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Freelance Writers: A Real Look at Residual Income

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on September 2, 2009 in Freelance Writing Business
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There aren't many freelance writing topics that get under my skin as much as residual income sites. I've heard all the arguments in their favor. Hell, I've made those arguments in the past. But today I'm going to get real with you about residual earning, why I don't feel it's worth it in the vast majority of cases, and how you can earn a siginificant residual income (hint: it's doesn't involve writing for someone else).

My Residual Income Background

Every time someone posts in the freelance writing community saying residual income sites are a bad idea, they get bashed by a lot of writers who chose that route. What amuses me is that they often throw out the same arguements (many of which don't make sense when you crunch the numbers). One of the biggest is that those of us criticizing residual earning sites haven't been there.

So let me start by clarifying. I have. Quite a bit. In fact, I was even an editor with one of these networks for a little over a year, where I very actively recruited writers under residual income schemes. I heard all the arguments. I convinced myself it could be a good deal for writers. I drank the Kool-Aid and became a friggin' evangelist. I even still have a few lingering articles up in a few places from years ago that still earn a bit of money every month. So please, don't comment here saying I don't understand. I understand it much better than you might think - what it feels like as a writer to crunch the magic numbers to see what you could hypothetically earn over the years, as well as knowing what the content sites intentionally say and highlight to suck you in. If you disagree with me, fine. But don't accuse me of being ignorant on this one. Let's get to those "highlights."

Residual Income: The Promises

Here are some of the things content sites tell writers in order to recruit them, with little to no up front pay:

  • You'll make a name for yourself and be viewed as an expert in your niche.
  • You can make a lot of money over time (equal to or greater than writing for independent clients).
  • You can keep earning more with little to no work.
  • You'll have a steady gig.

Residual Income: The Realities

Those promises are a bit of a stretch in most cases. Here's reality for you:

  • In the vast majority of cases, you're not taken as a serious professional because you write for XYZ network. In fact, I can only think of one that lends any true credibility to its writers' names. Can they give you visibility and lead to more work? Sure they can. But most of that work won't be top-tier gigs. When you demonstrate you'll work for peanuts, you'll get plenty of those offers (and I've often seen low-budget webmasters say they'll go to such and such a network to pitch a writer because it's easier for them than advertising). What's the point of working for next to nothing up front in the hopes of getting lots of mediocre gigs later, when you could be getting those mediocre gigs right now and working to earn even more?
  • Will you make money over time? Maybe. But maybe not. Here's another common problem I see from writers supporting this pay method. They'll say something like, "I made $xxxx last year in residual payments, so that proves it works!" Of course they usually neglect to tell you that they had to write 100+ articles to earn that income. Do the math and tell me how fair that pay sounds (especially when other networks will pay you the same in flat fees, so there's less risk involved with every single article).
  • Um, no, you won't keep earning (significantly at least) by sitting back and doing nothing. When you take these gigs, you're not being paid to write. You're paid more the more you invest time into marketing those articles (and therefore marketing someone else's site). Therefore that's what you're primarily being paid for. And that's constant work if you want to constantly earn, nonetheless more.
  • The steady gig promise is the biggest joke out there. I've worked with three content networks. One folded (despite being around for quite a few years - you never know when it's going to happen). Another removed half of the editorial team without much notice (bet they felt somewhat "secure" too), and then changed the pay model (those writers comfortable with being paid for traffic, who had done a lot of promotion to get that traffic, suddenly were being paid based on ad revenue -- how much work do you really want to put in thinking your pay model is stable?). And in one of the sections of the third network, the editor for that section started bringing in people with new, higher professional qualifications (not a requirement in the past). They assured existing writers they didn't have to worry about being replaced because of the change. Then within a few weeks, existing writers were dropping like flies. This was the same network that had previously released a lot of their most dedicated writers, including writers who had been with them for years and even since the company started. Don't buy the security myth. Know that if you choose to write for content sites with residual pay, everything you do is a risk. You. Are. Replaceable.

Residual Income: The Numbers

Let's get into some of the good stuff now -- the numbers. I love numbers, because they shed so much light on things. But sometimes they can mislead you. When I first worked for a pageview-based residual income site, I remember crunching the numbers. I'd ask myself, "How much traffic would I have to drive in order to earn $xxxx per month?" Or sometimes I'd look at it the opposite way and ask myself, "If I can realistically, or even ideally, drive this much traffic to the site, how much will I be paid?"


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Example time. Let's say you're being paid $2.00 per 1000 pageviews (at the time, that would have been a decent amount with the network -- quite a few people earned less). Let's run through some hypotheticals. Here's what you'd earn with the following pageview stats each month:

10,000 pageviews -- $20
25,000 pageviews -- $50
50,000 pageviews -- $100
75,000 pageviews -- $150
100,000 pageviews -- $200
200,000 pageviews -- $400
300,000 pageviews -- $600
400,000 pageviews -- $800
500,000 pageviews -- $1000
1,000,000 pageviews -- $2000

Oooh! That's kind of fun, right? You keep plugging in new numbers, and you get to watch the potential income grow, and grow, and grow! You might call it goal-setting. I call it crazy. $2000 per month is only $24,000 per year -- not all that much if you're considering writing full-time. On top of that, do you have any idea how difficult it would be for most writers to hit 100,000 pageviews (nonetheless a million)? It's not a quick process. Most people will work long and hard to ever hit their dream numbers.

