and started paying based on Adsense revenue sharing.

I found out about this because some of my former writers there were up in arms about it. They’d spent a couple years focused on building traffic because that’s how they were paid. And then suddenly all that effort went unrewarded if they wrote in a niche that didn’t monetize well via Adsense. While I’m sure some writers benefit, it was a real shock to others.

You don't need massive traffic numbers to earn well from your own sites, but you do if you want to earn well from revenue share sites - AllFreelanceWriting.com

Squidoo / HubPages

Anyone here remember Squidoo?

Launched in 2005 by Seth Godin, Squidoo was a site where content creators could set up individual pages on topics that interested them. Each page was called a “lens.”

Pay here was a little more complicated because it was based on what “tier” your lenses fell into popularity-wise. Again though, it wasn’t much.

These lenses could be used to make money in other ways though.

For example, you could post your own affiliate links. Squidoo also had its own “modules” you could use to sell Amazon products through your lenses (sharing a cut with them). And you could use them to promote your own sites and products.

This gave writers and other users more control over income potential.

But it also led to a lot of spammy content being published on the platform solely to push affiliate sales or create third-party backlinks to other sites for SEO purposes (until Squidoo stopped offering dofollow outbound links at least).

Not long after that change that drove SEO-focused users away, the site’s traffic dropped significantly and it was sold to HubPages.

This whole experiment was a bit different than content networks in that it was a rare exception not claiming to be a savior of sorts for struggling writers.

It was very openly about links and marketing, and ultimately that was its downfall, existing during a time when Google’s algorithm changes essentially penalized this kind of content.

The sale, again, left many content creators in a tough spot.

Some might not have minded losing the older marketing-oriented lenses, but others were left deciding what to do with the content they’d created, especially if it wasn’t in the “best… content” on Squidoo being automatically migrated to HubPages.

As a sidenote, I do have to give HubPages some credit.

While they might still be using the user-generated content model, at least their site is currently honest with writers about the reality: you shouldn’t expect to make much money there.

Even after publishing there for years, you can expect to earn much less than even a modest monetization plan should earn you on your own site.

Revenue Sharing Models Today

These were just three examples of early revenue-sharing sites writers used. What about now?

They still exist. They still usually target writers with promises of being easier ways to earn money and build an audience. And they still pose the same problems they always have.

One of the biggest differences I see is the userbase these kinds of sites now target.

In the past, revenue share sites largely targeted newer writers or subject matter experts who hadn’t earned a significant income writing before. That would be described as “too hard,” with these services being a supposed alternative.

Now these kinds of revenue share models tend to target more professional writers and journalists looking for new platforms and revenue streams.

Types of Revenue Share Schemes Today

While you can still find the more casual revenue share sites like HubPages these days, we’re also seeing a new generation of content networks and related revenue share sites.

For example, you’ll find sites like Medium which are essentially a cross between traditional content networks (using internal sections, sites, or blogs to cross-promote each other) and hosted blogging platforms (like WordPress.com, as opposed to the self-hosted version of WordPress).

Increasingly, you’ll find an even newer revenue sharing scheme targeting writers -- premium newsletter services.

I’m not talking about paid email marketing services you can use to manage your list. Instead, services like Substack and Revue (recently acquired by Twitter) encourage writers to run newsletters through them, give subscribers the option to pay monthly, and writers share a cut of that subscription revenue with the company.

The More Things Change…

Today’s revenue share options might look different, but are they really?

While these kinds of services have tried to build a greater air of respectability, largely in who they market to, they don’t actually solve the underlying issues of revenue share models.

We still have services built around requiring large quantities of user-generated content.

  • You, as a writer, are a tool for them to earn revenue.
  • Your work is what allows them to exist.
  • The services generally promote themselves as easier income streams than running your own blog or newsletter professionally.
  • They also tend to cut the up-front costs in exchange for a revenue cut (which can be more expensive for you in the long run).
  • Most earn less than they could independently if they were willing to learn and put the work in.
  • Your relationship, and online presences, exists at the whim of a company that can change revenue share models, remove your content, get sold or merged, or disappear at any time.

