XOJane is closing down. Honestly? I think everyone, writers and readers, are better off without it.
It was August 2016. I’d just lost my biggest client, who was winding down their blogging activities after a few months of very lucrative work. Because I was already in the Skyword system, I’d seen the ads for writing for XOJane. I had applied months before, but never pitched anything because I didn’t really have any ideas.
And then, in need of quick money and thinking it might help increase my readership for this blog, I went on a pitch frenzy. I read through the It Happened To Me stories. I read through their love and sex sections. I had originally applied to write home decor stuff for them, but they accepted pitches for pretty much every topic.
So I pitched.
I sent about 12 or 15 story ideas, and they picked up on 8 of them. The original application said $40 or $45 per piece, but when they got back to me they said they had taken the price down to $35 (and then later $30). Since I wasn’t making any money otherwise, I took it. I really needed it, and the $250 or so would really make a difference.
The price lowering should have been the first sign that I wasn’t dealing with a very professional organization; but what happened next really turned me off not only for writing for them, but off the website as a whole.
No editorial support
The first issue that I faced was that there was no editorial support. I didn’t know who my editor was, and even when I emailed the managing editor, I got no reply back.
I wrote and submitted the pieces by the deadline, and then heard nothing. No “hey this is great” or “you need to work on this part”. I wasn’t even told when it was going to be published; I found out when I looked up the site and found two pieces already posted when people started coming here from links over there.
Not all of my pieces were good. I’m a good writer, but I’m not perfect and sometimes I write crap. Especially when pressed for time and money, I can be a bit rushed. However, nobody notified me that some of my stuff may not have been that good, that maybe some parts may need some work, and they published it anyway.
Because eyeballs are eyeballs, right? Who cares if we give them something good?
Basically, XOJane had turned into a content mill, with the appropriate content mill attitudes towards quality work, i.e. we don’t give a shit.
It was really heartbreaking that a website that used to have really good content was now basically churning out shit just to make money off advertisers, and paying the writers really badly too.
I know, I know: never read the comments. But it’s like taking a sniff out of bad milk: you just gotta. The more a website grows in popularity, the more likely it is to attract the trolls and the bullies.
And most of the community being female didn’t change a thing.
I had a look at the first few comments in my biology class that morning, and my heart sank. What I thought would be an inspiring piece about a personal experience and how I’d made the best out of it was interpreted as hateful writing, and I was heartily flogged for it (and not in a good way). One person said I was the most boring writer to ever appear on the site; it’s their right to feel that way, but did they have to go write it on every one of my pieces that ended up on there? It seemed like overkill to me.
Somehow, the website had let what probably used to be a very nice and supportive community into a cliquey space filled with vitriol.
Now, I can take criticism: learning to take criticism is part of a writer’s job. But this wasn’t criticism: it literally became personal, ad hominem attacks. There was no criticism there: only trolling for the sake of trolling. It wasn’t about the writing, or the argument: it was about how I had failed as a person.
Thankfully, I wasn’t attacked by email or on social media (much). Nobody used my Twitter handle in their conversations about me, which I am really happy about. At least I will always remain blissfully ignorant of how many times I was called a fat marriage-wrecking whore in public.
And obviously, the problem of the pieces being bad could have been solved with proper editorial oversight, even if stronger community rules couldn’t be enforced.
Basically bad for writers, and bad for readers
Sure, I made maybe $250 writing a couple of pieces for them. Some of them were better than others. But the whole adventure made me very weary of pitching similar publications again. (I’m looking at you, Bustle.) Despite the temporary increase in visits on my website (probably to gawk and point and laugh), all I got was worry about my writing future (if editors see this stuff, will they still want to publish me?) and a temporary need to pop Tramacets to manage the anxiety while trying to pay attention in class. (Which led into an increase in my recreational use as the semester went on, which is now over, but that’s another story.)
Getting stories out is important; but making sure that writers are well taken care of is even more important, if you want readers to take what you publish seriously. Mandy Stadtmiller, a previous editor of the It Happened to Me section, wrote a really good piece about how she felt like she was preying on people to get their stories, metaphorically trafficking them for the site. And Moxie from And That’s Why You’re Single also wrote an informative post about why this website should be part of the Giant 2016 Dumpster Fire.
I, too, believe that the power of being able to tell our stories is one of the most liberating things about the internet. At last, we can know and feel like we’re not alone, even if the person with a similar experience lives in another country. But if you claim to be a reputable publication, you can at least show that you care for your readers by caring for your writers.
In the end, I felt rather used by XOJane. I got paid fees closer to what I made in my first year of freelancing for a content mill than the kind of rate I can command nowadays. (It’s my fault for accepting them, but still, you should know better, XOJane.) I received no support from editors about pieces that were obviously deficient—and they knew it, and they didn’t care, and they threw me to the sharks anyway. Blood attracts.
I don’t read or share XOJane stories anymore, and whenever someone mentions pitching for them I tell them to look elsewhere. There are better, more worthy publications to spend your precious reading time and writing energy on.
And I discovered that I was worth more, too. My writing was worth more effort; my stories were worth more care. I realized that I want to write stuff that matters, stuff that touches people and makes them think.
And none of what I wrote for XOJane was worthy of that.
And now, XOJane is being taken down. The content will stay up for another year, but after that it will go. In all honestly, I am not unhappy that those pieces won’t be hanging over my head anymore.