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On the army of unnamed writers behind The Vagenda

This blog is a bit of a meta-blog about blogging. If that’s not your thing, don’t worry. Normal posts on filth and angry feminism will resume shortly.

*Update* – Vagenda has responded to this and agreed to proactively ask for link backs. Still no guarantee of full name credit, but certainly much better than it was before.

The Vagenda, if you haven’t heard of it, is a blog written by a huge collection of people, and run by Rhiannon-Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter. It’s a varied mix of really heartfelt stories, funny articles, feminist ranting, and almost anything else you could care to think of that’d fall under the category of ‘popular feminism’. It’s naturally a mixed bag, but I want to say up front that I like some of the stuff that’s published there. I even wrote for it once.

However, something about it really frustrates me: when I find an article that I like, I usually want to find out more about the author. I want to view their personal blog if they have one, or read other articles they’ve written. But I can’t.

Not because these writers are all anonymous (although some of them choose to be), or even because they never link through to their own blogs (occasionally they do), but because the Vagenda has a policy of never naming their writers. Unless you’re a famous journalist like Hadley Freeman, they will only credit you with initials. 

Who the hell is ‘JD’?

Don’t believe me? Take a look:

This is a great article on the morning after pill. It’s written by RW.
Here’s one on Chris Brown, by DB.
This one is credited to ‘MW’.
This one is credited to ‘RP’.

When I wrote for the Vagenda, I asked them to publish the post under my blog name – girlonthenet – they said they don’t do that, and instead published just the initials ‘GON’. They did include a link to my blog, though, so I still got referral traffic and probably picked up a few new readers, so it was a good thing for me to do.

But there are hundreds of writers who have blogged for Vagenda and seen no return whatsoever – no traffic to their blogs, no one googling their name and coming across their awesome piece then paying them to write something else, not the warm fuzzy feeling you inevitably get when you see your name on a popular website. If any of these people want to go into writing as a career, they can’t even use their Vagenda experience on a CV. Jane Doe has no way of proving that the article credited to ‘JD’ is hers, beyond pointing at it and saying “but it is! Honest!”

Pay versus promotion

There’s a huge debate about the ethics of not paying writers, and simply expecting them to write in order to gain ‘exposure’. I appreciate that if you’re not making money, you might not be able to pay people. I also think that if you are making money, not paying people is deeply unethical. If you expect writers to produce something of value for you, you have to give them something of value back. At the absolute least you should acknowledge that they’re a person with a name.

Recently The Vagenda began a Kickstarter with the aim of raising money to revamp their website and – if possible – pay their writers. This is a good aim – if their blog is making them money, paying their writers is the ethical thing to do.

But while they’re not paying cash, at the very least they can help talented writers gain the exposure that’s so important. On the Vagenda Kickstarter page they say:

“We already have a huge pool of awesome contributors from around the world and we’d really, really love to be able to pay them or shower them with gifts, even if it’s just a little, for their amazing work.”

Well, you can start by crediting them. You don’t even need a Kickstarter for that – it’s free. Offer your writers a byline, author bio, and link to their personal blog if they want it. If you don’t have any money yet, that’s an easy thing with which you can shower them.

Vagenda initials-only policy

I emailed Vagenda and put this issue to them (the full text of my email, and their reply, is below in the comments). Naïvely, I half expected them to reply by saying ‘blimey, you’re right. We should add credits.’ But instead they explained why they do this. I don’t think the explanation is good enough. Here are their reasons, and my thoughts:

Many of our writers would like to keep what they write separate from their work

Understandable, of course. But ‘many’ is not ‘all’. I’m 100% sure that some of their writers don’t want to keep their Vagenda articles separate from their other work. The choice to have your work properly acknowledged is being taken away from all writers because some writers might choose otherwise.

It also stops people pitching us puff pieces/PR stunts

Annoying though it is when people do this, it’s one of the hazards of running a popular blog. I suspect that the initials-only policy does little to stop people pitching anyway – I get emails from PRs all the time, despite never publishing the guest posts/sponsored links that they suggest.

It protects people when they’re writing personally/it prevents writers getting abused on Twitter

On the surface this seems like a nice reason – protecting the people who write for you from getting abuse. However, criticism is one of the potential hazards of writing, and it comes hand-in-hand with praise.

I fully understand why some writers might want to remain anonymous, but others might choose to take the rough with the smooth. The people who contribute to Vagenda are more than capable of making this choice for themselves. Warning writers that they might get abuse is one thing, refusing to credit them ‘for their own good’ is quite another.