And that's so silly! Why should you write dozens to hundreds of articles in the hopes that you might eventually earn a few hundred to a few grand each month, when you can write far fewer articles each month and earn even more money. Currently I charge $105-200 as the base rate for my Web content articles (up front). The price depends on the length. Let's assume we're talking about pretty short articles (no more than 300 words each, which is less than some networks require per piece) and even round it down to an even $100 just to keep things simple. Here's a breakdown of how many short articles I'd have to write each month to earn the same dollar amounts listed above (guaranteed, and minus any post-writing marketing work):

$20 -- 1
$50 -- 1
$100 -- 1
$150 -- 2
$200 -- 2
$400 -- 4
$600 -- 6
$800 -- 8
$1000 -- 10
$2000 -- 20

None of that is terribly difficult, even at a very modest rate (I have colleagues who would slap me repeatedly for even suggesting $100 per article as a relatively "high" rate -- and were we talking about magazine features, I'd wholeheartedly agree with them). But even at 20 articles per month, that's just one article a day Monday - Friday. And we're not talking about detailed features here; we're talking about relatively simple Web content (it can take me anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to put most of them together writing-wise because I almost always write in my specialty area where I don't have to spend hours researching -- I suggest any other writer do the same).

I currently know writers who were sucked into the $5 per article market. They too originally thought they were getting a fair deal. Eventually though, they start to burn out - writing ten or more articles every single day. Yuck! I don't know about you, but that kind of lifestyle sure as hell isn't why I decided to work for myself. Let's look at the above numbers one more time, but with even lower pricing expectations. Let's say that $5 article writer grew some cajones and decided to increase their rate five times to $25 per article. Any way you cut it, it's a significant increase for the writer. Here's what they'd have to write each month to earn the above figures (the prices in parentheses are what they would have earned for those same articles at their original rate).

$20 -- 1 ($5)
$50 -- 2 ($10)
$100 -- 4 ($20)
$150 -- 6 ($30)
$200 -- 8 ($40)
$400 -- 16 ($80)
$600 -- 24 ($120)
$800 -- 32 ($160)
$1000 -- 40 ($200)
$2000 -- 80 ($400)

Eighty articles a month sure doesn't sound like fun to me, but figuring four weeks a month and five work days a week, that's only four articles a day -- not so awful when again we're talking about articles that can easily take less than an hour to write and be ready for delivery.

It's really not that bad when you factor in that they'd previously had to churn out more than twice that many articles each day at their old rate. For them, four articles could be a real relief. There's also no risk involved (as in will or won't these articles eventually lead to them getting paid each month), and gigs at those rates aren't difficult to find (especially if you bother to know your market and the middlemen clients operating within it).

It's an even better deal when you stop thinking only about the time residual income writers spend writing, and also factor in the hours many of them spend promoting their sites or articles (meaning the guaranteed pay writer, even at pretty low rates, could easily be earning more money). Not only could they be earning more, but they could be earning those rates much more quickly than someone trying to build a million pageviews monthly (or an equivalent in ad revenue share).

Let's look at another set of numbers now -- the kind residual income writers like to throw around. Hypothetically, let's say you're thrilled to be earning $200 per month from a residual income site. You think it's the greatest gig in the world (well, until the next Google algorithm change or other cause of lost traffic - which affects not only pay per pageview models, but also ad revenue sharing models). You have 100 articles up on the site. Let's say the number's static instead of you adding more for simplicity's sake.

How much are you really earning? Um, $2 per article. Yes, that's $2 per article every month. A big pat on the back to you! Oh wait. That's only $24 per article per year. Hmmmm.

You might (big might since your income is never guaranteed) earn more than that $25 article writer... after a year. But to earn as much as even one of my shorter, lower-end articles, you'd have to leave that article online for four years. Four years! Not all content networks even survive that long! But wait. If you want to earn the $200 per article on my upper end for Web content (my more typical base rate), your article would have to be live and earning consistently for eight years. Now you're just friggin' insane if you think you can earn more that way. Ad networks change, merge, and fold. Content networks change their payout policies often enough (even the big guys). And content gets outdated, meaning many articles run the risk of losing traffic over the long run. You'd have to keep publishing more and more articles just to earn consistently or make modest increases. On top of that, what's that $200 going to be worth eight years from now. Hell, I'd rather have it all up front to spend, save, or invest as I please (potentially turning it into even more money -- truly effortlessly).


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I'm not sharing my base rates with you to rub it in. They're publicly available on my business site, and I don't try to hide them. I'm sharing them here as an example. They're far from "high" rates in the professional spectrum. The lowest rate I currently charge anyone is for a client who's been with me for ages. Even on an old rate they came in with, it's still more than $70 per article).  I have to turn down clients almost daily because my schedule is so consistently filled. There are people out there willing to pay you guaranteed amounts, and more than a pittance.

