The Writer Trap Known as Content Mills

Quick! Get out of that content mill trap – FAST!

I don’t condemn content mills or the writers who write for them. In fact, as I’ve stated before on this blog, I think there is some merit to them.

They offer writers a way to make quick cash and polish their writing. They teach writers valuable skills like sticking to a word count, writing to a deadline, following guidelines, using SEO and keywords in their writing, and working with an editor.

It’s also a nice way to pick up some clips and credibility when you are just starting out.

At the same time, writers need to be extremely careful when it comes to writing for content mills as there are also a lot of negatives involved.

The revenue system is sketchy. There’s a lot of fine print that the content mills make almost impossible to find, only to pull out to stab the writer in the back with later on down the road.

Much of the writing produced by content mills is extremely unprofessional and many editors, publishers, and agents won’t take you seriously if they find out you write for content mills.

There are also a lot of “as long ases” involved.

Content mills are great for making money “as long as” they don’t sell the site to another company that will change the payment policy, guidelines, or decide to cut back on writers.

Your articles will continue to make you money “as long as” the content mill doesn’t decide to take your article(s) off the site or change its revenue or payment policies.

Money will continue to roll in “as long as” the content mill doesn’t go under or the owners don’t decide to abandon it for another project.

The other thing is that the payout is often only a small fraction of minimum wage. When you consider the hours that go into researching, writing, and editing the article and then the time that goes into promotion, you’ve done far more work than you’re actually getting paid for.

But writers get sucked into the content mills, making mere pennies per article and think that this is as high as they can reach. The big paying glossies and trade magazines, the small business clients and high paying blogging gigs are for the big-time writers.

Truth is, many content mill writers are actually just as good as, if not better than the top earning freelancers. The difference is that the top earners didn’t let themselves get sucked into the content mills.

Rather than writing $15 articles on watching paint dry, they sent out pitches and queries to national and trade magazines. They proposed columns and article ideas to the local newspaper. They entered writing contests and sent their manuscripts out to agents, and cold-called companies about hiring them as a writer. They searched the job boards for ghost writing, blogging, editing, and freelancing gigs.

And they got results.

When I was “accepted” to write for Demand Studios and Examiner.com, I was elated. I was going to be paid for my writing which meant that I had made the “big time.”

I took my initial assignments for both sites very seriously and spent quite a lot of time researching, interviewing, writing, editing and proofreading. Then I tweeted the articles, shared them on Facebook and LinkedIn, emailed the links to friends and family and blogged about it.

While I was guaranteed $15 per Demand Studios article, Examiner.com proved to be much less “profitable.”

I joined the site as the Netherlands Travel Examiner two years ago. In that time, I’ve written and promoted 26 articles. And earned $36.

Now, I say earned, because although I’ve earned the money, I have yet to have seen a penny of it. Which brings us back to the danger of “as long as.”

The way Examiner.com works is that you earn $0.01 for every “hit” your article gets. Your earnings can increase depending on how long visitors stay on each page, any comments left, advertisements clicked on, and how many times the article is shared via social networking sites.

What’s interesting is that, if you refer to your stats (which keep track of how many hits your pages have gotten and how much money you’ve earned), you’ll find that the earnings are quite a bit less than $0.01 per hit.

When I first signed up for Examiner.com, the policy was that writers would get paid on the 20th of the month, but only after they had accumulated $20 on their articles. It took me a year-and-a-half and 22 articles to earn $20.

At the same time I hit the $20 marker, Examiner.com changed it’s payment policy. Now, writers would only be paid if they accumulated $25 in one month. So, in order to get my $20, I would have to make an additional $25 on my articles in a month’s time. My articles were only making a little over $1 per month. In order to get that many hits, I would have to write over 500 articles.

My assumption is (and you know what they say happens when you assume…) that complaints arose from the Examiner.com community after this change was made. Because less than a month later, the policy was changed again.

This time, writers would have to earn $10 per month in order to see a payout. On top of that, you also have to produce at least one new article each month in order to get paid. And, should you go more than 60 days without posting, you lose all the money you earned prior to those 60 days.

For instance, in 2010, I earned $14.95. My last article for 2010 was written in September and I didn’t pick up writing for Examiner.com again until June 2010. Because more than 60 days passed, I am no longer eligible to receive the $14.95 I earned in 2010.

To earn $10 a month, I would have to have over 200 articles in my Examiner.com stable. As it was, with my 22 articles (assuming it took me one hour to research, write, proof and promote each one), I had made an average of $0.90 per hour.

Then it hit me. There was no reason I should be making less than $1 per hour when other freelancers were making $100 or more per hour.

If I had sold those same articles to travel magazines at a low price of $50 per article, I would have made $1,100. And I wouldn’t have had to promote them. In fact, I probably would have gotten a free copy of the publication they appeared in. I’d also have made connections with the editors at those publications, which could have brought me even more work in the future.

