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

Arnhem’s Openlucht Museum wins the 2009 BankGiro Loterij Museumprijs

Testing out the old Dutch cupboard beds at the Openlucht Museum in Arnhem

The BankGiro Loterij is the cultural lottery in the Netherlands. Each year, in association with Prince Bernhard Cultuurfonds, the BankGiro Loterij selects one museum as the recipient of the Museumprijs (museum award) and €100,000. Each year has a different theme. In 2008, the category was archeological museums. For 2009, judges were looking for museums with the goal of making Dutch history accessible to both children and adults.

This year’s winner is the Openluchtmuseum  (Open Air Museum) in Arnhem. The museum’s director Pieter-Matthijs Gijsbers is elated by the outcome: “We are a museum of Dutch for all Dutch. I would like to warmly thank all those who voted for us.”

Jury members praised the museum for it’s success in representing the culture of Dutch daily living through hands-on activities, displays, and shows. The museum’s aim is to bring Dutch folk life and traditions to life in an outdoor setting.

Established in 1912, the museum is due to celebrate 100 years in 2012. In 1987, the Dutch government prepared to shut down the museum, but a flood of visitors on the day it was set to close forced the government to leave it open. Wise move as the museum is still popular today and was also awarded the European Museum of the Year in 2005.

In May 2009, I had the pleasure of visiting the Openluchtmuseum. Luckily, although the weather was threatening before we left, it turned out to be a beautiful day. We saw a live weaving demonstration, walked through a sea of windmills, strolled through their beautiful gardens, saw the interiors and exteriors of 17th century Dutch homes and farms, chugged free samples at their onsite brewery, and I even got to test out a typical Dutch cupboard bed! If you go, be sure to take a look through some of the quaint little shops and have some of their sensational poffertjes for lunch.

You can get into the Openluchtmuseum for free with a Museumkaart. Entry is €14,00 for adults and €9,80 for children ages 4-12. Children 3 and under get in for free. You can even bring Fido along! The museum is open from April 1 through November 1 from 10am-5pm.

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Romance met Contrabas

On September 30, 2009, I had the pleasure of attending the Nederlands Film Festival. This year marked the festival’s 29th year of existence. Independent films are submitted and nominated for the coveted Gouden Kalf (Golden Calf) award and shown at various locations.

Unfortunately, I found out about the event a bit too late and was only able to make it to one film. Hoping to improve my Dutch, I was disappointed when the film turned out to be in English. The movie, however, was a delightful combination of fantastic angles, great story, stunning music by a live orchestra, and avant garde dance… though not without fault.

Romance met Contrabas, or Romance with Double Bass, is a short story written in 1886 by Anton Tsjechov (also spelled Chekhov) about a double bass player who gets himself in quite the pickle, dragging the poor princess Biboelova along for the ride. A long and hard Google search left me with nothing on the piece but a synopsis of the 1974 film version starring John Cleese.

The music was undoubtedly the best part of the evening. Piano, voice, viola, guitar, accordion, laptop, electronic board, and, of course, double bass all came together to create a most incredible sound. Highlights were alto Helena Rasker and bassist Quirijn van Regteren Altena. The multi-talented Janica Draisma performed a live dance solo, starred as Biboelova, and narrated the film. Oh, and she directed, adapted, and filmed the piece too (well, the parts she wasn’t in anyway).

It took me the first half of the 75 minute film to realize the the bassist onstage before me was none other than the fellow playing the hapless musician Smytsjkov (or Smychkov). He was an absolute delight in the film.

My major critiques are relatively few. First, I thought the dance was just a bit too bizarre. I do love modern and contemporary dance styles, but this was nothing more than waving the arms about interspersed with one or two weak hitch-kicks. It had absolutely no point and was, in my opinion, a huge distraction.

There were also a few inconsistencies. Like when Smytsjkov decides to hide in the bushes nearby the bridge. He ends up under a bridge with no bushes in sight. At another point, the narrator makes a point of saying that when Biboelova emerged from the water, only her jar of bait was to be found – her clothing having been stolen while she was in the lake retrieving her water lilies. I saw no jar of bait, but I did see her shoes, which she immediately put on and wore throughout the rest of the film. Perhaps shoes are not considered clothing in Russia?

The unnecessary and awkward sex scene that apparently took place in Smytsjkov’s imagination would have been better off cut from the final version of the film. There was a particularly poignant scene that ends Tsjechov’s story, where Biboelova strolls along the bridge above an oblivious Smytskov who, folks in the nearby village say, is still searching for his beloved Biboelova. This would have been the perfect ending to the film. But Ms. Draisma had other ideas. Other ideas that screamed “hey, lookie what I can do with a camera!”

By cutting the pointless ending after the ending and shortening some painfully long shots, the movie could easily have been about 10 minutes shorter and a lot easier to sit through. (At one point Biboelova has gone into the lake to fetch her water lilies. There are endless shots of her underwater as your bottom gets numb and you start to lose your focus. Finally after she pops up, the narrator describes her search as having taken 15 minutes. “I know!” I wanted to shout. “I just sat here and watched all 15 minutes of it!”)

All in all, an enjoyable artistic film accompanied by a nice glass of wine and surrounded by drinks and girl talk with a good friend. As for the Nederlands Film Festival? I’ve already got it on my calendar for next year.

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