Last month, I earned nearly $5,800 for a single post. Where I live that’s a cool million rupees, which really is as much as it sounds. How did I do it?
I don’t know.
As you can see, this was an anomaly for me. My highest earning month has been $4,000 and it fluctuates, in June I was down to $1,200. My best posts earn a few hundred dollars each. I don’t know if there’s any repeatable lesson here besides write nearly every day for a year for overnight success.
I think the secret of a successful writer is just being unsuccessful for a really long time. Unfortunately, this strategy is indistinguishable from complete failure.
What this means to me
For me at least, Medium has elevated a lonely hobby that I was pointlessly good at (blogging) into something that actually puts food on the table. To me this is crazy. I’ve been blogging for over 17 years and have set up websites and companies around it, but never actually made money.
It’s a blessing and I take the money respectfully, with both hands and a bow. I’ve spent over a decade trying to figure out the business model for writing and Medium just does that for me. Google and Facebook are just predatory, they take content and sell users. Thankfully there are new models (like Medium or Substack) where readers pay and writers get paid. Where it’s about brains, not eyeballs.
As a writer it’s such liberation. I don’t have to think about advertising, or brands, or even servers or web design. I can just write. The fact that it pays a decent living (down here) is great. The fact that it’s occasionally a lottery is wonderful.
July is an anomaly and I’ll regress to the mean soon enough, but for just this month I’ll count myself lucky.
What I actually wrote was this, a piece on how COVID-19 had made American passports worthless.
It’s a simple post, but there’s actually a lot behind it.
I try to give each post the care such that, if it ever does go viral, it’s ready, and I’m not embarrassed. If I write 1,000 words I’ll throw away 2,000. I spend hours making images and GIFs that potentially no one will see.
That’s the result, but that’s not actually why I do it. I love it. Each image and word is a labor of love, though it might sound like rage. People say that I sound emotional, but emotion is good. That’s controlled. It’s an emotion that’s been edited a dozen times.
My other pieces that have gone (less) viral often involve a map. That meant that I evolved this mapping file over many months.
First I spent weeks looking for the perfect map projection, namely a vector file that depicts Africa properly. I finally settled on the Equal Earth projection, which provides a layered AI file that I laboriously edited down to what I wanted. I’ve used that map for multiple posts, which is why I was able to do this one quickly.
For data I relied on a New York Times article, with fact checking on my own. Hence I was able to produce this particular map quickly, because I’d already spent months on mapping and learning how to make animated GIFs.
In the same way, there’s depth behind the writing. I’ve been writing (and reading) about open borders for a year. I’ve been covering COVID-19 intensely from a Global South perspective. Hence I was able to offer not just a map but a perspective. The basic headline and image got people in, but I think that the depth is what made it worthwhile.
There are two novel insights behind the map. One is that the US is a plague state, fallen beneath the third world. The other is that we live in a world of passport apartheid, which Americans are now seeing the butt end of. There’s some meat to the cartographic bones.
That I think is what made the post different from the CNN or NYTimes reports. I’m not writing it from an American perspective, like oh, this is odd, look at this strange fact. I’m writing it from a global perspective which is more like, serves you right you dumbasses, you’ve been treating other people like this for decades. That I think is the spice.
The funny thing is that I have to pay withholding tax to the US government for all my content scolding them.
I don’t know how this thing went viral. This guy harper shared it on Twitter (where news starts) and then (I think) it went out through journos and big accounts. Then presumably onto Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp (none of which I use, so I dunno). I guess the main thing was that the piece could be understood from just one visual and headline, and then if you got in there was some actual insight worth sharing. The facts were also directly relevant to every American, ie, you’re fucked.
This information had been out there, but never quite put that way.
What this means
How I got the highest earning post on Medium is simple. I wrote hundreds of low-earning posts first. I thought deeply about issues and how to communicate them, and I tried to craft each post like it would be seen by 2 million people even if none of them were.
So the only lesson there is going back to the grind and forgetting about it. I don’t know how that particular post took off and I can’t replicate it. I can just open my laptop and write everyday.
I made a bunch of money one month by surfing on an decades-deep iceberg of zero. Even that’s on top of a mountain of privilege. I wouldn’t recommend this, the ROI is dumb and it was a longshot when I tried going full-time in December. I just don’t know anything else. This is all I’ve wanted to do since Mrs. Carol Stewart taught me to write in first grade. I just wanted to be a writer. I’m grateful to Medium for giving me the chance.