Monday, October 19, 2009

My Thoughts on Content Mills--and Getting Paid What You're Worth

I've been seeing a lot of posts on blogs I read regularly regarding content mills. Over at Writer's Weekly, there's a big expose on Demand Studios, a content mill that owns and supplies content to eHow and some other content sites. Web Writing Info and Words on the Page have both added to the discussion as well.

If this is a new term for you, content mills are websites that pay writers very low sums of money for articles, which are then either resold or used to boost search engine rankings for the site. Typically the only benefits the writers get are the low paychecks ($5 or so on the low end; $20 or so on the high end)--they don't get links or resale rights. Often the writers' pay depends on traffic, and sometimes the writers are expected to help drive traffic to their own articles.

Like many others, I see content mills as borderline-to-obviously exploitive of writers. But I also do believe that writers need to be responsible in choosing their own opportunities and developing business sense, and one of the major problems here is general preciousness-about-writing--a topic I've written about before. In a world where so many people love to write but have never been able to make a career of it, getting paid anything can be addictive validation.

They're also easy--and a lot of writers tend to be self-promotion-phobic introverts. The argument goes that content mills provide easy work with no need to promote yourself or even talk to clients--a perfect situation for a writer who's not confident in her own abilities and doesn't feel comfortable acquiring or dealing with real clients.

Let me tell you--I've been there. I don't love promoting myself either. But if you want real validation, there's nothing quite so addictive as conquering your fears--and getting paid what you're really worth. And I've said most of this stuff before, but this is for the content mill writers on how to get out of that rut and have a REAL writing career.

You need a mind shift. Stop thinking of your writing as a hobby and think of it as a job. You are a breed of freelance writer, whether you believe it or not--and you need to start thinking like a businessperson. $20 an hour (assuming it takes you an hour to write a simple 500 word article, which is about what it takes for me) might be a decent wage for a full-time employee, but for you it WON'T suffice. Why? Simple: because as a sole proprietor (which you are unless you incorporate--and if you've incorporated recently, you'd know) you pay twice the Social Security taxes, additional business taxes and registration fees, and your own health insurance. $20 an hour doesn't begin to cover those expenses. You should be getting $60 or $70 an hour as a rock bottom price. I charge more than that.

You shouldn't be bragging about fast. I've heard some content mill writers justify their payment by saying things like "well, I may be getting paid $5 an article, but I can crank out 10 articles an hour--so I get paid a decent hourly wage." Really? 10 articles an hour? And does that allow for time for decent research, checking sources, gathering quotes, and other things that go into producing a good article? Does it even allow you time to run Spell-Check? Cranking out content fast isn't something you should brag about. Do you think W.S. Merwin brags about cranking out 10 poems an hour? You think Shakespeare spit out a play a day? No. Good writing takes time. It takes multiple drafts. One sure sign you're being exploited is that the actual quality of your writing isn't valued--just that you can spit words out on a page in a short amount of time. You're working a sweatshop, not an actual job.

Ask for what you're worth. Instead of working for a content mill, sign up for Freelance Daily. It's a list of freelance writing and editing jobs delivered daily into your inbox. It's free for a week or so, then you pay about $4 per month for the service. Apply for a few jobs, and ask for what you're worth. (HINT: it's more than $20 per hour.) Trust me--some people really are looking for professionals who know what they're doing and charge a fair wage.

If you write for content mills, you could do better. Develop your commercial writing skills--get The Well-Fed Writer and The Copywriter's Handbook--those two books should provide you with everything you need to get started, in terms of both commercial writing skill and marketing ideas. If you're going to do this, don't be exploited--develop your own career, on your own terms.


Lillie Ammann said...


I'm planning a series on freelance writing and editing rates. In order to have some valid data to work with, I'm running a survey to gather information about freelance rates. There are only six multiple-choice questions, and the survey is anonymous.The more freelancers who take part, the more useful the results will be.

Lillie Ammann

Lillie Ammann said...

Sorry. I didn't make the URL for the survey a link.
freelance writing/editing rates survey

Myric said...

Re: Content Mills

There is absolutely an art to writing and not actually saying anything.

Open any newspaper and you'll several find filler articles that present only a few key facts about a topic and spend valuable print lines telling you how they'll be following up in coming weeks instead of filling out the article.

Look at any website that offers "thousands" of articles about a given topic and you'll find numerous 3000 word articles that essentially repeat the same minor tidbit of information over and over in ten paragraphs.

And look at any news site that is based in broadcast TV, especially the "consumer investigation" articles. These might just be the worst. In these articles, the writer will point out how there is a problem with a product or service, to check and see if you're a victim, and to follow up if you are. There is rarely information about what the problem stems from, who is responsible for a problem, who to consult about a problem, where to go or who to talk to about following up, or links to other resources concerning the issue.

Sounds like I should blog about this topic too...

Unknown said...

Amen, alleluia! First, thanks for the link love. :)

I cannot understand how any writer would consider these "jobs" in the legitimate sense of the word. The only time I've come close to writing for a "content" site, I was paid $200 for a short article - not exactly chump change. I hated the work as it was obviously an attempt to stuff as many keywords as possible into an article in order to get Google hits. I did three or maybe four articles (all assigned at once) and then done.

I LOVE your point about fast. I'd hate to see those ten articles. Can you imagine? You cannot crank out ORIGINAL copy in that timeframe.

Devon Ellington said...

Well said.

And you've read my opinions on the subject ad nauseum so I'll just leave it at that! ;)

Carson said...

Several years ago, I made a significant percentage of my overall income writing what you'd call cheap web content. I didn't really work for "the mills" (I built a client base that kept me busy).

What bothers me when I read critiques like this one is that they're loaded with assumptions that just aren't universally applicable.

What is really a personal mismatch between the writer and that type of work becomes an argument against the practice en toto.

I know that I was able to use the lower end of the rate pool to fill scheduling holes and to considerably boost my income.

It might not be a market sector that's right for everyone, but I don't think it's fair to be quite so dismissive and to assume that those who work in those areas are doing so because they lack confidence or don't know any better.

Today, one of the projects with which I'm involved finds web-based businesses in need of content and then utilizes freelancers (who've agreed to the price ranges in advance) to complete the jobs.

So far, everyone is happy. The clients like it. The writers like it.

It's definitely what you'd call a content mill, though.

And I'm okay with that.

Robin said...

Great post, Jennifer. Very helpful tips towards the end. I think non-SEO savvy people don't really realize what these mills are all about--they think they're just getting a chance to write. Sigh.