A friend recently asked for my take on “content mills” and I ended up responding with an email rant in length worthy of a novella. Needless to say, I suppose the topic strikes a bit of a cord. Looking over my email response later was actually the inspiration to post a similar rant here on my blog (in fact, portions below are from that email). If I can help spare one writer hopeful a moment of woe and at least make their eyes more open than those of my younger self, I believe I will have provided a community service.
For those not in the know, content mill is the less attractive name for sites that pay writers (or contributors) peanut wages for posting articles to their site. The basic game is this: you write an article for a topic of choice and, usually, get paid based on the number of times your article is viewed (and there has to be A LOT of viewing going on before those measly cents per a click add up to more than candy bar money).
Now, granted, my experience is only with two platforms (Helium and Associated Content) but I haven’t read much that suggest others are much different. I started writing articles on both what seems like ages ago to accomplish two things: 1) try out writing articles as I was starting to form an interest in the idea of writing/freelancing and 2) to see if people actually liked what I wrote. That second part was pretty much tied to the ranking system used by Helium, though it has ironically become one of the reasons I stopped writing on the site.
For every article you write on Helium, it becomes rated (by readers) against other articles in the same category. The idea behind this is that well written articles will rise to the top while others fall to the bottom. In theory, this isn’t a horrible idea and I was at first overjoyed to see that many of my stories and articles were rated high (“they like me, they like me!). But there’s two issues with the rating system for a writer. One, I’ve come across articles with misspellings and other grammar issues that were rated higher than what I considered better written ones. So the accuracy of the rates needs to be taken with a large grain of salt sometimes. Second, you earn money based on page views but ONLY if you have a rating star. Basically, you have to maintain a rating star (by rating other people’s articles and keeping your rate quota up) in order to be paid at all. Now don’t get me wrong, I love reading other people’s stories/articles and have come across great ones that were randomly thrown at me to rate. But rating solely for the purpose of maintaining your “rating star” just to get payment even for the measly page views is simply not worth it in my opinion.
Associated Content (which is now part of the Yahoo! Contributor Network) works the same way for payment, minus the rating requirement. You choose assignments or pick a category to write in and post articles in much the same way you would post a blog update.You are then paid for that article mainly based on page views (the more traffic the article gets, the more money you get). If you have TONS of articles posted then a couple cents here and a few cents there adds up to where some people (supposedly) make decent money from their articles. Once I started learning how much freelancers that write for their bread and butter typically make for their work, I started realizing that the content mill route is more like slave labor.
Another reason to stay clear of the mills? The fine print. Here is a snippet of the actual “User-Generated Content” agreement for Associated Content/Yahoo! Contributor Network:
You acknowledge and agree that any content that you upload, post, email, transmit, or otherwise make available to the YCN Services including comments, forum or board messages, reviews, shared activities, and updates (“User-Generated Content” or “UGC”) may be edited, modified, removed, published, transmitted, or displayed by Yahoo and that you hereby waive any rights you may have regarding your UGC being altered or manipulated in any way that may be objectionable to you. You further agree that by submitting UGC that you consent to its display on the YCN Services, and for any related promotional use, whether on the YCN Services or on other websites or in other media.
Subject to the terms and conditions of this TOS, you hereby grant Yahoo a perpetual, worldwide, nonexclusive, royalty-free, and fully paid-up license (with right to sublicense) to the UGC, including without limitation the right for Yahoo or any third party Yahoo designates, to: use, copy, transmit, excerpt, publish, distribute, publicly display or perform, create derivative works of, host, index, cache, tag, encode, modify, and adapt (including the right to adapt to streaming, downloading, broadcast, mobile, digital, thumbnail, scanning, or other technologies now or in the future), in any form or media now known or developed in the future, any UGC submitted by you on or via the YCN Services or any other website owned or operated by Yahoo.
Now to some degree, I do feel like I need to throw Helium and AC a bone for tiny successes. On Helium, I submitted a mystery story as an assignment listed and was paid $50.00 for it (it took me forever to figure out who had actually bought it because the name of the publishing partner was listed with a pseudonym). And on AC, you have the option of writing for an upfront payment and the possibility of your article being distributed to one of their partners. I wrote an article about preparing for job interviews and accepted the upfront payment of $3.45. It was later distributed to College Recruiter.com and I was given a $2.00 distribution payment (I had no clue at the time what was good or horrible as far as being paid for writing; I was just thrilled to be paid anything). Now that I I’ve learned more about what publishers you need to send a query letter to are likely to pay, as opposed to the mighty $.94 cents that same AC article has earned since being posted a couple years ago, I am of course less than thrilled. On the flip side of that though, both sites accomplished their purpose in helping me get my feet wet a little. Also, I have to admit to the fact that all of my posts on both were either short stories or opinion pieces – there was never really a whole lot of major research going in to them. Still – I can’t help but wonder what my interview article would have brought home now after the Great Recession if I hadn’t already given it away for less than eight bucks.
My summary of the whole thing is this: if someone wants to just get their writing available to an online audience and considers getting paid a few cents each month a nice bonus, then content mills are not necessarily that bad. But if you are looking to earn an actual income that pays the bills off your articles, just be prepared to work full-time hours for part-time pay. If all you want is the possiblity of an online audience then just blog.
Speaking of blogs, there is a site called The Renegade Writer that has a very true take on the content mills as well in their post on “Writing for Peanuts”:
And for those who may wonder if they have stumbled upon a site or writing opportunity that is actually a little content millish, CatalystBlogger lays out the basic warning signs: http://catalystblogger.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-to-spot-content-mill.html
Well, my blog post turned lengthy as well but, again, this is community service at work here so no sense in going slack!