Ah, content mills. If I have a pet peeve in the freelance writing world, they would be it. Outside of my own client writing, I also write for other freelance writers. I help new writers get started without falling into the ruts of extremely low pay. I try to help them get past the misconceptions about Web writing specifically. And the issue of content mills often comes up.
The simple truth is this: any writer worth their salt can earn more with private clients or by developing their own income streams than they can with mills. Content mills are never the best option for these folks who are looking for more than some quick cash as a hobby writer. If you’re making a career out of it, you can do better.
Still, I constantly see writers trying to justify mill work saying that they can “easily” earn $40k or so per year there which is better than what they might have been making at a full-time job. Here’s the thing. It’s not usually better. What they forget is that $40k per year as an employee is a very different thing than earning $40k as a freelancer (what you are when you write for content mills). They are not directly comparable. Yet these numbers are thrown out there even by the mills themselves to try to suck in new content producers. And it works.
As a former writer and editor for mills (someone who was basically paid to use this information to pull in new writers), I know how the marketing game works there. I’ve also covered some of the lies content mills tell and more about my background with them rather extensively in the past, so I won’t rehash that all here.
Today I want to take a look at two different types of content mill revenue schemes you might come across, and how the numbers really break down before you get too excited about what you’re told will be a great gig. Let’s start with some basics though.
What are Content Mills?
If you’re new to the idea of content mills, it might be a bit confusing at first. They’re known by several different names — content mills, content farms, content networks, etc. — and people often disagree about which sites should be classified as such.
For the purpose of this article we’ll say content mills are any sites that hire a massive number of freelance content producers to publish articles with the intentof driving search and social media traffic to convert it into ad revenue. Some examples include Demand Studios, Suite101, and Associated Content, although there are certainly more.
Types of Content Mill Revenue Models for Writers
We’re going to take a look at two common revenue models for content mill writers — up front payments and residual earnings. Up front payments are self-explanatory. The writer is paid a set dollar amount per article they write. To get up front payments, they might have to sell full rights to their work to the mill.
Residual earnings work differently. There is generally no up front payment at all. Instead writers are paid either based on pageviews their articles receive or based on a percentage of total ad revenue earned through their articles (although the exact percentage generally isn’t shared with the writers).
I mentioned $40k per year as an earning level I’ve seen writers tout as fantastic for mill work before. Looking at the average salary of a starting Web writer in the U.S. (based on data from Salary.com), it’s not that far off. The average salary is $47,492.
Already these content mill writers aren’t earning beginner level wages in their field, and those $40k earners are not the majority. If we’re talking about hobby writers who just want to earn more than they could at the local fast food joint or something, I can’t fault them in any way. But we’re often talking about professional writers, sometimes with extensive experience and advanced degrees, who are looking to mills as a long-term full-time career option. In their case there’s little excuse to be earning less than salaried beginners in their field. And those are the writers who can do much better if they want to (and if they don’t want to, that’s fine and it’s completely on them).
Here’s the kicker though. Even if someone could earn $47k with a content mill consistently year after year (and mills have been known to close, be sold off, and completely overhaul their revenue share models seemingly on a whim), they still wouldn’t be earning as much as a starting salaried writer doing similar work. That’s because of what I mentioned earlier; freelance and salaried yearly earnings aren’t directly comparable.
When you talk about a $47k salary for an employee, it involves much more than that base salary. It includes paid time off like sick time and vacation time, a portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes, usually health insurance (and real health insurance — not the far-from-adequate discount plans some mills use as a marketing tactic), 401k contributions, and other benefits. Freelancers serve the role of both the employer and the employee, and therefore have to account for all of those things in their yearly earnings. Based on that same Salary.com data, a $47k salary for a starting Web writer actually comes to $67k when you factor those things in. That is how much a mill writer would have to earn to keep all things equal and compare their earnings to that of a similar employee position. In other words, if you wanted to leave a $47k per year regular job to freelance full-time as a Web writer, you would need to earn $67k freelancing to earn an equivalent income. And that doesn’t even include business expenses. But for example’s sake we’ll assume those are minimal and stick to $67k.
