By Callie Oettinger | Published: January 6, 2017
I started off 2017 digging into two publishing rabbit holes.
The first one is related to a guy named Paine. He wrote a pamphlet that went viral a few hundred years ago and is still being read today.
Not long after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Thomas Paine hit U.S. soil. He worked, got political at pubs, and wrote. Paine toiled away on a series of letters to be run in local newspapers. After finding himself way over word count for letters, he decided to publish a pamphlet instead, titled “Common Sense.”
Here’s what your high school teacher didn’t share about “Common Sense” and Paine:
When it came time to publish, Paine went to a printer/publisher/bookseller — a guy named Robert Bell. Bell struck a deal with Paine. He’d print the pamphlet, help promote it, and then split the profits with Paine. If there weren’t any profits, Paine would “make good” with Bell on the printing. Kind of a mash-up of today’s traditional and self-publishing worlds.
Bell printed the pamphlet and then advertised it in local newspapers. Demand increased and “Common Sense” took off. Its popularity lead Paine to add an index and other commentary in advance of the next print run.
Before the reprint, however, Paine heard about the death of General Montgomery and the struggles in the north, and decided to buy mittens for the soldiers. It was winter. They were in camps. No heaters. So . . . Off Paine went to Bell, to obtain his share of the profits.
Bell said there weren’t any profits.
No profits? How was that possible? There was a demand for a reprint, thus there had to be profits.
If this article was the movie Goodfellas, this would be the time to cue a voice-over from Ray Liotta, giving the full skinny on exactly how things went down.
Think of all the stories of young artists who sign a deal too good to be true — the kind where they do the creative work and someone else finances ads and videos and everything else, and somehow the young artist sells millions of albums but the only one making money is the publishing house, because profits aren’t available until everyone BUT the artist is paid.
Paine and the printer got into a battle. A public battle. Today it would have played out in tweets. Back then it rolled out in long letters/articles printed in local newspapers. Think of political groups today that write a letter to the president or someone else on their shit-list, then have 100+ famous people sign it, and then take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to print it. Except with Paine and Bell, the two didn’t stick to one letter. They kept at it for a month, letters back and forth in newspapers — and the public ate it up.
During the fighting, Paine took “Common Sense” to another printer. The demand was high, so the new printer outsourced some of the printing to two other printers — and this time Paine paid the bill. While this was going on, Bell released his own new version, which included packaging “Common Sense” with other non-Paine content. His version sold, and he and Paine continued fighting.
In the end, Paine didn’t make any money on the publication of “Common Sense,” but he did help fuel a revolution, and American kids today can’t get through school without hearing about “Common Sense.”
(This is my abbreviated version. Read the full publication history, including reproductions of Paine’s and Bell’s fighting columns, via The Bibliographical Check List of Common Sense With An Account of Its Publication by Richard Gimbel, starting at page 15.)
I started digging into this week’s second rabbit hole following Ev Williams’ announcement that Medium is laying off staff and shuttering offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
As I read Nate Hoffelder’s take, “Medium Lays Off A Third of Its Staff, Realizes Stealing Underpants is Not a Viable Business Model” and then reread his column from last year, “On Moving a Blog to Medium” I thought about Paine and how the more things change the more things stay the same.
I used to receive e-mails asking why Steve wasn’t on Huffington Post. This past year that question morphed into, “Why isn’t Steve on Medium?”
Here’s a bit of a ramble. Stick with me. I promise I’ll circle back around.
I subscribe to what Wil Wheaton wrote about a year ago, about not working with outlets that don’t pay. “Exposure” doesn’t pay the bills.
Huffington Post sold for $315 MILLION and Ariana Huffington went home with $21 MILLION and a lot of writers never saw a penny of it.
But… Exposure, right?
Well what about the people just starting you might ask? They don’t have Wil’s or Steve’s platform.
To answer this question let’s head to Louis C.K., and reread the quote I pulled from him back in 2013.
In a New York Times interview with Louis C.K., Dave Itzkoff commented, “You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.”
Louis C.K. replied with a question: “So why do I have the platform and the recognition?”
Itzkoff answered, “At this point you’ve put in the time.”
Pause after you read Louis C.K.’s follow-up:
There you go. There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: “It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.” I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
Louis CK of 20+ years ago invested the time so that Louis CK of today would have a platform.
This takes us back to Wil Wheaton, and a post he did in December about working for his future self. If you operate every day in favor of Future You, you’ll eventually achieve your goals. Louis CK is one example. Steve is another. It takes time.
Outside of the fact that they aren’t paying every contributor to their platforms, the thing that has always bothered me about Medium and Huffington Post, and other similar platforms, is that artists/entrepreneurs/etc use those platforms instead of building their own platforms. That’s not Medium’s fault. That’s the artist’s decision.
It’s easier for Artist Today to post to Medium than it is to build her own site so Artist Tomorrow has a place to live when yet another publishing platform dies or becomes watered down by crap.
It takes hard work and conviction to build your own thing — and it takes relationships, which are greater investments than ad dollars.
I don’t wish Medium ill, but I don’t suggest building homes on their island either. We can look back at Thomas Paine and see the same crap happening now as happened then. It’s always harder, but Future You will be happy if you use Medium and other platforms as a tool instead of THE answer. And, if there is only one thing you do, make it an investment in relationships. You need people in your corner more than anything else. That’s the bit that Medium and others don’t seem to get. It isn’t just about content and ads. It’s about the conversations and relationships you build around and in addition to that content. (Additional Medium-related articles sharing two publishers’ perspectives, one of which launched on Medium the day of Williams’ announcement: “Unexpected News from the Establishment” and “Medium and There Is Only One R.”)
As a side: A few weeks ago we started posting Steve’s Writing Wednesdays posts on Medium and LinkedIn, just to test the waters. Will we connect with new readers? Maybe. Will any of the articles be originals for those platforms? No. We’re fine with a visit, but they’ll never be home.