And that’s just at $50 per article. Imagine if I sold each one of those 22 articles for $100? Or $200? Even if I’d written the articles for Demand Studios at $15 apiece, my earnings would have been $330. Not as attractive a total, but still a far cry from $20.

The sad thing is, I’m not the only one who fell into the Examiner.com trap. Examiner.com “employs” hundreds of writers who punch out 22 articles in the span of a week or a month. Some Examiners have contributed hundreds and hundreds of articles to the site.

Yes, some of these writers make hundreds of dollars each month on articles they wrote long ago, but they still have to produce one new article each month and ensure they get enough hits in order to see that money. They can’t go longer than 60 days without posting or else they forfeit any earnings accumulated prior to their 60-day haitus.

And they have to hope that Examiner.com doesn’t decide to delete their content, or go out of business, or sell the site to another company, or change the payment policy again, or change the guidelines so that their previous articles are no longer up to standard, or decide to downsize.

I for one, am eager to leave Examiner.com behind. To delete all my content and rework it to be sold to other, better paying venues. To warn other writers about content mills who take advantage of their writers.

It’s just a shame that companies like Examiner.com feel that their writers and the content they produce are worth so little. And that writers continue to gravitate toward writing opportunities like this, not realizing that there is so much more and so much better out there.

Please tell all your writer friends and acquaintances not to make the same mistake I did and leave the content mills behind for venues that appreciate their work and pay well for it. Or at least to be sure to do their research and read all the fine print before signing up.

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Step-by-Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success

How I went from Demand Studios to better paying clients

This scene is a lot more satisfying when you’re making more than $15 an article

Hi, my name is Tiffany and I used to write for content mills. I know, I know. I should be ashamed of myself.

However, while content mills have a dirtied reputation, I don’t regret my time spent writing for them. I learned a lot, and I would recommend that any beginning writer struggling to gather the nerve to get started hit content mills first.

Demand Studios was my first paying job, and though I see now that the pay was terrible, back then, it was such an ego boost to see my wallet fattening up on account of my writing. Through DS, I also learned about SEO, writing with a specific word count to set guidelines under a deadline, working with an editor, and matching relevant photos to my articles.

It also showed me that my writing was good enough to earn an income. With this new-found confidence, I began pitching other publications. And, thanks to DS, I had clips to pitch with.

I mixed my DS efforts with free writing for non-profits and eventually made my way to publication in magazines and newspapers, all of which pay more than three times what I got from DS. Then I discovered paid blogging and creating web content. Soon it became clear that I was wasting my time on content mills.

My main reason for holding onto my “job” at DS was because of my position. I’m an American living in the Netherlands. With that being the case, I run into a few problems most freelancers don’t have.

For one, my Dutch is not good enough that I can get work writing for Dutch companies. This means I’m stuck with English language publications, and there aren’t too many of those. I write for almost all of them and it’s simply not enough to make a living.

My Dutch is good enough for Dutch-to-English translations, though, so my next step was to try to captialize that skill.

Freelance powerhouse Carol Tice often recommends cold-calling small businesses to get work writing for them. But the majority of small businesses here are Dutch-speaking and don’t need or want English content. The larger companies hire professional translators and expat entrepreneurs don’t typically have the budget to pay writers for content, so my opportunities are slim.

As a result, I’ve found a market writing for magazines. I freelance for publications in the Netherlands, the UK, and the US.

When you’re a writer living overseas, you need to really market yourself and exhaust all your resources. My first step is to use my connections from publications I already write for. I always ask fellow contributors about their writing careers and they’ve been more than willing to share the other markets they dabbled in. Editors have been extremely helpful in passing along names of other editors and publications, often recommending me to them as a writer.

I also subscribe to newsletters like Funds for Writers, Writers Weekly, and European Writer, and do frequent job searches on MediaBistro. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, published annually, also covers agents and publications in Australia, the UK, and the US.

Most of my work comes from interest generated via LinkedIn, Twitter, and my blogs. Social media networking is by far the best way to find writing opportunities no matter where you are based. A strong social media presence has gotten me and my writing noticed and I’ve forged very valuable relationships via each of those outlets.

The most valuable lesson I learned from Demand Studios is that I can get paid more for my writing than $15 per article. Much more.

These days, I don’t write for less than $50/€50. Have I been offered less? Sure. Lots less.

When those offers come, I make sure to be very clear as to what my rates are and that I will not settle for less. Typically, the inquirer will agree to my rates. And, if not, I move on to someone who does.

Because if I’m going to settle for low pay, I might as well go back to the content mills. But with so many markets paying such excellent money, why on earth would I do that?

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Step-by-Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success