So, yes, these newer revenue share options might look different. But in the grand scheme of things, very little has changed.

The Risks of Revenue Share Sites

You’ve likely picked up on some of the problems with revenue sharing sites and services by reviewing some of the history above. But let’s break it down and look at the key reasons they can be a bad idea.

In short, revenue share sites pose risks due to:

  • ownership changes;
  • site shutdowns;
  • changes to revenue share pay models;
  • Google algorithm / advertising changes;
  • content being locked into services;
  • content moves costing you traffic, links, readers, or subscribers;

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Ownership changes are common.

This has been true since the early days of revenue share sites relying on user-generated content.

As mentioned earlier, The New York Times Company owned About.com when I was briefly involved with them. But they weren’t the first owner, and they weren’t the last. Other content networks also changed hands multiple times.

This still happens today. For example, Revue was recently acquired by Twitter (note how even their own blog announcement focuses on an audience of writers; as long as writers keep falling for revenue share schemes, they’ll continue to be primary targets).

Why do ownership changes matter?

With ownership changes come other changes.

Sometimes this is when companies introduce massive overhauls of their revenue sharing model. Sometimes they cut or change editorial teams. And sometimes they eliminate writers or older content.

Writers are also often some of the last people to know an ownership change is coming even when it can significantly affect their income or status with the company.

On top of that, ownership changes can lead into our next risk factor…

2. Revenue Share Sites Have a History of Disappearing

You’ve already seen this in the three older examples I shared.

About.com was eventually sold and rebranded as a very different entity. Suite101 disappeared and its domain ultimately ended up in the hands of some spammy sleep-related site. And Squidoo was passed off with some of that content rolled into another service.

This isn’t uncommon. We saw it in the past, and it’s something we still often see after acquisitions.

Think about Revue for a moment. It was acquired by Twitter. But Twitter’s made other acquisitions targeting different kinds of creators in the past.

Things didn’t work out so well (see: Vine and Periscope). That alone should make you cautious about jumping in too quickly.

Right now, the service is being directly marketed to writers who have built a presence on Twitter. In other words, if you’re already reliant on the company, they’re hoping to make you more so.

And don't even get me started on the "super follower" absurdity Twitter just announce. (I'll explain what is and why it's relevant in my next newsletter.)

The thing is, you never want to be too reliant on any third party. Over-reliance leads to dependence which leads to increased risk if anything goes wrong.

3. Pay Models Can Suddenly Change

Even when these revenue sharing companies don’t disappear entirely, or even change ownership, your pay is never guaranteed.

I don’t just mean pay can vary because of variations in traffic or whatever other metric the site uses to determine your pay. Entire pay models can change with little notice to writers.

Again, we’ve already seen this happen in this space. It happened with Suite101 moving from a pageview-based model to a less-than-transparent ad revenue split.

We’ve seen it more recently with Medium when they moved from pay based on “claps” to an emphasis on reading time.

The thing about revenue sharing models is they don’t offer long-term consistency, and they can generally be gamed in some way. That affects the companies paying you in these ways, and it can provide motivation for them to make changes.

Those changes don’t always work out in writers’ favor, and they can occur after you’ve published dozens to hundreds of articles or other kinds of content. What you’ve built can essentially change on a whim, and you have no say in it.

That cant’ happen when you sell rights outright or when you maintain control over monetization. But it’s a very real risk when you rely on residual income, which is what most revenue sharing schemes amount to.

4. Revenue Sharing Sites are Subject to Outside Influences

It’s also important to understand that some of these other risks stem from the fact that revenue sharing sites themselves are subject to external influences.

Google’s Panda update, for example, played a role in the downfall of Squidoo. It also affected other content network revenue share sites that put a heavy emphasis on quantity of user-generated content over its quality.

