Are you a blogger interested in starting your own submissions-based site? Looking to be Editor-in-Chief of your own e-zine? Maybe you have been asked to work at a magazine-style site run by a fellow blogger, or have considered putting your name in the ring to assist at one of these sites. If any of these describe you, you’ll love our Q&A with Lola Lolita, which gives us an up close look behind the scenes of two collaborative blogs she runs, Sammiches & Psych Meds and MockMom.
Beyond Your Blog: Welcome Lola — I’m excited to talk to you about running a submission-based site, because you run not one but two of them! Can you tell us about those sites and how you got started with them?
UPDATE: As OF October 2015: Site Merge! MockMom will now be a subdivision of Sammiches and Psych Meds, and submissions will be taken through Submittable rather than email going forward. This means that Mockmom submissions are also eligible for page views bonus compensation now! It will still have the same satirical feel and requirements, just a new home.
Lola Lolita: Thank you so much for having me, Susan. I run two sites: Sammiches and Psych Meds, which I run primarily on my own with the help of some other writers/editors as they are able, and MockMom, which I co-run with Toni Hammer of Is It Bedtime Yet?
Sammiches and Psych Meds started out as my personal blog a couple of years ago after some students of mine (I am a high school teacher; hence the anonymity) found my original blog online and I had to take it down because the content was not appropriate to publicly connect with my name given my day job. It is primarily a humor and parenting website, but I do like to tackle the occasional political or community topic as well as topics related to teaching and education. I used it (and still use it) as a form of stress relief and as a way to showcase my writing, something I’ve been passionate about since childhood. At the beginning of this year, I began accepting guest submissions to help me fill it with content as I transitioned back to working full time after my last maternity leave, and it sort of took on a life of its own, becoming the submissions-based website it is now.
MockMom is a satirical website geared specifically toward parents. I have always loved The Onion and found that I scored highest on my satirical writing assignments in my college writing courses (English major here), probably because I was passionate about that type of writing and found it the most fun. When I discovered Reductress last year and learned that there were other bloggers out there also interested in writing within this genre, I knew there was a market for satirical content outside of The Onion, and together with Toni Hammer and some other excellent bloggers, I finally made my desire to start an online satirical magazine a reality.
BYB: A lot of bloggers have thought about starting their own collaborative site or morphing their own blog into one. What are some of the key things they should consider before jumping in?
LL: If there is one thing bloggers who are interested in doing this need to know, it’s that collaborative blogging is extremely time-consuming. If you want to be successful at it, you have to be publishing new, quality content every day, several times per day. This means you have to be willing to spend a lot of time — almost as much time as you would spend at a full-time job — organizing submissions, reading through them, deciding whether or not they would be a good fit for your audience, preparing them for publication, finding and adding images, configuring SEO, maintaining an editorial calendar, communicating with writers, sharing content and keeping up with social media demands, and, if you are going to pay writers, keeping track of page views and payroll.
This is not to say that bloggers interested in getting into collaborative blogging can’t start out slowly. That’s what I did. But I have learned that there is a lot that goes into collaborative blogging besides simply taking a submission, copying it into a new post draft, and publishing.
On the business end of it, here are some things you have to be knowledgeable about and willing to do:
- Know the benefits and pitfalls of accepting syndicated work versus original work only. If you’re going to be asking for original work only, what is your incentive for writers to give you their words? Why should they spend all that time crafting something exclusively for you?
- Develop freelance writing contracts. I know a lot of sites don’t have these, but I figured it was best to let writers know exactly how their work would be used on my site and what their rights were, so I took a look at some sample contracts online and drafted up my own in Google Forms so that both the writers and I had clear guidelines to work under. I am currently using these on Sammiches, and we will likely use them on MockMom in the near future.
- Know the days and times your followers are most active on social media and schedule posts to share at these times. There is so much that goes into the social media aspect of promoting writers’ work and the site, which are things I actually began a blog workshop to cover with interested writers because it was too much both in terms of time and workload for me to answer their questions individually.
- Have an editorial calendar (I use both the Post Calendar plugin in WordPress and Google Calendar) and balance content on it so that you’re publishing a wide variety of things on a given day. Nobody wants to read five list posts about pregnancy on the same day, for example.
- Understand SEO and employ best practices in the title, content, and meta description of each post. I use Yoast SEO in WordPress to help with this.
