Content Mill Writers ARE Business People – And We’re All Proof of That

I just read, with interest, Yolander Prinzel’s post at All Freelance Writing entitled “Why Low Paying Gigs Are and Are Not Your Problem.” I’m inclined to comment, except my comment is so long that I decided to just post it here.

Warning: Reactionary blog post ahead:

In her post Yo discusses why you needn’t worry about content site writers as your competition, but offers an enlightening look at some of the things you should concern yourself with. I’m not arguing with most of her points because they’re fair.

For the most part, I agree with Yo in that content mill rates won’t affect you if that’s not what you’re in to. Twenty years ago, freelance writers complained about the local newspapers and magazines charging anywhere from nothing to $10 per article. The folks who aspired to do better, did.

Ten years ago, folks complained about content sites such as Suite 101 and Write for Cash, but they didn’t drive down the rates either. My big gripe was with bidding sites, but I was wrong, because they didn’t drive down the rates for anyone but bidding sites writers. So I’m not going to really pick apart the logic that content mill writers aren’t your problem because there are a world of opportunities out there. No one is lowering anyone’s rates.

So I’m not in disagreement there.

I did want to explore this a bit, however. In her post Yo said:

These low paying gigs keep the hobbyists and uncommitted busy which means they aren’t competing with you. I’m not saying that content mill writers aren’t real writers or that they don’t have a burning desire to create–I’m saying that they are not business people. Many of them don’t know how or where to market themselves, but if you are going to run a successful business you have to either figure out how to do this or hire someone who can do it for you.

Now, I’ve read enough of your blog posts to know that many of you think that “cheap” writers are bad writers and are, therefore, not competition. This is incorrect. They are not competition because many of them don’t know just how much they could be making or how to get there–not because they suck.  That’s why blogs like this one are so important–there are good writers out there who need to stop being coddled and instead need a life preserver. We are that life preserver.

As a former content mill writer, I don’t believe this to be true. In fact, the author of the above referenced article is also a former content mill writer. Though we rarely agree, or even get along for that matter,  I will go as far as to say we have a few things in common. We both know how to market ourselves, we both love to write and we’re both business people. I don’t think either of us are lazy or naive when it comes to business sense. So why are we the exception?

Because we’re not.

Plenty of content mill writers have higher aspirations but all our circumstances are different. I’m not saying the unmotivated and hobbyists don’t exist, but I don’t believe it’s fair to lump all content writers in the  same category. Knowing how many of us (freelance writing bloggers ) are former content site writers who used those careers as stepping stones to better opportunities,  I’m not sure the above is true. I don’t think folks who write for content sites are any less business savvy or lazy than we were back in the day. I wrote for several content sites, but at the same time I was finding higher paying opportunities. So are many of the people who write for Demand Studios, Suite 101 and others.

I don’t feel freelance writing bloggers hold their hands as much as we respect their choices while encouraging them to seek more lucrative gigs.

I’ve met people who write for content mills on many occasions, mostly at conferences and meetups. I haven’t met a single content site writer who feels this type of writing is a hobby or long term career choice, nor have I met a single content site writer who isn’t trying to land a more lucrative contract. Most content site writers are doing so to get a foot in the door or supplement their income. Yes, there are some who view content mills as a “Work at Home!!!!” job, but they’re not necessarily the norm. Most want to learn how to market themselves, or already do. They’re happy to write for these places because

  • A. They get to write
  • B. They get to earn money in between gigs.

I don’t think it’s fair to suggest most content site writers need hand holding, because that wasn’t/isn’t the case with us.

I think Yolander’s  series on writing for content sites is an excellent resource in weighing the pros and cons of these types of sites. However, I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of the types of people who write for content sites.

After all, we were there ourselves.

P.S. In all fairness, Yolander did say “most” content site writers and not “all” content site writers. I still disagree.

Did you ever, or do you now write for content sites? If so, is it your intention to land better opportunities. Tell us about your experience -  did you feel it was a good stepping stone, or did you feel it made you lazy?