Google’s gone after site networks in the past – where a lot of un-authoritative sites without much editorial oversight are linked together to promote each other’s content.

While the new generation of content networks are using different structures, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hit by these kinds of efforts again over the next few years. That’ll be especially true as new copycats enter the scene (not as if revenue share sites of today are all that original).

These algorithms constantly evolve. And when user-generated content sites and services depend on them to keep driving traffic (which then leads to their own revenue), you’re not only at the mercy of the rev-share site itself, but also of outside parties like Google.

When you fully control your site, you can adjust to these changes. But you have little-to-no say in how they’re addressed by these sites that rely on your content.

5. Your Content Can be Locked into a Revenue Share Site

Revenue sharing sites lure in writers by offering them free or cheap services and convincing them it’s too difficult or too costly to go a more independent route.

This is similar to free blogging platforms. And it poses the same problems.

An example is that you might find your content locked into their ecosystem.

This was worse in past content networks that would require exclusivity for a certain amount of time (I believe Suite101’s policy was 1 year exclusivity when I was most familiar with them). These days, you can be locked there in different ways.

If you’re attracted to these services because they’re free or cheap and they promise to pay you, you’re likely also attracted to the least expensive (or free) options available. So think about the domain names you’ll have access to in those scenarios.

Will your content appear on a domain name registered to you – YourSite.com – which you fully control? Will you simply get a handle on someone else’s site – network.com/yourname/? Or will your content appear on a subdomain of the company’s site – you.wordpress.com or you.medium.com?

If you can use your own domain, do that. And make sure it’s registered with a company other than the revenue sharing one you’re publishing through. But having this option usually adds to your costs and negates the benefits of going with them for affordability anyway.

If you find yourself in the latter case, it doesn’t matter if you can technically export your content. You’re still partially locked into their system as soon as you use their subdomains. And that takes me to my next point…

Let’s say you set up a subdomain-based account with a revenue sharing site (or any free blogging platform even).

Then let’s say you later decide to move to an owned media model instead, taking that content to your own site.

Tip: owning the copyright to your writing does not equal “owned media.” Owned media means you have full control. A Medium blog is not owned media. A social media account is not owned media. A blog or newsletter you host with an interchangeable hosting or email marketing company is owned media.

When you try to move from a subdomain account (or anything on another company’s domain name) to a self-hosted version with your own domain, you have no control over redirection.

This was something Sharon Hurley Hall mentioned in her recent issues with Medium.

So even if you think you're safe, you could be in for a surprise. Now, Sharon's highly experienced with this kind of thing. So she knows what she's getting into moving away from Medium (and over to Substack). I recommend steering clear of both, and we'll talk about other options later. But if you do get into these services, make sure you know what happens if you leave. And, like Sharon, make sure you have backups you can import into a new service, and make sure you know how to use them if a move becomes urgent.

Learn more about why Sharon Hurley Hall decided to move away from Medium, and how she transitioned to Substack.

Why Does Redirection Matter?

When you move an article from one domain or URL to another without a redirect, visitors to the original URL will get an error message.

But that original URL is what’s indexed in search engines, bookmarked by readers, and being linked to by other sites.

When someone clicks those third-party links or search engine results, what you want to happen is this: the reader will be automatically sent to the new address for your article.

To do that, you need to set up what’s known as a 301 redirect. But to set up redirects, you have to control the domain name the article was originally hosted on.

This is why, when you move a website from one domain to another during a rebranding, you don’t get rid of the old domain. You keep it so those redirects stay active.

What Happens if You Don’t Redirect Content?

Not only will you hurt yourself if you put yourself in a position where you don’t control redirects, but you’ll also hurt your readers and make a royal PITA of yourself to other site owners who linked to you.