I tell you how to do it here on this blog. I tell you how to do it at QueryFreeFreelancer.com. I tell writers how to do it on forums. But do you know what? More often than not I just get the same "woe is me" crap from writers who don't value themselves.

There's nothing special about me. I earn what I earn because I decided what my time was worth. I chose a specialty area where I have credentials and experience to back me up. But do you know something else? Even when I was new to Web writing, I didn't settle for many garbage jobs. One of my earliest was $.35 per word, because I knew how to use my network and make a case for hiring me. My point in sharing my rates isn't to gloat. It's to say "Wake the hell up! You can do it too!"

Residual Income: The Solution

Stop and crunch the real numbers -- not the traffic or ad revenue ideals. What can you realistically expect? How long would it take you to go full-time using residual pay models as opposed to getting paid outright? While there may be very few exceptions to the rule (and no, the $2000 per month crowd aren't exceptions), most writers can earn significantly more (and soon enough that they can actually put the money to good use) by writing for private clients. Whether or not you actually do depends entirely on you.

Lazy writers won't do it. Leave them to the content networks. Writers who undervalue themselves probably won't do it either. Leave them to residual earnings too. But I honestly don't believe most writers working for these sites are lazy. I think they're misled. I think there's a little bit of fear involved with some who haven't gone out and "sold themselves" before. And I think there are plenty who really want to earn more but who don't know where to start (in fact, I know there are as I'm still friendly with quite a few network writers I used to work with over the years).

Look. If you're happy with residual sites, because you don't want to be bothered finding clients (or building your visibility in more productive ways to help them find you), then good for you. Residual sites might be fine and dandy for hobby writers or those who don't want to go out there and work their asses off to grow their businesses.

But if you're a serious professional who wants a thriving career where you earn what you want to earn, get to pick and choose your gigs because you're never desperate for them, and don't have to constantly prowl the job boards any more, then residual sites are not your best option. And newsflash: professionals find ways to work smarter. If you're not getting the best return for your time (and a predictable and measurable return at that), then you're doing something wrong and you need to re-think your business plan.

For those writers who do want to make a change, but who still like the idea of residual income, or more flexibility in what or when they write, be sure to check out my next post. I'll share a story about how I took one of my blogs from launch day to earning over $2000 per month in just a few months. I'll tell you how you can earn more with a blog or niche content site of your own (while never having to worry that you might be let go, with all of your marketing work being for nothing in the end). And I'll hopefully be able to show you why earning residual income writing for yourself beats residual income writing for others every time (as long as you know how to do it -- and I'll help you with that).

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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39 Comments

  1. Rachel September 2, 2009 Reply

    Thank you for this post. It was truly an eye-opener for me. As I am fairly new to the world of freelance writing, I have stumbled across those revenue share sites and plunged in. Now I am rethinking my direction with writing online. My biggest hurdle seems to be ignorance- where do I start? How do I find these private clients, and do I need to invest money upfront to make the money I want to earn?

    Anxiously looking forward to your next post!

    • Jennifer Mattern September 2, 2009 Reply

      If it helped even one writer open their eyes to better possibilities, then the post did it’s job, so thanks for the comment. :)

      As for your questions:

      1. Before you jump in, I strongly suggest that you spend a day or so reading content from bloggers in the niche (besides here, you should take a look at www.FreelanceWriterville.com, www.AboutFreelanceWriting.com, and www.ChrisBlogging.com) and skimming through some info in freelance writing books (imo the best by far are The Wealthy Writer, The Well-Fed Writer, and The Renegade Writer). You’ll get a lot of background that way. You can also read some of the specific articles from this blog below to give you some good starting info:

      - Setting Freelance Writing Rates the Right Way
      - Lessons on Freelance Writing From the Dating Scene
      - Why Marketing Freelance Writing Services on Price is a Big No-No
      - Five Step Plan for Setting and Achieving Goals for Your Freelance Writing Career
      - How to Choose a Specialty as a Freelance Writer
      - How to Get High Paying Freelance Writing Jobs
      - 3 Ways to Find Those Elusive Unadvertised Freelance Writing Jobs
      - 51 Places to Find Freelance Writing and Blogging Jobs
      - Setting Freelance Writing Rates the Right Way

      2. The absolute best way to find private clients is to make them find you instead. You have to set yourself apart from the competition, you have to build visibility, and you have to build your network. At the same time you have to make some money early on, so there’s nothing wrong with querying or looking for advertised jobs in the early phases (even though I’m a huge proponent of query-free freelancing — hence my other blog on the topic). To find advertised gigs, read the article I linked you to above listing 51 places to check, or just read this blog, FreelanceWritingGigs.com, and AboutFreelanceWriting.com regularly, since we all post job leads for you to save you time on searching yourself).