Earning $67k through freelance writing is absolutely possible. Many writers, including myself, do it without a problem. And it doesn’t involve mill work. But if you could create a sustainable mill writing career earning that equivalent of a beginner Web writer’s salary, what would it actually take? Let’s look at some specific examples.
Potential Revenue Example: Up Front Payments
I mentioned that Demand Studios is an example of a content mill. Most of the Demand writers I know (and I know many) earn around $15 per article. So how many of these articles would they have to write each year to earn that $67k we talked about earlier?
Yep, you would have to write nearly 4500 articles in a year just to earn the equivalent of a salaried starting Web writer with this mill if you earn what most of their writers seem to earn. There are some who earn more but they’re the exception, and no one should ever expect to be the exception to the rule when it comes to their career.
Okay. So when we break that down into monthly and daily totals, maybe it won’t look so bad, right? Let’s do that.
You would have to write 372 articles per month to make that happen. Assuming you work full-time hours, meaning five days per week, that comes to 19 articles per day. That also assumes no holidays, no sick days, no personal days, and no vacation days. The only way this kind of content writing is truly sustainable as a career option is if you choose to earn far less than you could be earning.
Potential Revenue Example: Residual Earnings
Now let’s look at the residual earnings method. I’ve often seen people get worked up about these models (it’s the model I used to have to recruit writers into before I wised up and got out). It’s easy to take a starry-eyed look at residual earning content mills. After all, you write the article once and you keep getting paid for it month after month after month. The lure is the idea that you can eventually do nothing — just sit back and live off the residual earnings from your old articles.
For the vast majority of writers, that will never happen. For those situations where it does, it generally happens with residual earnings from your own projects and products — not mill writing.
Several months ago one of the contributors on my freelance writing blog wrote up an evaluation of a residual earning model mill. Commenters on these content mill articles often tend to take general comments about the models themselves personally even when they’re not. That post was no exception. We had people commenting saying how fantastic they were and how wrong we were to criticize the model and the writers because they could earn $1000 per month residually.
That’s great. But $1000 per month is nothing to write home about if you’re building a career as opposed to hobby writing or side income, as our readers are trying to do. I always find one thing curious though. When people tout the greatness of content mills and how much they can earn, they very rarely tell you the full truth about the work that goes into it. It’s no wonder new writers see those stories and think they’re inspirational, jumping on board hoping for similar “success.”
For example, when I saw those comments I did some research on the writers. Those two writers in particular had both written more than 1400 articles for the mill in question. Guess how much they’re really earning per article each month if they’re getting $1000 residually? A measly $.71 — not even a dollar. Residual earnings also often don’t come quickly, which means you’re basically writing unpaid for a while (although less than a dollar per article is still practically “unpaid”).
Based on that, how many articles under this model would these folks need to write each year? Well, at $.71 per article per month, that comes to $8.52 per article per year (less than even Demand Studios, which is pitifully low pay for professionals to begin with). That means to earn the equivalent of a starting salaried Web writer they would have to write 7864 articles per year. That comes to 655-656 articles per month, or around 33 articles per day. This example also doesn’t include holidays, sick days, personal days, or vacation time. You would have to work full-time, five days a week every week to make these numbers work out. Otherwise the weekly requirements go up.
You also have to keep something else in mind. Residual earnings are never guaranteed. A hot topic getting traffic and ad revenue today can flop completely tomorrow. Many of the high earning examples you see play upon timely topics (like holidays or something in the news) which only earn well for a month or two and then drop off. That means many of the articles you write for higher residual earnings now won’t actually be earning the same into the future, and you won’t be able to stop writing to live off of residual income that way. You have to keep churning out more content on more timely topics to keep income levels up. Most of the writers claiming they earn very well through residual income models with content mills that I’ve looked into do indeed put focus on these timely topics. You would have to be able to do the same consistently for evergreen topics to make the long-term residual model work.