Here’s what happens if you can’t redirect your old content URLs to your new ones:

  • You’ll lose all search engine traffic from existing rankings.
  • Along those lines, you’ll lose your search engine rankings themselves.
  • Your readers’ bookmarks and RSS subscriptions will stop working.
  • You’ll cause dead links on any third party sites that previously linked to you (plus, you lose those backlinks unless you contact those sites and they’re kind enough to update them for you; this can be a time-intensive fix).

So if you go into one of these revenue sharing deals, you have to pay close attention to who controls the domain your content will be hosted on. If it’s not you, it’s not a good deal. It’s just a way of pushing retention for the company trying to profit from your content.

Along these lines, you’ll want to make sure up front that you can even move your content at all. Look into their export options. Being able to back things up to restore there isn’t enough. You need exports that are portable to other services (and ideally to your own hosting account).

If you can’t export your content, don’t retain full rights to do so (less likely to be an issue today), or can’t easily redirect from your revenue share content to your self-hosted versions, stay away from that service. Though, frankly, I recommend staying away from them anyway. You can do better. And your writing deserves better.

Also, understand this. Once you lose the visitors, backlinks, traffic, or income, getting it back might be difficult. And it might be time-consuming. In some ways you'll be starting from scratch. Yes, you'll have an archive of content. But you'll have no links to it. You'll have little to no brand recognition of your own. And people who used to read your work might have no idea where to find you for a while.

For more on URL redirects, why they matter, and how to set them up, read The Ultimate Guide to Redirects from SEMrush.

What About Paid Newsletters?

It’s not just content networks and revenue share blog platforms looking to make money off the independent work of writers. Now you’ll also find paid newsletter options like Revue and Substack.

These services allow you to charge subscribers for premium newsletter content. And the service takes a cut rather than charging you up front fees.

This might sound good if you don’t expect to earn much from your newsletter. But if you do, you can easily end up paying more in the long run through a revenue share scheme.

In these cases, you don’t have to worry as much about things like Google rankings and traffic. But you do need to pay close attention to who controls your list and what you can do with the service.

Concern number one should be making sure you can export your subscriber list and move them to a more traditional email marketing platform whenever you’re ready.

There’s another issue with the services though. They generally lack customization and advanced features that you’ll want with any serious income-focused newsletter. For example, you’ll want to know:

  • Can your list be segmented so you can send emails to different groups on your list?
  • Will you be able to solicit signups from your own site, or do you have to use their landing page?
  • Do you have full control over newsletter design or are you locked into limited templates?
  • Will your newsletters have to link back to the service rather than focusing all branding on your own brand or site?
  • Can you export all past newsletter content, and not just your list (so you can host the archive elsewhere)?
  • Are you permitted to sell directly via your newsletters (not just paid subscriptions, but promoting other income-generating content like selling books or running affiliate or partner promotions)?

Where are Paid Newsletters Going?

Premium newsletters are a trend right now. But they aren’t new. And while some will likely remain long-term, most aren’t going to be big income sources for writers.

I’m not against paid newsletters in any way, and I think they’ll have their place. But here’s a prediction for what I think we’ll see in the next 3-5 years (and that might be generous)…

I see premium newsletters going the way blogging has – there will be a lot of hobbyists who try it and earn very little, and there will be those who learn how to run profitable newsletters (increasingly independently).

We’ll hit a saturation point where it won’t be a viable business model for most because readers will only be willing and able to spend so much on content.

That’s where I expect most premium newsletters will drop off, as will the trend.

The rev-share models will need to be re-worked or they’ll fail because they rely on quantity.

For example, they might focus much less on independent publishers and turn their attention much more toward larger brands willing and able to pay for more managed services.

Those larger branded newsletters might continue to thrive on third-party services for a while. But the independent publishers earning any semblance of a significant income from paid newsletters will be those who learned to manage and fully control their own, and those who diversified income streams beyond paid subscribers.

In other words, I think we’ll see a merge of traditional email marketing and publication-style emails.

