The Reality of Writing for Content Mills — 14 Writers’ True Stories

Reality of Writing for Content Mills

Have you ever wondered if there is a content mill out there somewhere that’s better than all the rest?

I get this question a lot, from writers hoping that if they can just find the right content mill, they will finally be able to easily earn a living from their craft. Maybe there’s one where the editors are nicer or the assignments easier?

The thing is, I’ve never written for a content mill. I’ve used my business-reporter skills to analyze Demand Media’s financials, so I’m aware that the “stuff site with junk content, put up ads, and hope for revenue” business model popular with content mills isn’t doing that well, especially as Google continues to change its algorithm to penalize these sorts of sites.

I’ve also asked content mill owners why they don’t pay more. Basically, see the previous paragraph. This business model isn’t very profitable, so there isn’t a lot of pay for you.

My sense is debating the differences between different mills is a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But I wanted to find out more.

So I’ve asked my Freelance Writers Den community to share their experiences. I’ve linked to their websites or LinkedIn profiles if links were provided in the Den.

Some of these writers have worked for mills in the past, and others are still using them as they market proactively to find better clients. I think this provides a frank look at the real life of content mill writers. I’ve bolded some of the key reactions and feelings about writing for mills that the writers shared.

Here it is, in their own words, organized by mill. Mills are in no particular order:

Demand Studios

Holly Case says:

Assignments are virtually unavailable now except for a select few. Pay was $15.00 an article, editors were unreasonable and requested revisions without allowing you to ask for clarification. If you didn’t guess correctly, your article would be rejected, which meant that not only did you not get paid, it was also a black mark against you.

L.C. Baker‘s story:

I started writing for them in 2010 and wrote a steady 6-12 articles a week or more for about a year and a half. They used to have a lot of mostly boring topics that paid $15/article. They now have a lot of specialty topics that you have to get approved for that pay $25/article. What’s improved, though, is that some of the sites where the content goes are ones I’m not embarrassed to use a byline on.

I’m approved as a parenting writer, and one of the sites they publish to is TheBump.com — a totally legitimate site. You also get to write in a more interesting, “snarky” tone for that site instead of the dry, boring tone they wanted for eHow.

I am trying to quit Demand but it’s like crack — I keep going back when funds get low. If I’m getting $50/post for clients, then $25/post with no marketing starts to look like a better rate…once I have the $100/post clients I want to have, Demand will be a lot less tempting!

Biggest annoyance with Demand is the editors. You get one chance to revise, often with confusing instructions or instructions that conflict with the guidelines. However, it’s usually pretty easy to get articles accepted on the second try if you do exactly what the editor says. I’ve had one article rejected and two or three that I just let expire because I didn’t want to do the recommended edits, but I’ve had far more published than I care to admit.

Debra Stang:

For over a year, I churned out four to five articles per day at $15 each. Then all the good assignments started to go south, so I backed out of that situation.

Tiffany Jansen:

I started contributing to Demand in 2009. Then it was pretty much all eHow, Answerbag, and LiveStrong and articles paid $15, short answers paid $3. Pretty much anyone who signed up was accepted. Recently, they’ve really cleaned up.

You now have to be approved to write on certain topics. But I question how they go about determining this. I applied to be a travel writer and a parenting writer. At the time, I was working for a travel company as their blogger, I had several travel clips from websites, blogs, and magazines, travel Europe and the US extensively and often, had my own expat/travel blog and was the Netherlands travel Examiner for Examiner.com. Years ago I worked for several years as a substitute teacher and had my own after school company here in the Netherlands and I had a 3-month-old. Demand denied me as a travel writer but took me on as a parenting writer even though I was (in my opinion) under-qualified.

They have stepped up and are now doing more legit sites like thebump.com, globalpost.com, thenest.com and a few others, and the topics are much more interesting and better categorized. Pay is now $25-30 depending on the site you’re writing for. But, still, that’s for a 400-500 word article. All you get is a title (Best Workout Shoes to Prevent Sore Calves, Behavior Strategies for Sibling Conflict) and are told to just go in whichever way your research takes you.

You’re supposed to list any resources and references you used to write the article, which are included at the bottom of the piece in college-term-paper footnote fashion. It just looks really amateur.