- Be willing to invest in plugins and other technical items to enhance the site and user experience. As Sammiches grows, so do its technical needs. For example, I keep track of writers’ page views and payouts using the Post Profit Stats plugin in WordPress, which I had to pay for. I also recently had to move to a new host who could provide me with my own server. This costs significantly more than traditional hosting plans through BlueHost or GoDaddy, for example, but the site’s needs were outgrowing what those hosts could provide. I am currently at that cusp of growth where I need to upgrade things from a technical perspective but am not quite big enough to pay for those things and offer my writers what I eventually would like to pay them, so it’s tough. There is a lot of personal cost initially and no monetary return on investment at this point.
- Start a LLC or comparable business and bank account to keep your personal money and website money separate and take care to comply with tax rules and regulations.
- Work with other sites to share and promote one another’s content.
- Figure out ways to get writers as much exposure to new readers and followers as possible. This is tricky. Internet audiences, or “the people” as I like to call them, are so fickle. I am constantly brainstorming ways to get them to click through to writers’ blogs and social media channels and, ultimately, to follow those writers.
- Understand that running a submissions-based website will not necessarily translate into income (and probably won’t). It is a much different world here on the internet than it was when Jill Smokler began Scary Mommy, so the same methods and rules she employed and followed may not necessarily work for site owners today. You have to constantly be learning, reading up on what the social media trick du jour is and what new guidelines Google is requiring sites to follow today, for example. If a fat bank account is your end game, this isn’t the endeavor that will get you there.
BYB: What have been the best things about running your sites so far?
LL: Two things stick out to me: getting to know other bloggers I might never have interacted with otherwise and doing something I truly enjoy. I’m that weirdo who actually likes the behind-the-scenes stuff that accompanies blogging — the SEO and social media tomfoolery, for example.
BYB: At one point, you ran Sammiches and Psych Meds solo. What was the deciding factor in adding support staff and how has that helped you improve the site?
LL: I decided to add support staff because I was drowning. I never expected the site to take off like it did, and because I essentially fell into it without planning to, I was unprepared for the amount of time and work that running a submissions-based site requires. I liked the direction the site was taking, so when Toni Hammer said she’d like to take a crack at editing, I jumped at the opportunity. Now that she’s shifted focus to our MockMom site, a couple of other writers are trying editing for Sammiches on for size, and I can’t express how grateful I am to all of them for their part in helping me to keep the site up and running. Without them, I would never be able to get through and accept as many submissions as I can now.
BYB: What tips can you offer about handling the submissions process?
LL: The most important thing to remember as far as the submissions process is concerned is that you must find an organizational and procedural system that works for you. With that said, here are some things that are important to and necessary for me when it comes to handling submissions:
- Come up with clear guidelines regarding submissions. Before I transitioned to Submittable and the syndication and contributor group on Facebook, I was primarily accepting submissions via email. I came up with very clear guidelines about what people should put in their subject line so their emails didn’t get lost in the shuffle, how they should send their submissions (I did not want links or attachments because of the risk of viruses), and what their submissions should include.
- Give writers a window regarding when they can expect to hear back from you about a submission. My window is two weeks, and while I am usually able to get back to writers before that time has passed, there are occasions when I am rushing to beat the clock simply because I want to give each submission the time it deserves, and that often translates into a lot.
- Whenever possible, try to give writers specific reasons as to why a submission won’t work if you find you have to reject it. This becomes difficult when you start getting more submissions than you can keep up with, but even a small “I just published five articles on this subject” or “I see a lot of errors in terms of grammar and conventions that cloud the message of the post” or “This isn’t going to be a great hit with our audience, but you may want to try [other site name here]” helps writers out as they try to get their work published or improve their craft. And don’t be afraid to ask writers if they’re willing to rework something using your suggestions. If you think a post has potential but is just missing that little something extra, it’s worth seeing if the writer wants to take another stab at it.
- Develop a procedural plan that works best for you. For me, I like to take it one post at a time from beginning to end — reading the submission, formatting it in the post drafts, and contacting the writer with a scheduled publication date — before moving on to the next submission. Because I accept submissions in three different places (directly within the drafts section of my site for regular contributors, in the contributor and syndication group on Facebook, and through Submittable), I either ask editors to focus on one of those places while I focus on another or work my way around those places — drafts on the site one day, Facebook group the next day, and Submittable the day after that, for example. I find this helps me stay organized best.