      3. I spent very little money to get started. I still very rarely spend money on advertising or other forms of marketing. The majority of my spending goes towards domain names and hosting, because I run several of my own websites and blogs. But if you choose to start a blog and / or professional site, domains are less than $10 per year and hosting can be gotten for less than $10 per month (and your site will more than make up for those costs by attracting just a gig or two you wouldn’t have landed otherwise). So no, you really don’t have to invest much at all if you want to make money. That said, I’d be skeptical of any writer being serious about making a career of it if they wouldn’t even invest those small amounts into getting their professional site and portfolio up on the Web. In this day and age that’s simply non-negotiable for many types of freelance writers (the exception maybe being those who focus exclusively on print work).

  2. Trina L. Grant September 2, 2009 Reply

    I tried (not very hard, truthfully) to make money on Helium and Triond. I never actually made enough money from Helium to get a paycheck, since they have a $25 miniumum payment rule. Triond pays me, literally, like $.04 a month. Paypal gets like one cent, so it’s not even worth mentioning. I don’t even bother to open the emails telling me I’ve received a payment anymore.

    That being said, Helium was the very first writing I did online, and my first article went to #1 of 40-something (still there!) immediately. That little boost of confidence is what set me off on this awesome career, I have to say. I would be writing professionally even without that, but it was still pretty cool. I don’t think those sites can really be viewed as legitimate ways to make money, however. Yes, like you said, Jenn, money can be made. But, good grief, sonsider how much work you have to do. So, you have two extremes with those sites: You write a gazillion articles for a decent chunk of money (if the other members vote you up there), and then you sit back and do nothing and rake in the dough? It just doesn’t make sense. Those sites are great for getting your feet wet, but not for long-term success.

    Anyone who wants to have a legitimate business has to work hard, and keep working hard. Any business person with half a brain is going to guage how much money they are going to make against how much work they will have to do. People who truly want to succeed for doing quality work will take the smart, realistic route.

  3. Trina L. Grant September 2, 2009 Reply

    I started my first blog on Blogger, which is free. My website is hosted by Microsoft Office Live and it was free. Try this address for a free website at MOL: http://home.officelive.com/Signup/ I started by literally going to my Goodsearch search bar and typing in, I swear, “freelance writing” and that was it. I followed every link I found. I read everything I could find that had anything to do with freelance writing.

    Join LinkedIn and join writers’ groups. Get on Twitter and start talking. Start blogging at least a couple of times a week. Ask lots of questions. Mostly, though, my advice is read, read, read. Look up all those links Jennifer supplied. Get the feeds to every freelance blog worth reading, and read as much as you can. Seriously, all those bloggers out there talking about freelance writing really know their stuff. They have been, bar-none, the best source of learning and research for me.

    You won’t be able to learn everything overnight. It takes time and patience, for sure. If you don’t have a lot of patience and tenacity, you better find some. Those two virtues are going to keep you from going insane. Oh, one thing that bothered me when I started my career was I didn’t have the money to pay a coach, and you don’t just want to go around asking people how to do their job so you can make money. Anyway, I’m glad to help anyone who has questions, so feel free to ask. I probably would have cried with relief if someone had come out and said that to me in the beginning. Good luck!

    BTW Jennifer: I love that preview feature under the comment box. Uber-cool!

  4. Clint September 2, 2009 Reply

    I tried writing for Suite101 for awhile. It was a waste of time when I realized that my awful unkempt Blogger personal blog made more money in a month than the articles I’d written for Suite101. I think the appeal for people is the clear goals to reach. Frankly, I’d say it’s hardly worth it for reasons you’ve cited.

  5. Allena September 2, 2009 Reply

    Oh my do I ever like you right now Jennifer. I’d also suggest that those who write for XX network consider keeping track of all their hours: every hour writing every article, every hour promoting it, every hour researching, every hour spent saying :read my stuff” and then divide that out over a year of earnings, and tell me what your true hourly rate is. Cause, umm, mine is low end $50, high end over $100!

    Another thing, I will not hire writers who cite Suite101, Examiner and etc as one of their references. It does scream amateur. I’d rather see the free brochure you did for a local non-profit as a clip!

  6. Clint September 2, 2009 Reply

    Allena, good point. The blog I’ve been doing for free has gotten me more jobs than anything else. Now that you mention it, however, I should probably remove references to Suite101…

  7. Jennifer Mattern September 3, 2009 Reply

    @trina – Just be careful if you use Office Live. I setup a site when them when that was new, and while I can’t remember what the problem was initially, there was a reason I wanted to change to a normal host pretty quickly. Trying to get the domain name moved from them later was a slight nightmare. It’s fine if you plan to stay there and use their tools and such, but I don’t think you have as much freedom in what you’re able to host (maybe that’s changed by now though).

    @Allena – That’s exactly what the problem is for a lot of writers. They don’t really know how much time is being put into that site. They’ll devote far more hours than they realize, eventually become disenfranchised or let go, and that’s when it will sink in and they’re realize if they’d put that same time into their own, they’d be in a much better place instead of starting over.

