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On Writing and Market Forces

I began submitting content for the Devtome a few weeks ago after reading about it on the Bitcoin Forum. One of the writers was claiming that you could earn over fifty dollars for every thousand words you wrote. Not only that, you could write about whatever you wanted!

If you know anything about professional writing, in particular getting paid to write Internet content, you know that this is an unheard of opportunity. Even if it’s only a one time deal, you jump on it because you know it won’t come back around again for a long, long, time.

This is why after I satisfied my concern about this being a scam (as well as covered my bases in case it was), I very quickly began to submit much of what I’d written in the past to the Devtome. Being a diehard writer (the kind who will always make time to write and who will write for free if no one pays me), I had plenty of self-published content available to choose from.

Unthinkingbit, the creator of Devcoin and an administrator of the Devtome, sent me a link to the Excel spreadsheet where unofficial earnings are calculated for each round of Devcoin mining, and in my first round of writing I have calculated my potential earnings a few times. In each case it’s been decent earnings for writing, and unheard of earnings for Internet content. I’ll take it.

Then I found the main Devcoin thread on the Bitcoin forum and saw a number of complaints about the fact that there are now so many writers contributing so much content that the value of each share has precipitously declined even from the last round. The fact that Devcoins have lost value compared to Bitcoins and that Bitcoins have dropped in value relative to US Dollars at the same time has no doubt exacerbated the situation. Disgruntled programmers (whose shares for their work apparently come from the same pool as writing shares) have come up with the usual suggestions which is to pay writers not just for the number of words they generate, but according to some metric (article page views or clicks on PPC ads on their page) which has little to do with the quality of the article but is instead a measure of the writer’s or someone else’s marketing efforts for that article.

I am a newbie to Devcoins and all cryptocurrencies, but my current understanding is that the purpose of the Devcoin currency is to reward people who develop useful and beautiful digital products, which at this point is mostly written content and various types of open source computer programs. There is an inherent conflict of interest between this goal of paying for writing and the usual way writing on the Internet gets rewarded, which is based on the popularity of that writing. The purpose of this article is to flesh out the issues pertaining to writing on the Internet in the hopes that this will help the people in charge of the Devtome and Devcoin come up with a good sustainable solution which preserves the integrity of the original reason both were developed. While I do not know enough about cryptocurrencies to speak to that side of things, I do have plenty of experience with professional writing. I am coming at this from the writing side.

Writing is cheap

The phenomenon of a sudden glut of writers to the Devtome, some of whom have been caught submitting pure junk, is something I could have predicted. It is also the main reason that when I decided to submit my own content, I figured this opportunity might be good for several months if I was lucky, but that very soon it would not be worth it anymore. The reason for the glut is that at this point in time, Devtome is offering to pay orders of magnitude above the market value for Internet content.

What is the market value for writing?

Writers can earn a wide range for their work depending on who their clients are. I’ve worked mostly at the lower end of the pay scale writing feel-good stories about the various businesses who purchased advertising from several local newspapers. For example I would write an interesting story about a general contractor's charitable endeavor. My story would get published in the newspaper insert where the contractor had purchased ad space, and that story would get pairs of eyes seeing his ad and hopefully calling him for their homebuilding and remodeling needs. The pay for a 500 word story was $25. Writing the story involved several hours of conversation with the main characters followed by an hour or two of piecing the story together using quotes from the conversation, then having to edit down because usually there was much more to write about than 500 words. It’s actually more difficult to write a short article than it is to write a long article, and yet you’re only paid a small amount because it’s a short article. The pay per hour winds up being around $5, often less. This is for print media.

What about writing on the Internet?

The best place to get a feel for the price of Internet content is to register for a site where service providers such as writers are matched up with people needing their services. I have used www.Elance.com to land writing jobs in the past and I once scored an awesome gig writing a series of three stories for a national ezine for $200 each. It was a fun project too—I learned a ton of how commercial heating and cooling systems actually work.

