Writer Mills: You Can Do Better

As a writer, one of the most thrilling aspects of my work is receiving feedback on my words. It’s hard to put yourself out there, especially if you are just beginning. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my voice – a big change from the copywriting and communications I work I was doing by day.  Old Coffee Mill. Image courtesy of stock.xchng®

Enter writer mills. They deliberately appeal to unpublished writers who need to build their portfolios and an audience. These mills make it look easy – and they emphasize that you don’t need to market yourself.

So what is a writer mill?
Erik Sherman has a fantastic definition: “These organizations bring in writers, grind them for whatever word juice is available, and pay a pittance.” Well-known examples include Demand Studios, Examiner.com and Helium. Recently, Erik wrote about two new mills: Voyage.tv and Trails.com.

I would also include large websites (and start-up websites) that approach writers for content with no offer of pay. Many of these sites use the line, “We can’t pay now, but maybe when we get enough interest and advertising!” Please note that I am not referring to group blogs, which is a blog written by a small group of people around the same topic. These blogs (or “grogs”) are usually created to help the bloggers achieve common goals.

Paid to write, right?
The stereotype is that writers are never paid well and you can’t make money with words. Not true. Okay, so I don’t pay my rent with personal essays, but my freelance copywriting work is interesting, more than covers the bills and leaves me time for creative nonfiction.

Compare that to a writing mill. Many of these companies require people to research and write their articles – and promote them. It’s entirely possible that you won’t get paid if your articles don’t get enough views. Flat rate fees can run $10 for a 1,000-word article. That’s $10! That is $0.01 per word. A 1,000-word article for a reputable magazine can earn you $0.50 to $1 per word, which is $500 to $1,000.

You would be far better served to spend time pitching your article idea to newspapers, magazines and well-paying websites than earning $0.01 per word.

Building credibility? Not so much.
As more is being revealed about writer mills, their payment practices and their unrealistic demands, the more it can hurt you to be associated with them. Editors have been quoted as saying that they may be less likely to consider hiring writers whose only credit is Demand Studios, Examiner.com or other such sites.

You can build up your skills and portfolio in better ways.

  • A blog is a great starting point to showcase your writing. It’s also a wonderful way to start networking with other bloggers and building a supportive community. This can help you if you need a second opinion about a questionable opportunity or want some advice on breaking into a new market.
  • Writing for non-profit organizations is another option to get your work in front of people, create some portfolio pieces – and build your network. And it’s far more likely to lead to you paying assignments that will keep your refrigerator well stocked.

Do your research.
May 15 may be Writers Worth Day – but writers should stand for what they are worth every day.  No exception. Educate yourself about these writer mills and ways that can better help your writing career. It can sometimes be hard to sort out the mills from the legit, well-paying gigs because the mills advertise on respected job boards, like Media Bistro. You must do your homework!

Here’s some eye-opening reading to get you started.

Have you had an experience (good or bad) with a writer mill? Is there a resource or a must-read blog post about these sites? Please share in the comments. The floor is yours!

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15 thoughts on “Writer Mills: You Can Do Better

  1. I admit there are better opportunities out there if you can find them, but for those just starting out or in need of fast cash during hard times Demand Studios isn’t so bad. It’s the best of those types of sites I think and recommend it to some writers. Of course there will always be the ivory tower types.

  2. Niche Momma, Thank you for sharing your experience–and being willing to be that dissenting voice. I have not heard many experiences like yours and it sounds like you are making an educated decision about how you’re approaching your work. My hope is that more writers will educate themselves so that they are not earning $1 an article. In addition to writing for eHow and some of the other places you’re writing, do you also pitch online and/or print publications?

    Thanks again for sharing your experience here! I appreciate it.

  3. I think I will be the lone voice of dissent here. I am having a good experience on ehow. I haven’t written an article since 9/20 and I am on track to make more money this month than any other.

    Am I getting rich? No. But how many freelancers doing it the ‘right way’ would still have revenue coming in if they weren’t writing and actively developing clients?

    Could I build this into a $500 a month revenue stream? Yes.

    I think there are a few salient points being missed in this debate:

    1. Not all pay-per-click-content mills are equal. Some are better than others. Suite101 and ehow are probably the best pay-per-click markets. As for content mills, believe it or not, Demand Studios is the highest paying content mill I’ve seen. I am not thrilled with Demand Studios–their editors sometimes appear to be maliciously capricious and they don’t allow for any back-and-forth with editors to clear up minor issues–but they are still the highest paying content mill and they are actually raising the bar, in my opinion, for other mills. The ability to just work and not worry about pitching, queries, acceptance etc… is refreshing.

    2.Not all writers are created equal. I’m sorry, people who have written 100 articles and earned less than $100 are doing something seriously wrong. They are working with the wrong sites, don’t understand SEO or are otherwise failing to hit the mark.

    I’m around the $5 mark and don’t yet have 100 articles yet. Nor have I even hit the one year mark as a pay-per-click writer. Heck, I haven’t even hit the six month mark. At a year, I will have earned $60 per article. Considering I spent _maybe_ an hour on each of my articles, this is a good return on investment.

    A lot of the financial analysis being done to show how awful content mills are presupposes that the writers could actually get freelance work that pays top rates. I hate to say it, but some of these writers are at content mills because they aren’t marketable anyplace else. In addition, all the financial analysis is done with a steep negative bias. I calculate $60 per article, the naysayers only look at the earnings I have, not the one year projection. It’s a very selective view and I believe it is inaccurate.

    3.Not everyone can take the time to nurture a client. I love the freedom of pay-per-click content. I have a small child at home and am limited in how much work I can do. I do not have time for a needy client. I’ve tried. They make my two year old look mature.

    Are there downsides and valid issues, yes. I am not claiming perfection, simply that the downsides are not quite as steep as others believe and there are some nice upsides too.


  4. I’m now going to follow you. This is an EXCELLENT post. I’m posting about the same thing, and I’m highlighting and linking your article. Thank you for saying it so well!

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