    @Clint – I think they’re still sitting on my client list from the old editor stint. One of these days I have to go in and edit a lot of things there, including removing them. I remember being told that they wouldn’t give me a recommendation (or something along those lines) b/c I talked about some of the crap going on there in an effort to protect other writers. All I could do was laugh at the fact that they really thought I’d ever use them as a referral to begin with. If anything, I consider that the biggest black mark on my career thus far, and I’m ashamed of the fact that I ever recruited other writers into one of those content mills. So yeah. Consider erasing that on my great big to-do list. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Rynn September 7, 2009 Reply

    Great post, Jennifer! I hope all would-be content writers see this. I too was briefly (very briefly) lured into the whole residual income racket. The writing on the site was mostly pretty awful and (as you mentioned) the amount of articles needed to create any decent sort of monthly income was ridiculous. The majority of “writers” on the site had never been professionally published, yet referred to themselves as “writers” at every turn.

    Any freelance writer worth his/salt would stay far away from these sites and leave them to the amateurs and hobbyists.

  9. Rynn September 7, 2009 Reply

    I meant “his/her salt.” Yikes, long day!

  10. Melissa September 7, 2009 Reply

    Just a few thoughts on rev share from the perspective of someone who’s returned to the freelance world after a long-term departure (read: back in the good ol’ days of print). These sites can provide an excellent training ground for learning how to write for SEO, so I cannot fault them for being an excellent way to ascertain if I’m doing a good job. But moreover, they’re an excellent tool to test the waters of a potential niche market, as they tell you what subject matter continually gets a big draw. I look at writing for rev share sites as a testing site, to so speak. If I make a couple of hundred dollars a month out of it, that’s cushion–not a pay day.

    Lest we forget why these sites exist: to drive traffic and to inspire ad clicks. And here is where there is a huge departure from freelance writer to content provider, and to my mind the difference is quite clear. If you want to write, rev share is not the place to do it. But if you want to write good copy that sells a good or service, they provide an excellent opportunity for the marketing-minded to get it all sorted out. Bottom line: If you want to make money off of any rev share site, you cannot write what you want, and you cannot style it the way you want. It’s got to be about the sale. And that’s why so many people are disappointed when rev share doesn’t work out for them. Just as there are many people who make $2000 on 300 articles, there are many more who only make $30 on the same number.

    Cheers — and great blog!

    • Jennifer Mattern September 7, 2009 Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts all. :)

      @Melissa – That’s actually another common argument for content sites. However, having worked with several I can tell you they aren’t always the greatest instructors in SEO (Suite was clueless about a lot of things when I was there, from SEO basics to not knowing the difference between forums and message boards to not understanding why blogs were supposed to have comments instead of linking to those message boards). While About was better on the SEO front, writers really don’t learn how to compete in optimizing for the Web. That’s because your SEO work can be godawful and your articles will still rank well on About, just because About is considered an authority site (which is silly in some cases) and has been around for over a decade (which search engines give more weight to). So it would be a mistake to assume that because your articles rank well on naturally high-ranked content sites you would be able to write effective SEO content from private freelance clients later. It doesn’t directly translates unfortunately, so in that sense I’d say there are far better ways to “train” (like taking a brand new blog of your own to rank well for competitive keyword phrases using the advice of top SEO pros who stay on top of industry changes, ethics behind SEO, etc.).

      You also have to factor in that for those wanting to transition from content sites to true freelancing, those content sites can prove to be a black mark on their reputation. They simply don’t do much for a portfolio compared to getting decent smaller gigs or having your own site to show you understand other aspects of writing and publishing on the Web. In other words, they won’t often leave a content network and move on to high-paying gigs. They’ll start low (just as low as they would have started if they were being trained on the job as a new writers pre-network). And by low I’m not talking dirt cheap rates either. A new writer with almost no marketing ability can still bring in $20-25 per SEO article, and those who can market themselves should be earning at least around $50 early in the game (and potentially more). For those writers who do want to transition, content sites are often the equivalent of putting their career on hold.

  11. Trina L. Grant September 7, 2009 Reply

    The following is off-topic, but I felt obligated to respectfully respond to Rynn’s comment. Freelance writing is a very cut-throat business, as we all know. People often pour their hearts and souls into their writing, whatever their level of intelligence or education. I am a big believer in writers encouraging each other, not beating each other down. It bothers me when I see comments that call into question the legitimacy of another person’s self-proclaimed designation of ‘writer’. I have not yet earned a college degree. I have never had a book published or an article in a print magazine. I would have to say the title ‘writer’ is relative. Who is any one person to say anyone else is not a ‘real’ writer? Except for the truly clueless who are writing ONLY to make a buck sitting at home in their pajamas, it is admirable for people to put themselves out there despite lack of skill, or formal training, or whatever the official standard for being a ‘writer’ is. As Rynn herself proved, no one is perfect. Jennifer, I sincerely apologize for going off-topic with this comment, but I felt like I should say it. It is important to me to be in an environment where I am supported and encouraged by my colleagues and peers. That is part of the draw of this type of work, because in the ‘real’ world you don’t often find such encouragement. Again, I apologize for taking up time and space, but I felt obligated to say this.