- Communicate with writers. Let them know if and when a submission will be published. When I was first starting out, I would often accept and publish submissions on the same day and wouldn’t be able to notify writers until I tagged them on social media. As a writer who submits to other sites regularly myself, I know how frustrating this can be (sorry, writers, and thanks for sticking with me!), which is why one of my goals this summer was to develop a scheduling system so that I could let writers know ahead of time when their work would be published. It works out much better for both the writers and for me with this system in place.
BYB: You pay writers based on number of views on Sammiches & Psych Meds, where writers get paid an increasing amount once they hit a certain threshold in page views on their piece. Is this difficult to manage?
LL: Starting September 1st 2015, we will be paying writers a flat fee for all original posts. We will also continue the bonus structure for both syndicated and original posts. Because I have the Post Profit Stats plugin enabled, this is not difficult to manage at all. The hardest part about keeping track of this is the time it takes to look at the editorial calendar to see which posts were published a month ago, go into the plugin settings and Google Analytics to see how many views a piece received, and send the payments via PayPal. I typically set aside time to check page views and send payouts every couple of days to avoid having to do this every single day.
BYB: I’ve seen a lot of submission-based sites struggle to monetize. How are you approaching this and how big of a focus is it for you?
LL: Monetizing is huge for me because that’s how I pay writers. This is why making sure I have consistent traffic coming to the site is important. The more people who visit the site, the greater the potential for ad revenue to pay writers and cover hosting and other website-specific costs.
Currently I primarily monetize through BlogHer Publishing Network and Google AdSense, but I also accept individual sponsors. I manage individual sponsor advertisements and posts through Passionfruit Ads.
BYB: What are some of the things that have helped you grow the most?
LL: One thing is being able to get through and accept as many submissions as possible. During the school year when it was just me and I was working full time, this was difficult. Now that it’s summer and I have other editors helping, I can focus on the site during the hours I would normally be working. Having other editors on board will be a big help once school starts again and I am back in the classroom.
Another thing I think has helped with site growth, is featuring a wide array of voices and topics on the site. There are so many talented writers syndicating and submitting original pieces to the site, and this means there is pretty much always something to tickle every audience member’s fancy. From the time I started the blog as my personal writing space, I did not want to limit it to a narrow niche. I have so much to say about so many topics, and so do the writers who submit their work. While not being narrowly niche-specific is arguably a big blogging mistake, I have found that it has worked out for Sammiches. And, of course, we’re not afraid to be ourselves or to rock the boat and push some buttons on the site. Sure, we lose followers every day, but we gain more, and I think allowing writers to be open and honest and to write about controversial topics that matter to them has something to do with this.
Finally, I think the fact that I am still writing and submitting my work elsewhere contributes to the audience and site growth. Because I enjoy writing so much, it has remained important to me that I not give that part up. I am still working the other end of the submissions process and loving it, and that brings new eyes to the site every day. It is my goal to continue that trend and to continue finding ways to translate those readers and followers into loyal fans for the writers as well.
BYB: What are some of the biggest challenges or pitfalls you’ve run into so far?
LL: Time and money are by far the greatest challenges of running a submissions-based website for me. I have to both establish a good work-life balance and get creative about ways to bring in money to pay writers and cover website costs. Most of the money I make as a freelance writer goes toward this endeavor. I hope to be able to pay writers more, and to cover all my costs using ad and sponsor revenue only one day soon.'Time and money are by far the greatest challenges of running a submissions-based website for me @SamPsychMeds' Click To Tweet
BYB: What is the most important advice you have for other bloggers looking to run their own submission-based sites?
LL: I think being willing to embrace the time commitment that running a submissions-based site requires, being willing to do all the back-end business work that accompanies it, and being willing to work with other writers and sites as opposed to competing against them, are three of the most important things that bloggers interested in transitioning to collaborative blogging must do.
It is exactly like working a job. The only difference is, it’s like working a job you love so much, it’s not something you dread having to do. If all the nonsense that accompanies blogging — the networking and the social media managing and the SEO — are things you hate, it might not be the right fit for you. But if these are things interest you and are things you are willing to learn about, it’s worth giving collaborative blogging a try.