(For transparency sake, it’s important to note that Demand Studios is a sponsor and pays to advertise on this blog. However, they didn’t pay me to write this (or any post) and I don’t need their permission. )

Comments

  1. Marjorie McAtee says:

    I write for content sites, and I do that for the exact two reasons you’ve listed, Deb–I get to write, and I get to earn money when more lucrative gigs are sparse. Thanks for the excellent post.

    • You’re welcome, Marjorie. I think it’s a misconception that content sites are dead end jobs leading to poor habits and these writers are destined to a life in the freelance writing gutter. That’s why I appreciate content site writers sharing their stories. Not all of those stories are pretty, for sure, but not all of them are horror stories either.

  2. Hi Deb. I commented on that post myself. I think Yo does a good job of explaining why people who aren’t interested in doing work for sites like DS don’t need to pee their pants over the fact that others do. However, like you, I tend to disagree with the idea that anyone who isn’t raking in a certain amount of dough per word isn’t really running a business. That’s simply not true.

    Interestingly, we took two very different approaches to that same argument. I discussed the way it *is* possible for someone to run an actual business based in lower paying markets. You discussed the way most people who are selling their work this way are doing it as a way to bootstrap as they build a business in higher paying markets.

    Either way, it probably is a little extreme to say that anyone writing for a “mill” isn’t a serious business person.

    And here’s the super-duper amazing part of the whole thing. I was able to respond her post to express some of my reservations and we’re actually having a nifty little conversation about it. You were able to write this post without becoming a crazed psychopath. I’m commenting here without mocking or berating either one of you. Apparently, when the planets align themselves *just right*, there’s room for more than the usual “tastes great/less filling” bullshit that usually dominates these conversations.

    • Carson, as you’re probably one of my oldest “web friends” you probably know that I avoid confrontation like the plague. However, you probably also know that I don’t mind respectful disagreement at all. I felt Yo’s post had some valid points but it also featured some misconceptions. Hopefully any and all psychopath moments are a thing of the past. I read over your comments and they were also a post in itself. Your story is one that many freelance writers will appreciate and you should tell it more often.

  3. I write for content sites and have been progressing up the ladder to better paid content site gigs and “actual” gigs as my resume fills out. It was a great experience to be able to get in my foot in the door and write without having to rely on sparser, more expensive gigs.

  4. I’m not going to speak for you, but I am a business person because I made sure my businesses evolved. It does not take business acumen to log in to Demand Studios’ website everyday and pick some titles, to apply for better paying gigs or to “want more” out of your career. That is what any job seeker /working person does. Someone who runs a successful business does not settle for less when they know they can get more and they do what it takes to create a business model that evolves and gets them where they want to be.

    And as far as needing hand-holding, no, I didn’t need someone to hold my hand and tell me that whatever decision I made was just fine—I needed someone to kick me in the ass, send me a life preserver and make me realize that I had to treat this at-home writing thingie as I would any other business. I was a content mill worker until Joe Wallace of The Freelance-Zone took time out to mentor me via email and the phone—meanwhile he was getting attacked because he was speaking out against content mills. So while other mill workers were attacking him, I was getting free coaching and building a relationship with an editor who eventually gave me my first decent gig. After that, I bought Jenn Mattern’s Web Writer’s Guide and realized that all those business things I had done while running an insurance agency I needed to apply to the freelance writing world. I reached out to these people because I knew there had to be a way to “do” my business better. So I reached out, learned and got out. Most content mill writers and writers who try to make a full time living on low pay won’t—in fact, many of them are so busy defending their decisions that they won’t even realize how much they are hurting themselves. Why should I get paid more than them? There’s no reason—but I’m not letting it happen, they are. And you know what? That’s okay. This isn’t some kind of preschool assignment where we all get gold stars just for trying—some will make it and others won’t, and some will but they will struggle more.
    .-= Yo Prinzel´s last blog ..Why Low Paying Gigs Are and Are Not Your Problem =-.

    • Thanks Yolander. Again, I disagree that most freelance writers working for content sites need hand holding. I’ll admit being frustrated by the amount of “whare do I start” and “what do I do next” types of emails, but if we didn’t receive them, none of us would be writing these blog posts.