  12. Jennifer Mattern September 7, 2009 Reply

    I don’t think you went off-topic at all Trina. I will say that I disagree however.

    I’m one of those “clueless” who writes for money. If I didn’t earn from this blog, I wouldn’t write it. If I didn’t earn from clients, I certainly wouldn’t work in business writing. And when I work on fictional projects, it’s with the intention of it becoming an income stream.

    “Writer” in the context of sites like this and the audience that comes here implies a certain level of professionalism (or at least a desire to reach that level). If anything, as a professional I find it quite offensive that everyone and their brother calls themselves a “writer” just because they threw some (often crappy) content up on some site that didn’t think it was worth paying for up front. I don’t hop in the pool and call myself a professional swimmer. I don’t take a snapshot and call myself a photographer. I don’t finger paint and call myself an artist. At the very least, I’d never have the gall to say those things when in the company of real professionals and masters of their craft. And as a writer I feel professionals deserve that same respect, rather than have cheap garbage passed off as professional or anything even close to it.

    That is what many content sites do, and it’s something many writers very naively buy into. For those writers, they don’t need hand-holding or coddling or “oh, how special for you” support. They need a serious wake-up call and they need to snap into action to get away from those sites and their respective image if they ever want to be real “writers” in the context of the freelance business.

    That’s not to say other people can’t write, and even be good at it. But to be a writer in the sense of profession (the only definition that matters in the context and scope of what we talk about here), content sites rarely cut it.

    I hope that helps to clarify another perspective, and why so many professionals have a problem with every Joe Schmo calling themselves a “writer” these days.

  13. Melissa September 8, 2009 Reply

    Jennifer,

    I totally agree with your last post. An unfortunate aspect of the Internet is that anyone can be what they want to be — whether they really are or not. But it’s not just about writing; take a look at social networking sites. If you browse through Myspace, you’d get the impression that the U.S. is filled with “professional” photographers, artists, models, actors, musicians, “novelists,” and so on. Herein lies the difficulty in distinguishing professional writers from nonwriters, or professional musicians from those who like to play around with Garage Band.

    Those of us who’ve made writing a profession have only our track records — usually in print — to back it up. There was a time when I wouldn’t even consider writing anything for under $1 a word; usually $2 was the going rate.

    When all is said and done, I can’t fault the average person who’s adept at content writing for playing around with rev share sites — as long as the income they derive from them is considered extra income to pay a couple of bills or that gets added to discretionary income at the end of the month. The recession has made it tough for a lot of people. But my concern is that some have put all their efforts into one site — which may or may not be around next year or even next month. Gotta know when to jump that ship.

  14. Niche Momma September 8, 2009 Reply

    This is a good dose of reality, however, I did want to comment on why I do ad revenue writing.

    I’ve done freelance and have asked for decent rates and met resistance. I find that all the people willing to take bottom dollar outnumber me and make it impossible for me to command top dollar.

    And the deadlines are impossible. I had to beg for 2 days on a 500 word piece that required finding and reading over 100 pages of obscure research to write. With a small child at home, I cannot meet these short deadlines and provide top notch content. Kudos to those who can, but it’s beyond my capabilities. Frankly, the clients I’ve dealt with are crazy. I gently fired them and they still harass me, trying to get me to write content for them on the cheap.

    So I focus on ad revenue. I know I’m not going to get rich, but I’d be happy with a few hundred dollars a month. I can write when I have time. I can pick any topic that interests me. Plus, I’m getting better at the SEO game and my earnings reflect that.

    Ad revenue has flaws and pitfalls, but there is money to be made. It can be a good fit in some cases.

    M

    • Jennifer Mattern September 8, 2009 Reply

      M – thanks for your thoughts. It sounds like the problem in your case was that you might have been targeting the wrong market (happens a lot). If those working at bottom dollar rates are in any way affecting your ability to attract clients at higher rates, you’re focusing on the wrong competition. They’re not your competition, and have no effect on what higher paying clients are paying (they’re the clients who know that price has nothing to do with “value” and it’s not a top consideration in choosing their writers – if anything, some go with higher priced writers by default because those who charge too little give off the impression that they’re not experienced enough for the job).

      I have regulars who occasionally want quick turnaround, and I try to accommodate. But if my schedule won’t allow for it, I simply let them know. It’s rarely a problem, and they know my schedule’s usually full. It’s important to be clear about your availability up front. It’s no one’s business if your availability is set by your family obligations or something else — just when they can expect you to be available, and what kind of turnaround you’re capable of. I find that those issues have been extremely rare since I started posting turnaround estimates on my website for particular projects.

      So if you’re meeting resistance, change who you’re targeting. We have a post up at as a part of our 30 day marketing bootcamp going on now that covers how to do it (look at days 1 – 3 specifically).

