Why Low Paying Gigs Are and Are Not Your Problem

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Bright Hub (a content mill I used to write for) inviting me to help them write some 60 titles for a private client commission for about $20 a pop. Another content mill, Demand Studios, recently partnered with USA Today to start providing travel tips for their website.   To some writers, these partnerships and commissions are clearly a sign that the freelance writing sky is falling and we are all going to have to be happy working for pennies before you know it.

I have always been surprised by the writers who argue that cheap writers, cheap clients and mills are pulling down the pay that everyone in the industry receives. As someone who has been lucky enough to manage a comfortable transition from content mill writer to full time writer with clients who pay well, I have a different take on the situation—I think the content mills, low paying gigs and the writers who take on these gigs are actually helping your business.

Reason 1: Client Differentiation

The existence of low paying clients has made it easier than ever to define your market. I fully realized this last week when I got the invitation from Bright Hub. The content they were commissioned to create was for a website that has a forum dedicated to discussion of a certain popular movie that is about to come out on DVD. All the article titles had the name of the movie in them and were very repetitive. The site owner was obviously trying to create SEO fodder.

Writing just a few of these 500 word articles at $20 a pop would have been monotonous and terrible. But I also realized that it is exactly the type of assignment I would never take on within my current business model. No matter what kind of topic I write about, I take on gigs that need articles with intrinsic value. Articles that teach, entertain and promote authority--not articles that simply bring in clicks--and that is what gives your articles a value that cheap clients can't afford, which is why they are not your target market.

Reason 2: Some Good Writers are Out of Your Pool

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.

Reason 3: It's Hard To Make It

Let's say you need to gross at least $55,000 per year to live comfortably. If you were to try to make this working for an average of .04 per word (which is more than many content mills and low paying clients pay) then you would need to write an average of 52 articles per week every week of the year (which means no vacation or sick time). I don’t know about you, but if I had to write about 10 articles every day 5 days per week with no break ever I wouldn’t last very long. That means that not only are the writers who are doing this not out there competing with you but they will probably give up sooner than they would if they found the same success as you, which again keeps them from ever reaching your market.

What You Should be Worried About

Just because your business is safe, that doesn't mean that content mills, low paying clients and the writers who encourage them aren't damaging the industry in some form or another. The net is filled with crap content that somehow manages to rank highly, all-purpose websites like Ehow show up in Google search results as though they are topic experts while they bury real authority content, article writers are using Wiki or some other single source to create their own derivative (and basically plagiarized) content, there is little fact checking going on, and traditional journalistic standards are not being followed. (As an example of this, one Demand-produced USA Today piece featured a health and technology writer writing about getting hotel upgrades. This could have been saved by the addition of in-article citations, interviews or something kind of , oh, journalism-y). These are things that I personally think more of us should be upset about and complaining about. But that's just me.

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Yo Prinzel

16 Comments

  1. Carson Brackney April 30, 2010 Reply

    Gee, don’t you know that the only way you can get people all riled up and excited about this topic is to make insane generalizations about the quality of work created by writers who take lower-paying products? You’re supposed to accuse them of being plagiarizing bottom feeders (with bonus points if you sneakily intimate that they may be–gasp–“foreigners”).

    Letting the world know that there are different marketplaces for different kinds of work and for different writers is… Well, it’s just not the kind of thing that gets the blood boiling.

    If you didn’t want to attack cheap writers, you could’ve at least attacked their clients. You could have mocked them for their ignorance or explained how their sick and perverted greed and exploitative nature was condemning everyone with a keyboard to the equivalent of indentured servitude. That usually gets the conversation started!

    Then again, I suppose someone needs to be rational, huh?

    By the way, I agree with you for the most part. I can’t resist adding that there are specific individuals and certain circumstances that don’t necessarily fit your overall perspective. For instance, when I did a lot of straight content work for cheaper rates I earned well in excess of $55k gross without breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean it was super-delicious-awesome or that I recommend that approach for everyone. I just think it’s important to note that there may be some people on the short side of the pricing graph who are making reasonable professional decisions.

    Now that I snuck my regular caveat into the comments, I’ll go back to work.