Myths and Tips about Earning More Without Mills
When you take a look at the reality of the numbers, content mills almost never make sense. It’s simply bad business to try to build a sustainable full-time career with content mills for most writers. But there are a lot of myths floating around out there which discourage people who do want to earn more from working towards it, and they stay with mills as a result. Let’s sum things up by taking a quick look at some of the more common myths about earning more without mills, and the reality of the situations.
Myth: Content mills pay weekly or bi-weekly in some cases, which you’ll never get with private clients.
Fact: When you’re the business owner, you decide your payment terms. Personally I charge up front for my work with private clients, and I have a waiting list of people happy to abide by those terms as soon as I have an opening (which is rare). I do that because I do rarely have openings, and it keeps less serious prospects away. Most professionals I know charge at least a portion up front before starting work, and charge the rest immediately on completion (when it comes to Web writing). You can actually get paid not only more but get paid faster with private clients, especially if you accept payments online via Paypal (which you probably do if you accept mill payments anyway).
Myth: Getting private clients involves a lot of time marketing yourself, which undercuts the real hourly rate you earn.
Fact: Will you spend time marketing yourself? Absolutely, and more in the beginning. But it doesn’t even come close to making content mills a better deal. And here’s a perk for you — when you build visibility and a demand for your services, it doesn’t take long for clients to start finding you instead of you having to find them. Remember that waiting list of mine? That’s how I built it. And it took me just three months when I went full-time with my freelance writing to get to the point where I had a consistently full schedule at much higher rates than mill work ($100-200 for most 400-500 word blog posts for example — at least twice that for features and higher rates for most business writing work, and I’m far from the highest end of the professional pay spectrum). I know plenty of writers who got to a similar position with private clients in an even shorter amount of time. In fact, I recently offered to coach a content mill writer working for Demand Studios to help her get away from mill work. We were able to replace her full monthly average content mill income in just two weeks with private client work, and increased it significantly shortly after. It does not have to take a long time to earn better than what you’re making with content mills. That’s only true if you’re lazy about your marketing or you don’t do the proper targeting, so you market to the wrong prospects.
Myth: Content mills are fantastic because they let people work from home so they can be with their families more.
Fact: What’s far more fantastic is earning what you’re worth as you work from home, making more than content mills pay, and having even more free time to spend with your kids and your spouse or to pursue your own residual earning projects (like selling e-books and reports).
Myth: Private clients are more demanding than content mills so I’ll earn more hourly with mill work.
Fact: Many Web writing clients are actually far less demanding than content mills. In my case for example, I generally choose the article topics I want to write on and the client picks from that list. So I write what I’ll enjoy writing, which will also benefit the client’s website or blog. I also very rarely get edit requests from private clients, whereas I’ve seen numerous absurd edit requests from content mill editors who clearly know nothing about the subject matter. And if you refuse edits even if they would make a piece factually incorrect, you risk not being paid anything at all there. When you work with private clients, you can also dictate how many edits are included in your price structure. For me that’s two sets of edits max. Anything beyond that (such as a client having everyone they know look and give feedback for edits one at a time) is billed as an extra fee. If the client makes any major change to the scope of the project, they not only pay for the time already put in, but they also pay for the new article in full at the normal writing rate. So no, they’re generally not more demanding. Content mills often demand more than what they’re actually justified to based on what they pay, and with private clients if they demand too much you simply invoice for the additional work not included in the original contract. Try invoicing a mill when they pull that.
These are just a few common myths about content mills and writing for private clients. There are certainly more out there, and I have no doubt that mills will continue to pull in new content producers. For some, they’re fine. But for those looking to build serious sustainable careers full-time, there are better options. All you have to do is crunch the numbers and push past a few common misconceptions to see that.