  15. Rynn September 8, 2009 Reply

    “If anything, as a professional I find it quite offensive that everyone and their brother calls themselves a ‘writer’ just because they threw some (often crappy) content up on some site that didn’t think it was worth paying for it up front.”

    Very well put, Jennifer.

    For me a “writer” is someone who has the skill, talent and experience to command payment for their work. Anyone who does not is an “aspiring writer” or a hobbyist. Similar to what Jennifer mentioned, I would never take a few piano lessons and call myself a “musician” or label myself a “lawyer” because I take an interest in law and have read a bunch of legal books in my spare time.

    Like many professions, a writing career takes years to grow, with a lot of learning and sacrifice along the way. I have a journalism degree (not that this is necessarily a prerequisite) took on several tough internships and even now, am still developing as a writer and expanding my career. It is a long road that takes persistence and dedication and can bruise your ego at times. My above comment was not meant to “tear anyone down,” on the contrary, it was to support fellow writers who have worked really hard to get where they are in an indeed cutthroat industry.

    And yes, I believe content sites are not a good business model for “real” (as in professional) freelance writers. And I also believe that those who have only ever published on such sites have no business calling themselves “writers.”

    I am actually surprised that anyone would be insulted by this.

  16. Laurie Tam September 13, 2009 Reply

    Hi there.

    I am on some residual income sites and I must admit that I am not happy with the income that I get. At least with one site, I was getting between $30-$50 a month and so far since they deleted some of the articles I have, it’s down to 73 from 106.

    I knew about writing for myself in order to earn residual income. One guy in fact complain about Associated Content on workathomenoscams.com Long story short, the guy deleted his account already before blasting it to everyone on that site about the editors are just there to get your contents for them to make money. i would like to outearn what I am getting right now because this is just rediculous and I have been a writer over a year now. I need something change where I would get paid of what I’m worth.

  17. Laurie Tam September 13, 2009 Reply

    Oh yeah. The site from 106 articles to 73 is at ehow.com
    I haven’t even reach the payout limit yet. There are a few writng residual income sites that claim to pay their writers 100% from the adsense on their articles. I wonder if those are worth it to write at.

  18. Anne Wayman October 2, 2009 Reply

    Jenn, excellent… good job… so good in fact I blogged you ;)
    http://www.aboutfreelancewriting.com/2009/10/a-truth-about-residual-income-sites/

  19. Carol Tice October 2, 2009 Reply

    Great reality check on the content sites, Jennifer, from one who’s clearly been there. I was with you all the way until you said the rates you charge now that you’re off those sites. Still peanuts! Of course you’re constantly busy…often a sign that you’re undercharging.

    I make a high five-figure living from writing and teach others how to find good-paying clients and markets and get steady assignments…hope I can help you and some of your commenters! I answer questions about breaking into good-paying freelance work at my Start Freelance Writing blog on my site.

    Get paid what you’re worth, all!

    Carol Tice
    http://www.caroltice.com
    http://Twitter.com/TiceWrites

    • Jennifer Mattern October 2, 2009 Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts Carol. While I don’t proclaim to be one of the highest earners in the freelance writing game, I often average in the $100-400 per hour range — not sure I’d call that “peanuts.” ;) And keep in mind I was giving examples on the low end of my spectrum, and an example of what I earned starting out — not what makes up the bulk of my work (which is significantly higher than the $70 per quick article that one of my oldest clients gets).

  20. Devon Ellington October 2, 2009 Reply

    Excellent, excellent article, and emphasizes why Lori Widmer (Words on the Page, http://loriwidmer.blogspot.com) started Writers’ Worth Day.

    I pay the bills with my pen, and I am damned good at what I do. I am not going to be paid $1 for a whole article to get “exposure” and maybe-someday get residuals. I want to know what I’m paid and get it per contract, in a reasonable amount of time.

    Clients get what they pay for. If they pay crap, they get crap. yeah, plenty of writers for those sites jump all over me whenever I say it, but it’s true. Let’s face it, if the writers were good enough to earn a living wage somewhere else, that’s what they’d be doing. Not writing 20 articles/week for $1/article.

    I have clients who admit to me that if they see a content site on a resume, they immediately delete the pitch, because they’ve been burned too badly by the low quality of those writers in the past.

    I’ve lost clients to lower bidders who specialize in mill content sites and almost every single one of them has come back, apologizing and horrified at the poor quality of writing that was turned in — and they come back to me at a higher rate than they left.

    However, I also get ROYALTIES on my work, which is a whole different ball of wax from RESIDUALS on one of those mill content sites. I’ve got some good contracts for royalties on the fiction and plays, at fair rates, and they prove that my work holds up over time.

    And let me tell you, that last royalty check that covered the emergency visit to the vet the other night came just at the right time!

  21. Lori October 2, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for the plug, Devon, and the alert to this excellent post! Jennifer, you’re my new best friend. :)) Everything you said is true – from the lousy pay scales to the people who accept them. Look, writers who want to build a credible reputation cannot take these jobs. Everything you do as a writer reflects on your values, your level of expertise, and your capabilities. If I were hiring and saw thirty clips from a content mill against another writer’s 4 clips from established publications, guess who I’d hire? The writer who puts extra effort into the career is the writer who’s going to do the same for my project.