It also sits at odds with this:

We link people when they ask

So they won’t add your name in case you get twitter abuse, but if you ask them nicely they’ll add a link to your blog. Vagenda – you’re either protecting people by keeping them all anonymous or you’re not. Which is it?

Moreover, do the authors know they have to ask for a link? Why aren’t they proactively offered the option? I think the right way to deal with guest blogs is to ask the author exactly how they want to be credited – what links they want included, which name they’d like to put to the piece, etc. Let’s not forget that the writer is doing more than being ‘given an amazing opportunity’, they are providing valuable content for free.

We also have an arrangement with the Guardian whereby, if they want to cross post anything from the Vagenda, the writer gets a byline and a picture on the Guardian website.

The Guardian credits its writers. It protects anonymity where people ask for it, but when they don’t, it will appropriately credit the person who wrote the piece. Which is exactly as it should be. The fact that Vagenda editors want to protect the women who write for them, except if their piece is popular enough to get picked up by the Guardian, seems odd. Presumably Vagenda writers can choose whether they want to be credited by the Guardian, so why can’t they choose to be credited on the article they wrote for Vagenda?

Finally, I should highlight – as Rhiannon did in the email she sent me on this issue – that neither of the editors claim author credit on the blogs they write. They’re only credited using their initials, like all the other Vagenda writers. This would be a good point if they were just as anonymous as the ‘RP’s and ‘JD’s of this world, but they’re not – they’re incredibly well known. And, ironically, they’re well known because their full names are credited on the articles they write for other publications – Guardian, New Statesman, etc. These other publications are acknowledging a truth that the editors themselves don’t seem to have grasped: that writers deserve credit for their work. They have names.

So what exactly is the point of this, GOTN?

I love some of the articles on the Vagenda, and I got a fair amount of blog traffic when I wrote for them. I know that the site itself invites mixed opinions, but I’m not in any way saying ‘Vagenda is awful oh God make it stop’. What I am very loudly and clearly saying is that it needs to rethink this ‘initials only’ crediting policy. Given that the blog wouldn’t exist without the army of writers who contribute to it, the very least the editors should offer them is the option to put a name to their work.

In the words of the Vagenda editors themselves, publishing just initials at the bottom of each article

“makes writers difficult to distinguish from one another”

So, a heartfelt plea: Vagenda, even if you can’t pay right now, could you at the very least give the talented, interesting and occasionally fucking superb people who write for you some credit? They have names.

Full text of the email exchange between me and Vagenda in the comments below. Feel free to tweet at The Vagenda editors (please keep it civil – they get a lot of shit on the internet and I’m hoping to persuade them to change their policy, rather than subject them to a torrent of unnecessary rage) and let them know if you think they should change the way they credit people.


  • Girl on the net says:

    Email thread…


    “Hi Vagenda,

    I’m girlonthenet – I wrote a piece for you ages ago on sex and Jezebel. I’ve just seen your Kickstarter – congratulations on hitting your target so soon!

    I spotted on your description of it that you’re keen to pay writers. This is ace, and I think it’s an admirable plan. In the meantime, would you consider crediting your writers with their full names (unless they’re anonymous, of course)? There are lots of times when I read articles on Vagenda and want to know if the author’s written anything else, or if they’ve got a blog. I know sometimes you link, but often there’s no link, and the people who write the articles are only credited by their initials rather than their names. I know that offering people exposure instead of pay is often seen as a bit of a crappy thing, but in this instance, if you can’t currently pay, offering people exposure at the very least would, I think, be a good thing. By just crediting articles to people’s initials it means they can’t, for instance, say that they’ve written for you when they try to get other writing work (or at least – they can’t prove it!). It also means that if their article is popular and someone wants to see their other stuff, they won’t be able to.

    Anyway, I just thought I should mention this as it’s something I feel pretty strongly about, and it’d be nice if the women who write for you could get credit where it’s due, especially as some of the articles are genuinely fantastic.

    All the best

    Girl on the Net”

    Reply from Vagenda editor:

    “Hi there

    Thanks for getting in touch. I appreciate what you’re saying but at the moment we have no plan to introduce named bylines – it’s not something we’ve ever done and that is mainly because so many of our writers would like to keep what they write separate from their work. It also stops people pitching us puff pieces/PR stunts. We link people when they ask, however, and we also have an arrangement with the Guardian whereby, if they want to cross post anything from the Vagenda, the writer gets a byline and a picture on the Guardian website. Holly and I have never bylined our pieces on the Vagenda either- it protects people when they’re writing personally, it makes writers difficult to distinguish from one another, and it is in keeping with the whole spirit of the website. It also prevents our writers being abused on Twitter, which has been a problem.