  2. Carson Brackney April 30, 2010 Reply

    I primarily did work for individual clients. Personally, I don’t think I could manage sufficient output if I was working for a site like DS. When I’m in charge of “making the rules,” things happen faster. Plus, that creates openings to custom-tailor content that will better meet client needs, anyway.

    That technique worked for me because I am an extremely fast researcher and because I can type like the wind. The fact that I’m one of those hard-assed determined people who refuse to yield to things like writer’s block and who doesn’t mind actually writing for long stretches at a time didn’t hurt, either.

    I won’t bore you with all of the details re: the evolution of my business model. Basically, it boiled down to finding better ways to apply the knowledge I gained over time, my desire for constant experimentation and good old-fashioned greed, I suppose.

    For what it’s worth, I still make time in my schedule for some of that work. It’s a good way for me to force myself to actually write every single day and when the right opportunities in the right topics are available, the money isn’t horrific. For instance, the first thing I did this morning was to write a handful of el cheapo articles for someone with whom I’ve worked for several years. The hour I spent on them activated my sleepy brain, loosened my fingers and put about $60 in my pocket.

    I know that many people will say, “but you could’ve billed $XXX for that same time.” They’d be right, too. Sort of. What they overlook when they say that is how easy the work can actually be and how easy it is to secure it. I have no doubt that I could glue my ass to the chair for five solid hours per day, churning out the content and the remaining three hours per day would be more than enough time to take a nap and reload with more work. Run the numbers and you’ll see how that adds up–about $75k with 5-day weeks and 2 weeks off. It ain’t great, but I wouldn’t starve, either.

    Now, before anyone reads this and jumps all over me… I am NOT recommending that for other people unless it really fits them, their skills and their preferences. It isn’t for everyone and it’s silly to pretend that it is.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel April 30, 2010 Reply

      I said it above and I’ll say it again, making your business evolve is the key.

  3. Yo Prinzel Author
    Yo Prinzel April 30, 2010 Reply

    You are right Carson, I’ve approached this in completely the wrong manner. *sigh*

    AND WHERE DO YOU GET OFF DISAGREEING WITH ME AT ALL? JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?? THERE IS NO ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT IN THE FREELANCE WRITING COMMUNITY–YOU ARE EITHER WITH ME OR AGAINST ME. I try so hard and yet still get victimized. *double sigh*

    I am interested in hearing more about your experience of working for cheaper rates and not breaking a sweat. What were those cheaper rates? Where did you get the work (mills or private clients)? What was the subject matter and editorial guidelines? Because when I was working the content mill thing in the beginning of my career and did a lot of Demand Studios work it did not take long before I was completely miserable–so I actually come from a place of knowledge on the subject although my experience seems to be different from yours.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel April 30, 2010 Reply

      Oh and… what made you change your business approach? Because I think that people who actually choose that as their long-term business model with no plans to evolve are just not business people by nature. The fact that your business evolved, my business evolved, etc. shows that we ARE business people–not just folks looking for a pseudo employer to help them work from home. At least, that’s my take.

  4. Rebecca Garland April 30, 2010 Reply

    Totally agree, Yo. Other writers aren’t competition if you’re positioned correctly and can effectively market your services. i.e. Those low-paid writers are only competition if you have no idea how to move out of that industry segment.

    I also agree with Carson – I think we need a little drama here. I was hoping someone would start a racial discussion or at least throw out some insults. After all, aren’t these low-paid writers going to be the end of all of us? Already I felt my hourly rate slipping below $85 for the first time all week – or that might have been because I got sucked into the stupid comments on a local news article for an hour instead of making some 10 minute revisions.

  5. Layne June 9, 2010 Reply

    “I don’t know about you, but if I had to write about 10 articles every day 5 days per week with no break ever I wouldn’t last very long.” = Yo

    I’m very new to freelance writing. I’ve been with DS two months so far and I can’t stand it. Writers post in the forums that they complete 10-15 articles a day. Are you kidding me? I thought something was wrong with me for not being able to do it too. After reading your post, I now realize that I’m just not cut out to be a “content mill writer.”

    Thanks!

