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BLOGViewpoint: Expert-writers and Writer-experts

by Randall CraigFiled in: Blog, Blogging, Content, Make It Happen Tipsheet, ViewpointTagged as: , , , ,

While the internet has changed the world of publishing fundamentally, the world of writing has been fundamentally shifted as well.

Consider who is actually doing the writing:

Professional writers are educated in the craft of investigation and written expression, and spend an entire career learning how to convey complex concepts to their audiences. (This is also true for creative writers too.)  Over time, some will develop subject matter expertise, enabling them to write about ever-more-complex topics.  Writers get paid by publications who need “quality” editorial content, written without an underlying self-serving bias.

Subject matter experts usually start with a comprehensive education within their area of expertise, and then earn even more knowledge through decades of experience in their industry. Over time, some will also develop an expertise as a communicator. A few even become writers (or speakers).

Subject matter experts get paid by clients who have a problem that needs to be solved; their role is often a consultant, coach, or speaker.  To attract these clients, subject matter experts use a modern content marketing strategy: develop and diffuse content (blog posts, articles, white papers, videos, etc) as widely as possible.


This sets up an interesting marketplace conflict between the two groups. Publishers now have a choice between writing experts (who cost money), and experts who write (who are free).

In the days of old, publishers understood that a free press was a lynchpin of the democratic system. Reporting independently and objectively was part of their public duty: paying writers was the way to ensure that reporting was not compromised. This is still true for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Economist, and some others.

A newspaper executive a few years ago explained to me that “the sole purpose of editorial content is to serve as a skeleton for our advertising: If we sell more advertising, then we need to provide more editorial. If we provide great editorial content, then we’ll gain readership – and therefore also command a greater fee from our advertisers.” He was saying what we already know: the economics of the business drives decisions.

Therefore it is not unsurprising that an astoundingly high number of print publications (and online news sites) do not pay their writers. The honeypot of free editorial content is just too alluring: with ad revenues declining, costs must be managed. After all, why pay for editorial content when you can get it for free? This model absolutely works: consider The Huffington Post, which is built almost exclusively with free content. Trade magazines have also been doing it for years.

This change has been a bonanza for subject matter experts (and also corporations who generate “branded content”). but for professional writers, it is another nail in the coffin: they now must successfully compete against free, or go hungry. Or choose an entrepreneurial route by attracting advertisers to their own blog.

Bonanza or not, Subject Matter Experts who write are facing other challenges, chief amongst them is the ownership of the copyright, and control over “their” work.

If they are writing for free, who owns the copyright? Does the publication have the right to edit the piece (or change the headline) without pre-approval? Or remove the writer’s name? Or create derivative works without attribution? Can the writer demand that the piece be taken down from the online site at a future date? Or that the article be updated? Or that a competitor’s advertisement not be shown on the same page?

The answers to some of these questions can be found within the “contract” that the publisher and the writer sign. These contracts range from simple verbal handshakes, to short agreements that give the publisher the right to use the article, to lengthier ones that border on the unreasonable.

Over the last decade, there has been a trend towards the unreasonable. A case in point: an authoritative trade publication sought me out to write a feature article for an upcoming issue. When asked if it were paid or free, they replied that it was unpaid. I responded that I would be happy to write the article, on the conditions that my byline was used, that a two-sentence “about the author” was included with a link to my website, and that copyright was left with me. After agreeing to this via email, they asked me to sign their “standard release”. This was a mind-boggling multi-page document that transferred complete ownership of the piece to the publisher, forbade me from writing similar pieces, and forbade disclosure of the contract terms. Needless to say, I refused to sign the contract without amendments, and they said that they have no flexibility to make any changes. I didn’t write the article.

While this example may be the exception, it illustrates a fundamental challenge for a publishing industry that has become addicted to free: one-sided contracts will kill the golden goose of free content from experts.


For subject matter experts: Do you write for free as part of a content marketing strategy? If so, decide on how much you are willing to give away for free – and then stick to your guns.

For professional writers: The world has changed: instead of competing with free, how might you take advantage of this new paradigm? Hint: developing a reputation – and a bit of celebrity – this improves your value significantly.

For publishers: Consider setting a higher bar for prospective experts-who-write: their wide network (real and online) brings far more value than just a filled slot in an editorial calendar. Then use a contract that protects your rights, but also respects theirs.


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