      I’m not speaking for you, so I could be wrong but I don’t know if you needed hand holding as much as someone told you something you needed/or wanted to hear? People make decisions based on their own personal beliefs. You made a decision based on what you wanted to hear from others, but that doesn’t mean you needed hand holding. I didn’t need anyone to tell me I needed to or should make more money. I decided that on my own, and the people I talk to also know how to make that decision on their own.

      I don’t know that I agree that one can’t make a living as a content site writer, because there was a time that I did and I did well. However, the beauty of having different experiences is that writers can read both our stories and make their own informed decisions.

      Thanks for coming by to defend your point and please don’t be a stranger.

      • Also, in response to:

        It does not take business acumen to log in to Demand Studios’ website everyday and pick some titles, to apply for better paying gigs or to “want more” out of your career.

        Of course it doesn’t – but who is saying that’s all DS writers do? Everyone’s experiences are different. I spent three days with a couple of dozen DS writers and all of them were educators, journalists and authors…many with long successful careers. Writing for DS was just one of their many business decisions. If they want to weigh in about why they make their decisions, I’ll let them do so. But again, everyone’s experiences are different and we can’t assume they lack business acumen or are too naive to know how to seek more lucrative gigs, if that’s their choice. You say you needed hand holding, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else does.

  5. I write for content mills. I’ve had some really great gigs but gave them up because they took away too much time from my family. I’m currently a regular contributor to a site but that is my only steady gig; not because I’m a moron who doesn’t know anything about business. How difficult is it really to get out there and market yourself? It isn’t. I don’t believe that anyone writing for content mills has an issue with marketing themselves. I believe there are probably underlying issues involved. I do it because I’m a SAHM who happens to homeschool. I’m busy. We aren’t in dire straits at the moment as far as finances so I only need to rake in a little extra cash. I write for content mills as a way to flex my writing muscle. It is exercise. It keeps me writing and I get a little something for doing it. As the boys get older, I expand my network. I happen to have a friend who works for content mills. She runs a freelance business and is very successful. She is always busy. Yet, a good chunk of her income comes from her content at sites like Suite 101. I don’t know many people who pull in big $ over there, but she does. She could probably give up her business and still be ok just on her $ from those sites.

    • Hi Amelia,

      You wrote:

      I don’t believe that anyone writing for content mills has an issue with marketing themselves.

      It might be that it’s easier to write off a writer as unmotivated or naive than believing that they make certain choices that work for them. People who don’t like content sites might feel better saying, “well they don’t know any better” rather than admit someone out there doesn’t think the other way is the right way.

      I think one of my mistakes during my earlier years as a freelance writing bloggers is to decide my way is best and no one else knows any better. Five years of people setting me straight via comments and emails made me realize we all have different reasons for our choices. I might not agree with every choice, but I respect them.

  6. This is so interesting – While I can kind of understand her point, I mostly can’t. I started freelancing as a content mill author; it was one of the only gigs I could get with little to no experience and it helped me not only support myself but also gave me a space to learn about myself and my limits as a writer as well as build a modest portfolio. As I started to get more private clients, I weened my content mill efforts down bit by bit until one day I just didn’t claim more assignments. Today, I have three private clients that pay me exponentially higher rates than the content mills did, but I wouldn’t be here today without them as a jumping off point.

    Content sites gave me an opportunity to hone my freelance business skills and learn some important concepts about: time management, the relationship between effort in and reward, hourly rates, and working with tough clients (I had some nasty editors!).

    Furthermore, content mills offer me a bit of peace of mind: if all of my clients were to drop me today (knock on wood no!), I know there would be a place where I could just go claim some articles to keep myself from sinking into fiscal oblivion. I hope I never need to write for them again, but it is ac comfort to know they are there.

    To me, having a back-up plan is a key part of being a good business person, don’t you think?

    (sorry for the long response!)
    .-= Nacie Carson´s last blog ..Breaking News: U.S. Economic Growth Slower Than Expected =-.

    • Agreed, Nacie. Content sites are my backup plan as well. I don’t use them much now. However, nothing lasts for ever. If I lose my job, my clients run out of funding, or my blog tanks it’s good to know there are options.