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel June 10, 2010 Reply

      Well Layne, if something is wrong with us, then I don’t wanna be right :) Everyone has their own method and tolerance. For me, the content mill model is a disaster.

  6. Way Too Embarrassed August 19, 2010 Reply

    I just read this: “I don’t know about you, but if I had to write about 10 articles every day 5 days per week with no break ever I wouldn’t last very long.”

    I know I’m a bit late to the party, but my stomach churned a bit on this. I make around $2k/month right now and I’ve been freelance writing for a little over a year. I survive, but it is really difficult at times.

    I started out by posting an ad in a forum just to see if I would be deemed qualified for freelance writing. I got absolutely hammered with requests. I had set out to make 2 cents per word and ended up doing 1 cent a word work because I could get massive amounts of it. I write legibly and I have a 2 year degree in a writing-related major, but due to a physical disability working in an office wasn’t possible for me.

    People had told me to try online freelance work and I got lucky with the first thing I did, writing the lyrics for a band. That paid me $800 in 2 weeks which – in case you didn’t know – is about twice what you can get with SSI from the Federal government (last I was on it, back in 2001). This was a freaking miracle to me and it seemed easy so I went on & ended up where I am now doing 1 cent a word stuff.

    To give you an idea of why the statement I quoted made me kind of sick, I write anywhere from 50 to 75 articles per day when I can get that much work. It’s cheapo web content, but I still try to slip in quality around the stupid keywords when I can because it makes me feel a little better. On good days I can pull in $100-150 if I work 10 to 12 hours and I generally work 10 hours a day 7 days a week. I got sick in July and that nearly wrecked the finances for myself, my wife & our 2 children. Not a good feeling. Luckily, someone was kind enough to point me to this forum so I can see what a huge mistake I unknowingly made. I don’t regret working hard for the money and I know people told me I was doing insane amounts of work, but I thought they were being nice to pump my ego. Damn! lol

    Thanks for this post, it really does mean I need to get serious. Working for 2 cents a word is no way to live. I am in the Midwest now after moving from a large US city and things are still not easy to afford on $2k/month – especially with kids.

    I’ll wrap it up here and sorry but like my “name” says I’m waaayyy too embarrassed to leave my name. I only posted this so that you guys could see some people wind up in this situation simply because they see “copywriters” and the pay level, but they think that means the people who do writing for Coca Cola or DeBeers. :) Honest mistakes.

    • Yo Prinzel Author
      Yo Prinzel August 19, 2010 Reply

      Don’t be embarrassed–so many of us started in the same place as you–and if I lost all my clients today and had to put food on the table (my cats eat a lot :)) I would do whatever the hell I had to in order to make that happen. The thing is, no matter what anyone tells you, you DON’T have to work as much as you are.

      I started out writing for .01-.02 per word. When I made it to .05 per word I thought I was going to be RICH!!!!! ;-P At the time, I also thought the writers who charged .25 per word were insane–who the hell is going to pay that much??

      Now my clients range from .15 per word to .70 per word depending on how in-depth the project is. The key here (at least for me) was to pick a specialty and target my marketing to clients who would want more than just a generalist writer. I’ve worked in finance for over a decade with some pretty sophisticated planning models–I deserve to get paid for that.

      I’ve discovered that the market really is what you make of it. If you want to find people who pay more, and you focus on doing that, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. Focus on the knowledge you have that some other writer would have to get from Wiki and make that your specialty. Then, find the people who need and want to pay for it.

  7. Way Too Embarrassed August 19, 2010 Reply

    I meant “Someone from a forum was kind enough to point me to this BLOG” – sorry, moderator!

  8. Tye October 22, 2010 Reply

    I get what you’re saying about the content mills, I do. But there are a lot of circumstances to consider before dismissing them entirely.

    I’m currently doing work for DS and a few other content mills, but I’m not doing it because it’s what I want to do long-term. I’m doing it because it’s what pays the bills while I build up a clientele. Here’s how I look at it: My last office job paid me $13/hr to plug numbers into a database for 8 hours a day. That amounts to $104 per day, 5 days per week — not much at all. I can easily make more than that doing 4 hours of work for DS at $15 per article. I spend the other 4+ hours working on building my business — marketing, networking, etc. Eventually, I’ll get myself to a point where I can quit doing the content mill stuff and focus full-time on my career.