Under the title of each article that’s approved and posted online is “Your name, Demand Media,” so the site may be a good one, but any editor who checks them out is going to see my name tied with Demand Media before they even start reading the article. Yes, there are editors out there who don’t care, but there are enough of them who do and will write you off immediately that I will always hide those articles, no matter how well-written they are or for what site they were used.

DM hates direct quotes, so they’re looking for you to find all the info on websites and in books and paraphrase. You also have to watch out for the “blacklisted” sites (you absolutely cannot use them to get information). Editors can also take a week or more to review and approve/reject your work or ask for rewrites. Yet, if you’re given rewrites, you’re expected to get it done and turn it in again in three days.

The only nice thing is that you get paid once a week, so you’re never waiting around for payment.

Textbroker

Jennifer Roland:

I wrote one piece for Textbroker at $.05 cents per word. I have never gone back to write enough to meet the minimum threshold for payout, so they still owe me $1.50. I chalked it up to a life lesson and went on to find real clients that pay real money.

Debra Stang:

My strategy is to take assignments from all of my favorite categories and write the very best article I can. Eventually, a client “clicks” with me and starts requesting me at my “personal rates.” I almost never need to accept job board prices anymore.

Joyce M:

I wrote for Textbroker for a couple of months when I first started, and the work was easy.  The pay was usually around $0.02 per word, depending on your level as a writer.  There were seldom any requests for revisions and the pay was regular.  That being said, you couldn’t get any clips from the work and I never got any regular clients. The problem with all of these sites is you can get so used to them that you don’t get motivated to get better work… until you burn out.

Jennifer Hawkins:

With Textbroker there’s no bidding, no resume, I just did a writing sample, submitted it for review and waited on my rating.  Little did I know I would be toiling away at a penny per word until I broke my comma habit and propensity for dangling participles.

In order to move up in pay, your articles must be reviewed and rated on a scale of two to five. The article review takes place once per month.  Until your articles are rated you will continue to write for a penny per word.  However, there is a very wide variety of articles to choose from at or below your approved level.  Everything from automotive to movies to sexual dysfunction.  Articles are approved, typically within 48 hours and the money is deposited into your Textbroker account immediately upon approval.  The nice thing is Textbroker payments are made weekly provided you have $10 in your account.  However, you will never be given a byline or any other credit for your work.

Writer Access

Jennifer Hawkins:

There was still a writing test for a rating and a rather arduous application process [when I applied].  You are able to select assignments based upon your writing level.  The pay is usually $0.01 to $0.05 per word for Level 3 writers.  The variety of articles is unfortunately, rather mundane.  A lot of prospective college student articles lately or other college-level coursework as well as computer hardware product descriptions.

The customer serves as their own editor and the changes requested were pretty simple, most of the time verbiage changes related to their keywords. The biggest drawback — WriterAccess only pays once per month by the tenth day of the following month, painfully slow in the content mill world. There are no bylines or credit for your work.

Holly Case:

Writer Access – pay between $.01 and $.15 a word but most assignments pay between 1 cent and 3.2 cents. Very few revisions and you deal directly with the client, so your experience varies widely based on who hires you. There is a feedback system so you can get a heads up if a client is difficult. No bylines. Lots of work available. Topics can be interesting but usually aren’t.

Yahoo Contributor Network (Associated Content)

L.C. Baker

I’ve written a couple of pieces for Associated Content and Suite 101. Both of those are fun because you can write anything you want. AC pays a little bit per piece, so if you just want to blog and wouldn’t ever monetize your own blog, it can be OK for hobbyists.

Holly Case:

Pays per page view and you don’t really have editors. You can write about anything you want. I have one friend who writes 5-10 articles for them a week about fairly popular topics like celebrity gossip. She gets a lot of page views, but the most money she’s ever made was $18.00.

Vanessa Stewart:

Most of my content mill experience is with Yahoo! Contributor Network, known as Associated Content when I started writing there in July 2009. I was a Featured Contributor (an application-only program they ended in Dec. 2012) where I made $15-$18 per 400-500 word article. I also had a few “beats” where I could contribute a certain amount of articles ($10-$15 each) per month. Each topic in the Featured program (Pets, Movies, TV, etc.) had a designated editor who you could contact. But I never received feedback once the article was submitted or got any rewrites, so there wasn’t any sort of real writer/editor relationship.