However in that case, I definitely came in on the high end of what Internet writing pays. I found an editor who wanted a high quality story and was willing to pay for it. Most of the type of writing people are looking for is 250-500 word blog posts optimized for specific keywords which can be used in the provider’s marketing efforts. The writing does not have to be good; it just has to be properly optimized to attract the attention of the search engine algorithms and properly placed for traffic generation. There also has to be a lot of it. That kind of writing typically pays anywhere from less than a dollar to five dollars for 500 words. Few American writers are willing to write for that little pay, but there are plenty of writers in other countries who are happy to do it.

To use another example from my life, several years ago I had a gig ghostwriting articles for a blogger who had an entire website dedicated to natural parenting, something I happened to be (and still am) very interested in. In that case I could write about anything I wanted to that was relevant to natural parenting (and that is a broad subject), and she paid me $12 for every 500 word article I submitted. The only condition was that I could not use the same content on my own sites—it was hers once she wrote the check. Writing these articles took less work than the heating and cooling articles because I was writing from my own personal experience rather than having to interview people to learn enough about a subject I had no prior knowledge of in order to write intelligently about it. Still, writing does take time, and I had to really scramble to churn out an article in less than an hour just to keep my pay grade at a decent level. Just imagine how fast I’d have to be writing in order to justify only earning $2 or $5 for each article. It is inevitable that quality will suffer under those conditions.

It is also inevitable that when someone offers to pay significantly more than $5 per article for anything the writer cares to write about, it’s only a matter of time before the word gets out and there is a glut of writers contributing content of variable quality.

Determining "good" writing

I personally take great pride in my writing and will not submit crap no matter how poor the pay is. Not only that, I find it rather easy to write well if I’m interested enough in a subject to write an article about it. I even enjoy writing fiction from time to time and if I don’t think the story is good I’m not going to publish it. I’m also used to being told what to write about in situations where I am going to be paid. When I’m paid to write, I write what the client wants. For the most part, when I write what I want to write I write for free.

Even if every single 1,000 word share added to the Devtome is high quality writing, there is still going to be a glut of writers diluting share value down to market value. The actual fact is that many of those 1,000 word shares will be of questionable quality—churned out specifically to take advantage of this unbelievable opportunity to even for a short time be able to write for more than a couple dollars per 500 words.

Normally the client decides

Quality is of course subjective. Who decides? Perhaps what I consider crappy writing is actually quite popular with others. If I’m paying the writer I’m only going to pay for what I want. In the case of the Devtome, if there is going to be any judgment on the quality of the writing it is going to wind up being whatever the Devtome administrators consider to be quality writing. That means that they could consider my writing to be not what they want for the simple reason that they aren’t interested in the subjects I choose to write about. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think that’s exactly compatible with the goal of Devcoin. As a professional writer I’d be happy if they provided a list of subjects and other parameters that they wanted if they were going to go that route.

Internet writing is judged by marketing

Another way to determine quality of writing is to subject it to the judgment of many people. This is actually how most Internet writing is judged. Traffic is the lifeblood of any website and on the Internet, good writing is writing that generates traffic. This means among other things that the writing has to be about subjects that are popular and it has to be optimized to the keywords that people are searching for when they go on the Internet. Subjects that tend to fit that category include dieting and weight loss, romantic relationships, celebrities, sports and current events. If you want traffic, you write about those things. But then you are also competing against every other writer writing about those things and it becomes a competition to see who has the most marketing resources and best keyword optimization strategies. By the time your article generates tons of traffic there are factors way outside what is typically considered to determine quality of writing that are coming into play. In fact, crappy writing can be heavily marketed and keyword optimized and it can get traffic. Crappy writing can entice visitors to click on PPC ads. Crappy writing can sell affiliate products. Crappy writing can (and often does) generate revenue. Crappy writing that is well placed, optimized and marketed—crappy writing with a ton of backlinks from social networking sites—will trump good writing that is not marketed, well placed, backlinked or optimized every time.