That’s not at all new. But I think we’ll see many writers take a more roundabout way of getting there, taking a bit longer to understand and embrace the business side of making this publication model work.

The sooner you learn how to manage your own newsletter (and it’s not as difficult or costly as you might think), the better your long-term chances are of running a newsletter as a sustainable income source.

Alternatives to Revenue Sharing Schemes for Writers

Owned media means you have full control - over branding, design, content, monetization, everything. It also requires portability. - AllFreelanceWriting.com

Why do writers keep getting pulled into these revenue share schemes year after year, site after site?

It’s easier than learning how to run a successful publication of their own.

But then, when these services inevitably disappoint or all-out fail, those same writers risk losing the benefits of years spent building a collection of content. And in many cases, they still haven’t learned how to protect their content, income, or subscribers.

It can become a vicious cycle.

But what can writers do instead?

Own. Your. Media.

What this means is: run your own websites, blogs, and newsletters in a way where third-party services are all easily replaceable.

For example:

  • Don’t use free blogging platforms; get your own domain and hosting account.
  • Don’t join revenue share content networks or blog networks; again, get your own domain and hosting account.
  • Don’t use revenue share paid newsletter services; use independent email marketing services.

Ultimately, the key is making sure you can quickly move all your content, subscribers, readers, etc. from one back-end service to another whenever you want to for any reason at all.

And you need to be able to do this while having full control over things like redirects.

Are there any downsides to going this route?

Sure.

For example, you’ll have to pay for certain services up-front (though you won’t have to give services a cut of your income, and there are still free and inexpensive options).

You will also have to manage your sites or newsletters independently if you don’t have someone to help. But even this isn’t the commitment you might think.

Hosting & Monetizing Your Own Blog or Website

Let’s start by looking at general digital publications – hosting your own blog for example rather than joining a revenue share blogging community or signing up with a content network.

Here are the things you’ll need to go the independent route:

  • Blog software or a content management system (CMS)
  • A web hosting account
  • A domain name

That’s all you need to get started. And here are some recommendations.

Your Content Management System

There are a number of free, open-source content management systems out there today. The most popular is WordPress (that’s WordPress.org, not WordPress.com which is a hosted blog service that doesn’t give you the same freedom).

In all honesty, I’m looking to move my smaller sites off WordPress over these next couple of years as I find its direction toward more of an amateur web design tool to be detrimental to the content management side of things.

All Freelance Writing and other larger sites will remain on WP for the foreseeable future, but I’m scheduled to test some flat-file CMS options (meaning there’s no database) for smaller sites this year (and will talk more about them over at Freelance Writing Pros in coming weeks if you’re interested).

But that’s an issue for another day. And if you don’t have coding or web design experience, you might even find these WordPress changes to be a plus.

Just know WordPress is the most-used CMS on the web.

It’s free. Many hosts have one-click WordPress installations available so you don’t need to install it manually (which is a straight-forward process anyway). And there’s a huge community behind WordPress, so there are always people who can answer your questions.

That community also means you can find thousands of free themes (designs) pre-made, as well as plugins which add functionality if you need them. There are also premium options available if you need more advanced tools, but when starting out you’ll likely find all that you need available for free.

Recommendation: Download WordPress.

Your Web Hosting Account

When launching your first website or blog (or even a few), you don’t need to start with high-end web hosting. A shared hosting account is fine.

This is when a hosting company uses a single server to run many customers’ sites (as opposed to a dedicated server where all resources go to a single customer).

A shared hosting plan has its pros and cons. But you’re unlikely to need more than that at the start. And as long as you maintain backups, you can move things to a higher-end hosting service any time you need to. Plus, shared hosting accounts are “managed,” meaning you won’t have to worry about things like server maintenance.