I did get bylined articles placed on Yahoo’s Movies, News, and OMG! platforms. There’s also the Yahoo Voices platform (which pays in the single digits per article) that replaced the old Associated Content site. Since the Yahoo takeover, it seems like the whole point of writing for them is to get your stuff published on one of the “higher-end” platforms. But in order to make any sort of regular income, you have to be fast and write five to six 400-500 word articles a day.

I’ve used my Yahoo Movies clips to get paying gigs on non-content mill sites, which in turn got me a few private clients who found me via those sites, but no clients who found and contacted me directly from my Yahoo work.

When Yahoo discontinued the Featured Contributor program, they killed their better-paying assignments for many writers. I still get a few bucks a month from views. I also still have one daily “beat” ($10 per article), but I haven’t written anything for them since March 2012.

When I started writing for them in 2009, it was a way for me to learn about web writing, not to make a living. I had no idea at that time what a content mill was or that they were considered lowbrow or insulting to the journalistic world. On a positive note, I did learn a lot about web content and how to apply SEO tactics in a non-spammy way, write catchy headlines, and use social media as a marketing tool.

To Yahoo’s credit, they do encourage these skills in their new writers and recently started a web writing course called the Academy to help newbies learn. Their book, The Yahoo! Style Guide, is actually a great web writing resource. Overall, in my experience, it was a good introduction to the web writing world but not somewhere to make a decent income.

I’ve also written for [several other mills] — from what I observed, all of them require a lot of time and effort for little pay.

Suite 101

Rachel Beavins Tracy:

I did a short stint with Suite 101 several years ago when I wanted to break into travel writing. At the time, I was working as a travel planner.

To start, you had to write a sample article, a few hundred words on a topic of your choice. Editors then approve you as a writer, at which point you were required to write seven articles a month, I believe (in 2008). I only did it that first month before I saw the writing on the wall. Articles went through an approval process before being posted, but I don’t recall the process being too terribly arduous.

Suite 101 gives you a byline, and you are paid via paypal periodically. If I recall correctly, there’s a minimal amount you have to reach ($10?) before they make a deposit. In the past five years, I’ve probably made about $50 from that little batch of articles. I’m pretty sure they changed up their pay scheme, as I’m not being paid for them anymore, and I’m definitely sure I don’t care.

Seed

L.C. Baker:

I also write for Seed but didn’t sell anything there either. That was supposedly better paying work, but you have to choose from their titles (like a content mill) and compete against lots of other writers (like a job board). And you have to write the piece on spec. So lots of disadvantages there.

Examiner

Mandy Treccia:

I started writing for Examiner.com in September as a TV Examiner. I was lucky that I had a built-in audience since I already write for a TV Magazine site (for free, sadly). Anyway, at first, I was doing great. I made $350 my first month, which was a nice supplement to my day job income. I did even better the second month, but I was writing over 100 articles.

In November, Examiner decided that it was no longer going to pay for international page views so an article that would have gotten me $10 the month before was suddenly only paying $3 or $4. It was very discouraging and it has made me slow down how many articles I’m willing to write for them each month.

Editor-wise, it’s a crapshoot. They forget their own rules and sometimes they dock you for dumb things and other times, they miss glaring errors. It just depends on which volunteer is editing the copy that day. But if they do dock you, you lose your status and have to start over from zero.

There is zero communication. They’ve made it very difficult to talk to a live person and sometimes you need to email five or six times before you get a real response.

L.C. Baker:

I wrote for Examiner, too. You can write anything you want. They force you to stay within a niche, which I guess is good if you don’t know how to write in a niche. But I never got paid a cent from them. For all those pay-per-click sites, you have to write a ton of pieces before you see any return.

Tiffany Jansen:

Examiner.com has changed their policies multiple times since I started writing for them in 2010.

The way things work now is that you get money based on page views, comments, and article shares — to give you an example, yesterday my articles had seven page views and my slideshows had four views, and I earned $.05). Payment comes on the 20th of every month, BUT you have to earn a minimum of $10 to get paid AND you have to have published at least one article that month. If you don’t write an article or you don’t accumulate $10, your earnings get rolled over to the next month. If you go more than three months without contributing, you’re stripped of your earnings and your Examiner title.