Working with rather than against market forces

At its core, writing is a form of art, and like any art there are two interacting components which together determine the general perception of the quality of that writing. One is the creativity and talent of the writer. The other is the tastes of the audience. Both are needed. The best crafted short story sitting for years in the author’s filing cabinet will go nowhere until it gets published. I finally published a short story I’d written in high school to the Devtome. I published it there because at the very least I’d earn fifty or sixty dollars for it, and others would get a chance to read it. But if the page where I published it never gets traffic or no one likes the story, it will never go anywhere as a work of art. Being able to publish it to the Devtome and get paid for it has provided me with a very unusual opportunity—the ability to get compensated for the simple act of writing without having to also subject my writing to market forces. The compensation isn’t high, but it exists, and it was enough to motivate me to bring my story out of hibernation. I am grateful for this. I know such an opportunity can and will be exploited by people submitting junk. But I do hope that such an opportunity for honest writers to share their work and benefit financially in the process will find a way to continue to exist in the long term.

I don’t think it’s possible to separate market forces from art. I know that has frustrated many artists who lack the skill or resources to market their work. Devtome seems to want to help artists out by insulating them a bit from the reality of market forces, which is admirable. But it might be more realistic to figure out some ways to make those market forces work for the artists rather than against them. With this in mind, here are a few ideas to help move that forward.

Rigorous screening and monitoring

I would suggest more rigorous screening of writers to make sure that at the very least they are actually contributing content that is creative, not merely dumping content in order to collect a bounty on number of words. There are a number of ways to do this, probably the simplest would be to have their first 10,000 words or so subject to probation—it doesn’t get compensated until an editor gives it the OK. Some parameters the editor needs to judge it by can be set, including a basic check for plagiarism. After the initial probationary period, editors should randomly select something like one out of ten articles to read just to be sure the writer continues to submit real articles. By the same process exceptional writing can also be rewarded through extra pay or incentives. The criteria used would need to be determined under the oversight of the Devtome administrators. As a professional writer I would be happy to abide by such criteria as long as I clearly understood them.

Allocating share pools

I would suggest separating out the different forms of work Devcoins are intended to compensate by allocating the share pool. Writing, marketing and programming are three very different skill sets which produce three very different kinds of end products. The share pool should be set to compensate each of these skills (and any others which Devcoins can reward) separately. The simplest scenario for illustration purposes is to divide up the share pool equally between writers, marketers and programmers. The total share pool consists of 180,000,000 Devcoins per round. Sixty million could go to writers, sixty million to programmers and sixty million to marketers. If there are ten programmers and three thousand writers, the share pool would still be divided up and the pieces kept separate. In this way, writing shares aren’t diluting programming shares or vice versa.

Limiting pool of writers

An additional idea is that the Devtome could put a cap on the number of writers it will have. This may not be compatible with the vision but it might be worth considering. There is no shortage of people who would like to collect a paycheck for churning out content. If the Devtome can select for actual authors and replace content churners with authors over time, it will contain higher quality articles. Maintaining a limited pool of writers may help with that process. Starting out with a limited pool of writers could also allow the Devtome to work out the kinks and bugs in the system which in the long run would free it up to greatly expand the pool of writers if desired.

Capping the number of shares per round

November is National Novel Writing Month. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is a time when current and aspiring fiction writers across the United States gather together (either virtually or physically) and make it their goal to write 50,000 words for their new novel during the month. November has thirty days so this works out to an average of 1,667 words per day. That doesn’t seem like a lot. I have easily written blog post essays totaling twice that amount in one sitting. But the writers know that NaNoWriMo will be an intense writing month. It’s one thing to write a 3,000 word article every so often. It’s quite another to maintain that word count or even half of it every day for thirty days. Most writers do not maintain that level of writing intensity for more than the duration of NaNoWriMo; many burn out well before reaching their 50,000 word goal.

The Devtome currently caps writers at 80,000 words, or 80 shares, per month. Considering the level of intensity that entails, it is unlikely that any single writer is going to be able to produce that amount consistently month after month (the approximate duration of a round of share distribution). I know I’m not even going to come close to hitting it this round. My word count for this round is probably at around 30 or 35 shares as of this writing, and I have submitted mostly previously written content. When I get to the point where I’m going to have to start from scratch on all my submissions I expect my share count to drop from even that level. Now granted I have four children (including a brand new baby), a part time job and a spouse who also works, so I have very little time I can spend writing. Other writers giving themselves several hours a day to write will undoubtedly be able to produce more good quality copy than I can. However, I doubt they are going to consistently produce more than 50,000 words in a given month. For this reason, the Devtome could fairly easily lower its writer share cap to fifty or even thirty per round without most of us even noticing it, except maybe during NaNoWriMo (in which case an exception in honor of that theme might be fun).