A further note on backups: It is your responsibility to back up your blog. Not your host's. Even if a host says they keep periodic backups, that doesn't mean you'll get what you want from the timeframe you need. And their backups often aren't as frequent as yours should be. If you use WordPress, you need to back up your database often. And you'll also want to keep up-to-date backups of theme files, plugins, and any uploads in your WordPress directory. If you fail to create backups, you risk losing everything.

While I haven’t used shared hosting in many years, it’s where I started. These days I split my sites up a bit (for security and privacy), but my top host of choice is KnownHost.

I can’t speak to their shared plans directly as I haven’t used them (they only started offering them recently). But their other services and support have been top notch. I can’t recall ever being this happy with a host. And I highly recommend them. They even have WordPress-specific hosting accounts available. If you get the point where you need more resources, they also offer VPS and dedicated hosting.

Recommendation: KnownHost

Your Domain Name

To host a website or blog of your own, you’ll need to register a domain name. This is the main address of your site – like the domain of AllFreelanceWriting.com for this site.

You’ll pay to register a domain on a yearly basis, though you can register a .com domain name for up to 10 years at a time if you wish.

Note: Many hosting companies will let you register a domain through them. But I highly recommend you keep your domain registration(s) separate from your web hosting account.

While you don’t hear about these horror stories as much these days, there have been past instances where if a customer wanted to leave for a new host, the old host would prevent them from moving the domain. Domains were essentially held hostage.

Again, this isn’t something you should see now. But this is a case where I firmly believe in playing it safe. This also makes it easier to move things if something ever goes wrong with your host, like them cancelling your account for whatever reason or them going out of business.

I believe all of my domains are currently with NameSilo. What I like about them is their no-bullshit pricing structure. Many registrars will lure you in with cheap prices, but then you get hit with much higher fees for renewals after the first year. NameSilo has a simple flat fee system that’s saved me a lot of money over the years, and I can’t recall ever having an issue with the company.

Recommendation: NameSilo

Now let’s look at an alternative to the revenue sharing paid newsletter services.

Managing & Monetizing Your Own Newsletter

What if you’re thinking about running a paid newsletter to earn more from your writing? Can you do that independently, without a revenue sharing service, too?

Absolutely.

Email marketing and email newsletters are nothing new. And that includes paid subscriptions. You don’t need some special service to set these up.

In this case what you’ll need is an email marketing service. It would generally violate your web hosting company’s, or email provider’s, terms of use to send mass mailings directly through them. Email marketing services act as a middleman that can handle bulk mailing on your behalf.

An Example Email Marketing Service

There are a wide variety of email marketing services available. These days, I use MooSend, a newer player in this field.

I’ve had my issues with them (growing pains, plus I’ve had special use cases; but they’re consistently improving). In spite of that, they’re an excellent option if you’re looking to run a basic content-based newsletter.

The service is easy to learn with an intuitive interface. You can run multiple lists. And you can even use the service for free up to 1000 subscribers, with no limits on how many emails you can send to that list.

If you run into trouble with the initial set-up, support is very responsive. They’ve generally responded to me within a few minutes using their live chat support.

Even with their free account, you get access to features like list segmentation and automation which generally aren’t available on revenue-sharing newsletter services. For example, you might set up an automated welcome email sequence featuring key content for new subscribers.

You don’t need to know much about design to use their service either. They have email templates available, or you can use their drag-and-drop design interface. You can save your designs as custom templates so you only have to create them once. Here's a quick preview of some of their templates and their drag-and-drop design interface.

Moosend - email templates
MooSend email template collection
MooSend email design interface
MooSend drag-and-drop email design interface

Recommendation: MooSend

Other Email Marketing Services

MooSend is just one email marketing service you can try. Here are some other popular options. Be careful about checking their features and limits to make sure your service can do what you need.

  • ActiveCampaign
  • AWeber
  • ConvertKit
  • GetResponse
  • MailChimp
  • MailerLite
  • Sendinblue

There are far more options than this even. But this gives you somewhere to start in comparing services that might be best for your newsletter.