    I hope this goes some way to explaining what our policy is – our writers are always welcome to tweet their pieces and we often RT these.

    All the best


  • JenClone says:

    Not giving a writer credit in case they get abused on Twitter is really, really patronising and offensive. That should be completely the writer’s choice. If you want to be anonymous, for whatever reason, you can be anonymous. If you want to put your name to the article, you should be able to do that – without being patted on the head and told that you’re too much of a delicate flower to be properly credited in case you can’t handle reactions from the general public. Completely ridiculous.

  • gherkinette says:

    I wrote a piece for the Vagenda about a year ago and asked to remain anonymous (I only blog that way) and they were fine with that, but they were unhappy to allow me to publish the article in full on my own blog. They didn’t offer a link to my blog either, but we compromised that if I said ‘originally published on Vagenda’ I could cross post.

    I assumed they had the copyright (which they don’t) and your post has reminded me to ask about linking and to make sure I know my rights in future…

    • Girl on the net says:

      Thank you for joining in – that’s an excellent piece, although the link didn’t originally work so I did some Googlehunting and found it here too:

      I’ve been trying to find out about the copyright issue, too, as I can’t find any simple rules about it. However, it does certainly highlight the importance of asking for credit and – for editors – making sure that they give credit where it’s due.

      I once guest blogged for someone that I wish I hadn’t written for – it was back in the early stages of blogging when I was keen to get any linkbacks that I could. They didn’t link back to me and ignored all of my emails on the issue. This was for a publication that was actually making money through advertising. Grr. I won’t name them here, and they did eventually add a text link, but I just thought it was incredibly rude not to, especially as I’d only agreed to do the piece on the grounds that they would.


  • NA says:

    As someone who likes The Vagenda and enjoys writing I think it would be fun to contribute to them but there is no way I’m doing it without any credit or even a tweet with my handle in it. I also have friends that would love to write pieces for them but I would never encourage them to do it.

    Their reasoning about The Vagenda initially being them and their friends is distracting. If they were still just depending on themselves and friends then they would not have the regular posts that they need to keep people coming back to their website. Holly and Rhiannon’s successful, but still growing, media careers (writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, where they’re presumably paid) is partially because of unpaid, uncredited contributors. Even if initially they made their name thanks to their friends’ help, by now the website wouldn’t be as successful without the contributors and The Guardian and New Statesman wouldn’t be as interested in their work.

    They’ve also got a six-figure book deal ( which means at some point they will be getting a decent amount of money. If the book is coming out next year then The Vagenda needs to sustain interest in their website until the book comes out. If every unpaid, uncredited contributor (who’s not one of the ‘friends’ they mentioned) stops writing for them then it would certainly have an impact on the success of the book. It isn’t fair that writers are forced to fit within The Vagenda style by being uncredited but only two people benefit from the website’s success.

    This is why they need to seriously consider changing the way they work right now. I’m also uncomfortable about the fact that every time I see someone disagree with something about them, they handle it very badly and are always unnecessarily rude about it.

  • Raoul says:

    Hmm, Just to be clear, you have a defacto and dejuris copyright of your own work unless it has been commissioned and paid for by the publication/producer in question, (payment in kind is often insufficient to transfer copyright, but can be enough to offer a license).
    Vagenda had better be careful how they have cleared the rights for what they publish as they may leave themselves open to suit, (this is not the same as being liable).

    All in all they would be best served by making sure that their contributors were 100% happy with the arrangements made for publication and the extent of same.

  • Very valid points. It’s why I don’t do much writing outside my blog anymore, simply because I don’t like to work so hard for “nothing”. There is a rash of online “magazines” that solicit content to build their little thought-empire who are unwilling to pay, which seems weird to me. Writing for exposure is fine, in some cases…especially if the cause or the content is important enough to the writer – and – as you say – if the writer is getting traffic to their own website as a result. This is timely topic. The nature of writing has most definitely changed over the past 10 years. There is more (instant) access to more content than there ever has been, so competition is high – and the public isn’t as willing to pay for it either.
    Thought-provoking…I’m pretty sure this will be on my mind for awhile

  • unknown writer says:

    I have written for vagenda too, and it’s not only that I wasn’t credited but also that they said thanks to me but nothing like great piece, or we’ve enjoyed it etc. It did feel like they just took it, edited it and put it up, bish bash bosh. But on the plus side they did ask me for my twitter handle, so it was still opt-in but they offered it to me. Maybe that is as a result of your email (good job). But then they didn’t follow me on twitter. It did leave me feeling a little unappreciated, you know? As someone trying to make a name in writing it is hard when the platforms you write for make you initials and then end correspondence.

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