If the Devtome does not wish to lower the share cap for writers, I would still suggest keeping a mental limit in mind and more closely monitoring writers who are consistently contributing more than that amount each month. There is a greater possibility that those writers may be engaged in merely churning out copy. I’m not saying that’s always going to be the case, but it’s more likely. Even a good writer intending to produce high quality material for each one of those shares can very easily burn out and start getting repetitive and sloppy. True art simply isn’t something that can be mass produced, and a writer who finds himself doing that most likely needs a break to recharge. If a writer is truly amazingly creative and consistently produces more than a cap of 50,000 words a month of high quality content, it would be possible to work out a situation where that writer is allowed to produce and be rewarded for more shares than everyone else could be worked out. In that case, both the Devtome administrators and the writer should view this as a privilege, not a right. If it were up to me, I’d personally prefer to let my extra shares carry over into the next month, and if I get enough, simply take the next month off while still getting paid.

Exploiting networking opportunities

Finally, the Devtome (and larger Devcoin project) presents an amazing networking opportunity for artists, writers in particular. Many an artist has been stymied by the inability to market his own work. Marketing takes time, talent and resources, and usually an artist or writer would rather focus on creating art or articles and stories than be bothered with self-promotion. However there are people who are very good at marketing. Very often those people are not artists or writers per se. Those who write lines of code for innovative computer programming may neither write well nor market well, in which case their creativity as well is lost to the world.

The Devtome could provide a way for writers, programmers, and marketers to meet and join forces to work on a particular project. For example, a computer programmer could develop an awesome web-based wallet for Devcoins—the Coinbase of Devcoins (something I personally would like to see happen)–, a writer such as myself could write articles gushing about all the features and benefits of this wallet, and a marketer could tell me which keywords to target as well as strategically place my articles online and backlink them so that they can drive traffic to the website providing the amazing Devcoin wallet. When the traffic turns into revenue generated by the project, then the programmer, writer and marketer could all share in the profits in a way that is fair to all of them. A graphic designer could probably also be thrown into the mix as well. People often form these symbiotic relationships through networking on forums and such. However, the Devtome provides a way for the various parties involved to showcase their work in a way that rewards them regardless of whether or not that work becomes profitable, taking at least some of the risk out of the equation.

Earnings as a seed, not a paycheck

I am not sure of all the steps it would take to implement any of my suggestions in a form that works with the overall vision of Devcoin. That is for the Devcoin developers to figure out and I hope this article has helped them in some way. In the mean time, it is an almost absolute certainty that the number of writers and the amount of content they produce will grow exponentially and existing writers will need to work harder each month just to earn the same amount they earned the previous month. I foresee the value of one share fairly quickly dropping to a dollar or less. That’s just the reality of the Internet writing market.

For this reason I would advise writers getting paid Devcoins for their writing to view their earnings not just as a paycheck to be immediately spent on paying the bills (and I know we all have them) but to instead view it as a seed to grow into something bigger. I am new to the cryptocurrency movement. However I have already seen opportunities to invest cryptocoins into various projects which pay dividends and whose share values have increased over time. As new as cryptocurrencies are, nearly any sound investment available really could be a ground floor opportunity with all the associated profits. The website www.cryptostocks.com is a great place to peruse for investment ideas, and the Bitcoin forum is a great place to connect with others who may have invested in projects you are interested in. Those people can provide valuable information including warning you of potential scams. Of course you have to do your research before making any specific investment decisions, but as a general rule, you should try to grow whatever funds you do manage to earn doing work for cryptocoins. In this way, no matter how meager the Devtome earnings may get, those earnings could still have the potential to significantly better your life, freeing you up just a bit more to write for the joy of creating rather than to pay the bills.

Devtome


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