    So, I do think the content mills have their purpose, and some people really are perfectly content churning out 10 random, pointless articles per day to bring in extra cash. I’m not one of them, but I’ll do what I have to do to make ends meet for the time being.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 22, 2010 Reply

      Tye, thanks for sharing your thoughts. We’ve actually addressed most of those ideas in other articles here, but I want to touch on a few of them.

      1. I understand the need to bring in money. I struggled too early in the game. Many do. But the vast majority of people who think low paying gigs are a stepping stone for them are wrong. It doesn’t work that way. Low paying gigs don’t beget high paying gigs for most freelancers. The content isn’t portfolio-worthy, and can drive away serious buyers who consider mill writing to border on a joke. Fair? Not for all writers. But when they choose to associate with “publications” that repeatedly publish garbage it’s not surprising really — no matter what their own work looks like. So remember, for most “eventually” never comes using that approach.

      2. A “bad” freelance gig can definitely sound better than a “bad” employer gig because if nothing else you have the added freedom. But any way you cut it, it’s still a “bad” gig. You can’t compare them to low paying employer gigs (nowhere near directly comparable anyway — read this to get a better feel for that issue). The only comparison that matters is comparing the content mill gig with other gigs you could get NOW if you worked at it. Marketing isn’t all long-tail. There’s plenty you can do to bring in higher paying clients early on. And I’ll link to some other articles below that will talk about things like that.

      3. We’ve actually agreed with you multiple times about content mills having their purpose — precisely those people who are “perfectly content churning out 10 random, pointless articles per day to bring in extra cash.” But here’s the thing. Those aren’t professional writers. The “extra cash” crowd isn’t looking to build a serious freelance career. They’re hobbyists. And heck, if that’s how they enjoy spending their time, more power to them. But for writers who do want to turn it into a more sustainable career option, mills don’t really have a place. They don’t lead to most writers landing awesome gigs down the road. To do that people have to step completely outside of that mill comfort zone, essentially starting from scratch. They can do it now or they can keep delaying by staying with mills. But for most that I’ve come across, eventually they realize that and take that leap.

      I would suggest taking a different look at “what I have to do to make ends meet for the time being.” Instead of thinking of it as “doing what you have to do to earn easy cash now,” think of it as “doing what you have to do to step up your game more quickly to get into the higher paying markets.” I won’t lie and tell you it’s going to be easy. It’s hard work. But it doesn’t have to take long. I had a full-time freelance writing career so packed with clients that I had a waiting list in just a few months (and plenty of money coming in in the meantime). I know others who were quicker about it, mostly because I was still transitioning out of my former PR firm at the same time. I coached a writer here through the blog recently with the sole purpose being to replace their content mill work. Do you know how long it took? Just 2 weeks! Within a month or so not only was she replacing that income, but earning at least 50% more. There’s something to be said for going from $15 per article to more than 10 times that much so quickly. It can be done. All it takes is an up front aggressive push to get the ball rolling.

      Feel free to email me at jenn@allfreelancewriting.com. I’m off for the weekend now so I might not see it until early next week. But if you tell me more about yourself, your credentials / experience, specialty area, etc., maybe I’ll be able to come up with some more custom advice on what you can do or where you can go to move into higher paying markets more quickly if you’re interested.

      In the meantime, here are a few other posts and tools here that might help or at least give more information about mill work and the problems often involved:

      1. How to Break into New (and Higher Paying) Freelance Writing Markets
      2. How to Get High Paying Freelance Writing Jobs
      3. How to Make Your Own Freelance Writing Opportunities
      4. Myth: Web Content Writers Can’t Earn as Much as Business Writers
      5. Web Writing Doesn’t Pay as Much as Print Writing (Not!)
      6. Demand Studios: Beyond the Rate Debate
      7. Freelance Writing Rate Calculator (This is a free tool we offer to help you figure out what you really need to charge — at a minimum — to reach your goals.)

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