  7. Interesting post. I started out working for a content mill to get my foot in the door. Through that experience, I accumulated some work for my portfolio and eventually landed a few higher paying, ongoing gigs. I still write for a content mill from time to time when I’m ahead on my other projects and have no new leads. So I guess I view the content mill as serving 2 purposes:

    1) Introduction to the Business
    2) Fall Back Plan

  8. scarlet05 says:

    I disagree with what the blog poster states. She or he is putting everyone in the same boat. Yes, there may be some people who write for fun and don’t view it as a profession. Then there are others who are trying to create an online presence and break into the online writing industry. Not all content sites are equals. There are some that are better than others. I think it depends on the quality of the site and how the content on the site is managed.

    Everyone has to start somewhere, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to be professional either. I am living proof that if you work hard you can have a steady stream of clients.

    I am not ashamed to say I have taken low paying gigs because the way I see it, it taught me many of the important skills that I have learned to get me where I am today.

    If hard work, giving it your all and going out of your way to make sure that the content you supply is well written, then I really don’t know how much more professional you can be.

  9. I don’t know about other content mills, but DS lets me earn a regular, predictable income in-between my other, much-better paying gigs. It’s a trade-off…I don’t have to wait 2 months to be paid, but the pay is lower. That’s my business decision…feed my family. I’ll take the regular but lower pay so I can buy groceries. For me, the high-paying gigs are just too unpredictable. I have one client that is one of the largest publishing companies in the world, but even my editor there can’t promise me regular, timely assignments.
    .-= AprilMay´s last blog ..Three Strikes and I’m Out? =-.

  10. Wow…in what other business can you attract a client like Demand Studios? I’ve never had any other job where I could just choose not to show up for a few months, and then jump right back in if I want to – no questions asked. Demand Studios doesn’t “demand” my time like my better paying clients do. They are just there, in the background. A quiet assurance against the freelancer’s ever present “wolf at the door”. Feed my family, yes. Frequently with better paying gigs, and my own sites to supplement those. And yet I still keep DS around. That’s good business, smart business in my book – and survival.

    I’m not too good to work for any amount that lets me have the lifestyle of my choice. I don’t control my client’s businesses, they do. I control my own business, and I am very sure that I want a fall-back, no matter how well I am doing!

    For me, freelancing is like eating from a buffet. You get a bit of the steak (better paying clients) and a bit of the salad (content sites). Who doesn’t want more steak? (Apologies to vegetarians!) But refuse the salad and starve?

    Backup plan. Excellent backup plan.

  11. I just joined Suite101 and I still consider myself as a business person, as I first started ‘real’ freelancing first (up until present). As a new business, I am aware that I don’t always get gigs, so I need something to supplement and to keep my brain work and my hands type. That simple.

    Anyways, thanks Deb, for this insightful writing for those who are in content mills and those who are not (but keep commenting this and that without really putting their shoes first on the content mill writers).
    .-= Diar A.´s last blog ..When a Reading Challenge Got You in Perspectives =-.

  12. Hal Peat says:

    I happen to agree with what Deb Ng wrote when she said that everyone is different and goes into the content mill situation for different reasons. But, for the same reason, I think it would be more productive to have a conversation about why people create content mills and how they choose to operate them and treat the contributors. Of course, that might be asking her to speak truth to power, and it’s much easier to make the conversation about the contributor. I speak on that, having been an occasional content mill contributor in the past and involved in one really toxic travel site that started out on the pretext of paying a flat monthly rate and then devolved into the classic content mill nightmare in the pay structure based on other more slippery things. Since there are people involved in both a contributor and editorial direction function on that site and who are involved socially with the operators of this particular forum, I won’t cite names and instances…but I could, easily, and it would be about facts and agendas and not at all about personalities. But in general, it’s only meaningful to talk about the source of the problem, and not just those who suffer the outcome. After all, you wouldn’t have content mill conributors without content mill creators.

    • Hal, People create content sites to make money first and foremost. I think we can all agree on this.

      However, there are different types of content sites and some care more about their writers and the quality of the content than others.

      • Hal Peat says:

        Well, I can certainly agree with your second paragraph – but, by the same token again, discussing those sites and the individuals that operate/edit for them is in no way a personal attack, it’s just addressing their professional and ethical decisions in how they operate and treat contributors. Just partly in response also to what you wrote in your latest 5/10 post at the end of this thread.