Can You Set Up Your Own Premium Newsletters?

While these services are often thought of in relation to more traditional email marketing, they might be the right fit for your independent premium newsletter too.

I’m not well-versed in the policies and features of every example above, so I’d suggest starting by seeing if they already have this option built in. And make sure charging for subscriptions doesn’t violate your service-of-choice’s terms (though I can’t imagine why it would).

When they don’t build in this feature, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck though. If anything, you’ll have more control over the process.

If I wanted to do this with MooSend for example, I might integrate MooSend with PayPal via Zapier. Then, when someone filled out a form to pay for a new sale or subscription, and that sale was successful in PayPal, this would automatically add that person to my premium newsletter’s email list.

But I’d also have other options for setting this up.

For example, I might set up a paid-access section of my WordPress blog using a membership plugin, like Paid Memberships Pro, and have the subscription form for the newsletter locked behind the site’s paywall.

BONUS: Keep in mind you can also create a paywall for your blog itself using membership plugins. You can put all content behind a paywall, or leave some of it free. Then you can simply set up a newsletter with a service like MooSend and have paying members of your site added to the newsletter to receive premium content in their inbox. This means your free content will still offer SEO value while being used to publicly promote your premium content.

Another option in my case would be to use the Formidable Forms Pro plugin (which I use to run All Freelance Writing’s job board, writer directory, writers’ market collection, and more).

While Formidable isn’t directly integrated with MooSend yet (they are with other email marketing services), I could set this up via Zapier when PayPal payments go through. And Formidable Forms would let me offer options like monthly subscriptions and one-time annual payments on the same form. It would also let me offer some subscription management options on the custom member-area page I built for subscribers (where they can also manage things like their writer directory profile or job ads they’ve posted).

If I wanted to set up a traditional premium newsletter here, I’d very likely go with the Formidable Forms option simply because of the customization opportunity and the way I could integrate subscriptions into this site’s ecosystem. On another site, I’d stick to a basic Zapier integration. But in reality, I'd use the blog itself to lock down premium content with a membership plugin, then set those paying members up to receive the premium content via email while also making it visible to them on the blog if they logged in. Best of both worlds.

So, yes. You can use traditional email marketing services to run a paid newsletter. And because these services are easily interchangeable, you don’t get locked in by a revenue sharing site’s policies.

More Monetization Opportunities for Newsletters

Another perk of going independent with your email newsletters is that you can monetize in multiple ways.

For example, you might create a free version of your newsletter that’s supported by sponsorships, then have a premium option that runs ad-free. You would do this using list segmentation.

Or you can send more direct promotions to your email list, such as partnership promotions or sales promos for your new book or course.

As long as you don’t go overboard and violate your service’s terms, you can also run affiliate promotions that wouldn’t be appropriate in a more traditional premium newsletter.

You could even attach premium add-ons for your paid subscribers. Let’s say you’re a journalist and your premium newsletter features in-depth investigative reporting. You might then sell longer reports with even more data and research than is appropriate for your newsletter, and you could promote that directly to subscribers.

The point is, when you have greater control over your email list, and when you work with more advanced email marketing platforms than you’ll find in the revenue share models, you have more options.

If one income stream doesn’t work out, you can play with others until you find out what does. You have more flexibility in promotional opportunities (some email marketing services even have hosted sales pages you can use for your promo offers for new subscribers).

And when you do succeed at building a significant paid following, you don’t owe anyone an increasing cut. Your email marketing fees should stay predictable.

Perhaps most important of all, hosting your own email newsletters can open doors to features and outreach opportunities you won’t find with most revenue share models.

Automations for new subscribers, drip campaigns like email courses, automated retention campaigns, and the ability to segment your email list for more targeted content aren’t features you should overlook if you’re serious about monetizing a newsletter in the long-run.