    It’s like working for free. You’re working for free if you allow people to exploit you for ad revenue or view rates. As I’ve said over and over (I preach this particular topic a lot), if you can’t make minimum wage at your writing, rethink. McDonald’s pays more and that looks MUCH better on a resume than giving away your work to virtual thieves.

  22. Angela West October 2, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jennifer:

    Great article, and if you don’t mind I’m going to post a link on my site as well on Monday. You absolutely nailed revenue sharing to the wall and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 2, 2009 Reply

      Go for it Angela. You don’t need my permission to link to my posts. And I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

  23. Maria (WriterGig) November 10, 2009 Reply

    While writing my own niche sites, ebooks and print books is my current focus, one residual income site has stood head and shoulders above the rest and provided an excellent platform for me to contribute content and earn very well — eHow. Three of my eHow articles have earned over $1,000 each to date. They took me 30 minutes to an hour to write. The site has such excellent page rank that I have not needed to promote the articles.

    Forty-two articles so far have made more than $100 apiece. Keep in mind that total time invested in these 300-500 word content articles ranged from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours. The hourly rate so far is excellent, and it improves as they earn more money month after month.

    Residual income is my business model; using a content site as one piece of that pie works very, very well for me.

    • Jennifer Mattern November 10, 2009 Reply

      While I’m happy it’s worked out for you I do want to note something and ask a few questions for the benefit of those who hear these stories and feel tempted to simply jump into these kinds of sites:

      1. It’s important to note that $1000 per article via a content mill is the exception and very far from the rule.

      2. There’s still a big difference between having that $100-1000 up front or on publication than in small amounts over several months or even years (as noted in the article, then you’re able to save or invest it rather than seeing the small trickle of income).

      3. You mention that you have 42 articles that have made $100 or more. Just for curiosity’s sake, how long does it take for most to reach that level and how many articles have you written in total, including the ones that didn’t earn to that level?

  24. Vincent November 23, 2009 Reply

    Thanks Jennifer,I am glad I found your blog.
    I will try and read up each post of yours.

    You have very well explained that article sites are not a good place even for beginners and they stall one’s progress.
    Please tell me where and how to start then ?

    • Jennifer Mattern November 23, 2009 Reply

      Thanks for stopping by Vincent. There is no “where.” There’s no place to start a career that I can direct you to. It varies quite a lot from one writer to the next. What doesn’t vary as much is the general process — choose a specialty, build a platform, and build a network with the right target market in mind.

      If you don’t already have a professional site, I would suggest that as a possible starting place (especially if you plan to write for the Web or do any kind of business writing / commercial writing). If you want to learn more about writer platforms, I have a separate blog devoted to that – where you can find a list of 30 things you can do to start building your writer platform (I believe it’s in the “build a platform” category — one of the original posts).

  25. Prerna April 12, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jenn,
    Thanks for sharing this. While I do write for several residual income sites, I also have a few good private clients as well as other writing gigs to take care of the bills. My reasons for writing for residual sites are a lil different – I enjoy the networking, learning and sharing that most of the sites allow. Since am from India, clients automaticaly assume I’ll charge peanuts and that puts me at a slight disadvantge and residual sites help me to make up for that. I like the fact that income builds up (hopefully!) and also, I like to have different eggs in the writing basket.
    But yes, my eventual plan is to freelance and only freelance. So, let’s see when and how that happens!
    Thanks for sharing this and I know its an old post but had to comment:-)

  26. Bonnie April 28, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jenn,

    Thanks for the blog post. I got suckered in to the whole residual income thing with Ehow. I thought it possible to earn decent money from home, but had my doubts at the same time. I wrote & polished 16 articles as a test and so far have earned a whopping $6.83 for my troubles. While I’m sure there are those, like the much touted WriterGig, who earn good money on residual income, they are the exceptions. Think about it logically – can that many people really be earning $1000/month in residual income? I don’t think so; the web sites would go broke. Thanks for confirming what I already suspected. I will read through you other recommendations to finding real writing gigs!

    • Jennifer Mattern April 28, 2010 Reply

      What those “exceptions” often fail to mention is how much time and effort really has to go into earning that amount — talking thousands of articles and active promotion. $1000 per month is pretty meaningless when you look at all the facts in some of these cases — woohoo, a whole $1 per article per month. You’d be better off focusing on something like $50 per article projects (still pretty low pay even for quick Web content), write 20 pieces per month at that rate, and have more time for yourself and your own projects (the better way to earn decent residual income). Just in that example you’d only write 240 articles per year to earn the same amount the 1000 articles were earning residually. That’s money up front — money that can go into savings and investments to make even more money or put towards interest-charging debts that cost you too much. There’s no excuse for anyone to wait years for full payment on articles written, especially given that there’s no guarantee Web content today will still be all that relevant a year from now. That’s not a writing career — it’s a gamble.

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