  13. I wrote for Writers Research Group- anyone remember them? I think that could have been considered a content mill… I always, always thought of my career as an upward arc, and they were a stepping stone.
    .-= allena´s last blog ..Your Excuses for Missing Deadlines- Changed My Mind! =-.

  14. I read this with some interest yesterday, but I had a lot of conflicting thoughts so I held off from commenting until I could put them into some order.

    Here’s my opinion: I don’t much like the business side of things. I’m a writer. I like to write. I enjoy writing. But I don’t like to spend time with prospecting for clients and invoices and taxes and doing whatever we do for business. I’ve used a writer’s service for my creative work (poetry, etc) and I will again when I have a new batch of work for them. I”m looking into Elance currently for this reason.

    That said, as a freelancer needing to earn a living (poetry doesn’t pay anything as most writers know), of course it (the business side of things) has to be done. I’ve recently restarted my freelance business after ten years of doing other things, and I’ve written a few pieces for DS/Livestrong. I’m not sure I want to continue for very long but it’s good to get some current clips, and that’s the main reason I’m doing it. Easy stuff. It gives me a few bucks and the clips. Why not? Plenty of people have their reasons. Are they business people? Who cares? People do what they do for any number of reasons.

    I also have a couple of blogs, and I’m thinking of expanding on one with a static site. I was thinking of hiring a friend, sometime in the future as budget allows, to write maybe 50-100 little articles to get some serious content going to support advertising. I would fact-check and edit carefully as needed. Why not? It’s content. She writes for DS and a bunch of other “mills” or pay per view sites etc. Is she a business person? Oh yeah, and she writes so fast I don’t know how she does it.

    Maybe some people write for the content mills as a way to test their skills, as beginner writers. Maybe they don’t know (yet) how to market themselves, and that’s OK. It’s not easy. Not everyone can do it. Maybe they’re exploring the possibilities of writing for a living. Cool.

    On the negative side, there’s a lot of crappy writing out there, and plenty coming from those mills. When I’m researching something, it’s annoying how so many of the mill-produced sites come up on top and I have to dig for solid stuff. But some of it’s good.

    I’m not much for judging what other people do so I guess that’s my main opinion, for what it’s worth (free! :)
    .-= Leah McClellan´s last blog ..Tip # 6 Blog comments =-.

  15. I have a small amount of business as a writer, but generally avoid the whole routine. I’m not a competitive person by nature – and that is what is valued in this world. I’ve come to accept that this is not a comment on my talent or ability in any way at all.

    What work I do has come to me by reference. I do not get anywhere near the content mills unless I’m really hungry because very few of them pay even minimum wage – I’m better off finding work as a carpenter, bartender, or a consultant. I found this out by trying a few and realizing what a sucker I was.

    To me, this “business” is all about ego and nonsense. Skill has so little to do with how we define ourselves or become successful. That is precisely why there are so many low paying gigs out there and why the “business” side is so important.

    I simply continue writing and doing what I can to feed my family. When I can earn a living as a writer, I do. I “am” not a writer, I “am” a human being – what I “do” to make it as a human being in this world does not define me. I can “do” many things to survive.

    I’d rather it wasn’t this way, but for some strange reason far too many people want to “be” writers. It’s created a writing bubble that puts the economic bubble to shame, but has similar effects. If only you would all stop being so competitive and realize that quality is enhanced by us all working together we might have a world that valued quality over quantity.

    But it’s not to be. Ego rules. Whatever skills I have need to be met with desperate cries for attention and relentless self-promotion that go against just about everything that this old Plattdeutscher believes in.

    Oh well.
    .-= Erik Hare´s last blog ..Restaurant Biz =-.

  16. Deb, I have to disagree with you. I find more and more experienced writers and editors like myself on “content mills.” We are not working our way to better paying gigs. We’ve been there, done that and have been laid off/dropped/not paid. We can get better paying gigs, but… Will they take six months to pay us? Will they pay us at all? Will the magazine/newspaper/business fold before our “assignment” sees the light of day? I’ve had some major publications stiff me and a contract is not so easy to enforce — especially if the magazine is gone.