Revenue share sites all run their course in time. You’re always better owning your own media whenever possible. But if you do insist on using these services, at the very least make sure you can back up and export all of your content and subscribers. Make sure you know what to do with it if you need to move to a new service. And make sure you’re using your own domain so you can set redirects when you move.

In the end, what matters is that you retain control – of your content, your subscriber list, your redirects, your search engine presence, and your income streams.

Otherwise, a few years down the road you could be just another writer we’re sharing these warnings about, pulled into a revenue share scheme that didn’t last and that largely left you where you started.

9 thoughts on “Revenue Sharing 2.0 (& Why it Still Sucks for Writers)”

  1. Wowzer! This is an excellent guide, Jenn, and a trip down memory lane. Like you, I’ve seen many of these revenue share sites come and go, so I’m not taking anything for granted.

    Even though I’ve chosen to use Substack, I’m VERY mindful of what usually happens with these sites. I have a weekly task in my calendar to export my subscriber list, and I back up the articles at least once a month (I always compose offline so I have the content in both Scrivener and Dropbox.) That puts me in a good position should I need to move, as will probably happen one day.

    Reply
      • Thanks for the inspiration Sharon! Seeing you talk about the latest Medium drama and a move away was what initially brought this topic to mind again. And then Twitter putting their Revue acquisition at the top of my page was the final straw. Between that and now their “super-follower” news taking this subscription model to Twitter (on social networks where it absolutely does not belong), it’s clear we’re in for a lot more of this model shoved in writers’ faces. I just hate thinking about how many are going to invest time helping these companies earn money before they bail on writers rather than investing it in themselves.

        Reply
  2. Excellent and thorough per usual, Jenn. Makes me glad I’m semi-retired from business writing. 😀 I was so naive about all of this when I first started freelancing in 2008 (and still am in many ways) but fortunately for me, I have control issues. 😉 Spend 30+ years in the corporate world and that can happen. So, I never entered any of these revenue sharing arrangements.

    But as I enter the next phase of my writing life (whatever that will look like), I almost feel like I’m starting over. Lord knows I have much to learn about promoting my work for better results. Fortunately, I am not solely reliant on it for my income. 🙂 Thanks for caring & sharing, Jenn!

    Reply
    • Thanks for weighing in Cathy! Sometimes being a control freak is a great thing in business. We need to learn to delegate, but not become subservient to those who make promises they can’t possibly keep. But hey, with that control comes immense opportunity! Hard to beat that. And this is so so much better than going back to the corporate world (or nonprofit sector in my case). 😀

      Reply
  3. Goodness! Some of this took me back to the “bad ol’ days”. In a way I was lucky because I didn’t fall for most of them. I didn’t even know I was writing for About.com until I did a search for one of my submitted articles; I remember those $15 a post days, though I didn’t last long. I’m not a formulaic writer in that sense, so I wasn’t surprised when Google layeth-ed the smackdown on them.

    I’ve recently been receiving a lot of the premium newsletter email; luckily it all goes into spam so I don’t have to deal with it. Still, it’s the latest trend; how do these people know about trends to jump on them so quickly?

    This is epic; I’ll be sharing it on Twitter later!

    Reply
    • Thanks Mitch! I think it’s part of the same sort of cycle we see in social media. Someone comes up with an idea where they can use others to make a boatload of money for themselves. Eventually they lose interest — it becomes clear the majority of creators won’t earn much, they get penalized by Google and their revenue streams take a hit, etc. So they sell or vanish. A few years down the line someone new to the game, and ignorant of its past, thinks “hey, I bet I could make a lot of money this way having others create content I don’t actually have to pay for up front!” And they launch pretending to be something new. There are enough new folks who can be conned into falling for their promises, so the cycle repeats. They make a bunch of money, potentially sell to get out before the crash, then reality catches up to them, they fail, and a few years later a new group of money-hungry types think they just came up with a brilliant new idea all over again. And around and around we go. Wheee! 🙂

      Reply

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