    I also have to disagree with your statement that the content mills aren’t driving down pay. Twice over the last few months I went after good paying writing jobs and found out later that they scratched the idea of using freelancers and went to a “content mill” ($5-10 per story + page views) format. I’m sure I am not the only one seeing this.

    I will continue to take better paying jobs, but I can’t count on them to pay my bills. I can count on Demand Studios to pay me twice a week. When I write something for Associated Content I’m paid almost instantly. And a host of other sites to do the same. I don’t know how much longer I will be at Examiner because the people making money there are doing so because of their topic. I consider that worse than the content mill operation, but some of the places I go really like it.

    In all honesty, just before my full time magazine editor job was eliminated, I was the one telling the freelancers that we couldn’t afford to pay, so I certainly understand where that is coming from!

    Marcia

    P.S. I also can’t imagine how “crappy writers” can get by Demand Studios. Those editors are pretty tough!
    .-= Marcia Frost´s last blog ..Effen Vodka and Architecture at the Wit =-.

  17. Beating up on content mills and the people who write for them is a bit like bad-mouthing an ex. At one point, that person was attractive to you. Just because things didn’t work out the way you hoped or expected doesn’t change the fact that at one (albeit possibly brief) time, that person was good enough for you. You may have grown and changed, but it doesn’t mean that your time together wasn’t valuable.

    If someone no longer works for content mills, the experience was still a valuable one. Take the positive from the experience and move on.
    .-= Jodee´s last blog ..How to Stand Out from the Crowd When Applying for Gigs =-.

  18. I’ve been a full-time writer for over ten years. Unfortunately, the two industries in which I specialize were hard hit by the economy. A lot of my clients closed their doors or cut their budgets, leaving me looking for work and a way to pay the bills. I occasionally write for content mills to fill in the gaps while I look for new gigs and send proposals to potential clients. Content mill writing isn’t something I’m passionate about, but it’s a great resource when I need a few bucks in a pinch.

  19. Diana Dart says:

    I’m a big fan of both sites – AFW and of course FWG. Yo’s posts are refreshing and give me a kick in the rear when I need it. Deb tends to have a less blunt approach to the profession, which I also appreciate.

    Here’s where I land on this issue. Yo makes the point (in her comment here) that she’s a business person because she makes sure that her “businesses evolved.” That’s likely where the difference in opinion lies. Many, many writers out there consider it successful, smart business to get the bills paid, expand your skills and work the hours you want. That is after all, what business is about. Working and getting paid to work.

    Other business owners have a higher glory in mind. An “evolved” state, so to speak. And that’s okay… for them. But that doesn’t mean that the other types of writers/businesses are any less savvy and successful. It’s all about your goals, right?

    For me, I’m a part-time freelancer (Yo might call me a “hobbyist,” bless her heart, but my hobby is putting cash in the bank) who is building clientele, reputation and a network. I’ve used content mills and found out pretty quick that some are better than others. As for the ones that work for me? They’ll stay right where they are in the future, as a fill in for lower cash weeks and such.

    Instead of writing for them, could I be using that time to evolve my business? Sure. And I do, some of the time. But there’s nothing like a dip in the content mill pool to refresh my PayPal account and remind me that I’m in business to earn. And that suits my goals just fine.

    • Hi Diana,

      This isn’t a FWJ v. AFW post – and I’m not in competition with them. I’m glad you like us both as I think AFW is a terrific resource.

      I know things have changed a lot, but when I worked in publishing we paid on publication. That meant many of our freelancers were paid a year or two after submitting their articles. Not all had paying gigs lined up each day of the week and I’ll bet plenty of them wouldn’t mind having content mills around to help provide a financial cushion when they were between checks.

      A regular cash flow is a very good business decision. It all depends on your approach, I guess.

  20. I started to comment, then realized I’d be better off writing a blog post too. So here’s my two cents on why I actually enjoy some content mill work in my day: http://danialexisblog.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/why-i-like-being-a-content-mill-writer/
    .-= Dani Alexis´s last blog ..Why I Like Being a Content Mill Writer =-.

  21. Just a reminder that we have a comment policy at FWJ. I never invite anyone to attack another blogger, even if we disagree. Respectful disagreement = good. Personal attacks =bad.

    Thanks for understanding.

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