How much you earn depends on how many articles you write, the popularity of your topic, and the amount of time you invest in promoting yourself. Long story short, even if you have the most popular topic on the internet, have written hundreds of articles, and Tweet, Facebook, Pinterest, StumbleUpon, etc, etc, you may be making nice money, but when you figure in the hours you spend working on Examiner, you’ll always be making less than minimum wage.

There are editors, but they only leave comments reminding you to use pictures, let you know when you haven’t written the minimum number of words, and ask you to change little things in the headlines.

The other wonky thing? I am the Netherlands Travel Examiner. But there’s also a Netherlands Lifestyle and Travel Examiner, and a Netherlands Tourism Examiner. I love my adoptive country, but, the way I see it, it’s just not big enough and there’s just not enough going on to warrant three Examiners.

I did learn a lot of valuable things from working at the mills, but you don’t need them to get a writing career off the ground — and they’re so easy to get sucked into and so difficult to pull yourself out of. Eventually you reach the point where you realize what a huge waste it was and that you’ll never get those hours of your life back (and that those articles are on the internet to stay and haunt you for the rest of your life). I’m there right now and it’s not a pretty place to be.

Blogmutt

Jennifer Hawkins:

The new kid on the block is Blogmutt.  The pay at Blogmutt is $8 per article if approved.  Customers sign up to have blogs written for their business based on a selection of keywords. Articles are typically 300-400 words and do not require an extensive amount of research in an area you’re familiar with.

However, when you get out of your expertise area, providing blog topics on such things as battery backup systems, real estate in Alaska or IT management you can get bogged down in research in a hurry.  Customers edit their own articles and at times, can be arbitrary from “too short” to “just didn’t like the post.”

The site owner is very good about keeping the customers in line with their demands.  Customers rate their own posts on a star system.  The drawback is when there’s a small set of keywords from which to derive an article.  Payment is made weekly upon article acceptance by the customer but as blogs go into the customer’s queue, the customer can pick and choose which blogs to post which weeks.  This can cause your blog to slide down the list.

While content mills are a good place to see if your writing is commercially acceptable, staying in the mills is nothing more than intellectual slavery.  If you can write with very few spelling or grammatical errors and can sell or product or engage a person’s interest in a business niche then you, too, can be a business blogger.

CopyPress

Nida Sea:

I’ve written for CopyPress since 2011. The best people I worked with are now no longer there.

Their pay started at $2 dollars per 300 words and paid out once a month. They now pay $30 for “sharebait” articles, $7 for product descriptions, $4–$6 for regular blog posts. CP also pays out twice a month, but with the little work they have available, you’re likely to bring in $150 – $200 every two weeks. But, because it takes an additional two weeks for clients to approve anything, you’re not likely to get your pay on time during the two week payout. Waiting for this little pay is particularly unfavorable.

Only one editor was ever helpful there. She was awesome, to say the least. Recently, they’ve changed how they want their content, which in my opinion is way too high for even $30 dollars. I believe they have a lead editor who is useless and doesn’t point out anything to improve in your work due to “far too many mistakes to begin with.” These comments are mysterious and non-constructive because editors I’ve worked with at CP in the past were extremely helpful, unlike this mess now.

Also, any mistakes, even minor ones are immediately reported to the content manager. The CM will kick you out of the system if the lead editor complains to her. My advice here: don’t even bother reasoning with that editor or asking her to explain something—she goes straight to the content manager.

Forget about getting enough assignments for gas money here, unless you want to put in long hours for a measly $30 dollars. Work was never consistent since they had lost two seriously generous clients. And, if your work is not up to par, CP will cut your pay by half.

There is no byline on anything. All content is ghostwritten so the client can put their name on it. They did start a blog called “Copy for Bylines,” which is essentially content for free. But, the company killed CFB not long after it was launched. I did inquire of running it for them, but I never heard back from them after the initial conversation.

Now, there was a huge variety of topics when they had work. I wrote on gambling, technology, property management, business, product descriptions, education, law, and more. There were always so many different topics I was never bored. But, like I said, work was scarce, so I jumped on the opportunity when higher pay came up.

I’m certain they would create useful clips, but because you don’t own the content they would prefer you not to post it anywhere else online. I don’t think you can even state it is ghostwritten. They’re funny about that.

Right now, it’s a pain to write for CP. After that useless feedback with the “sharebait” editor, I moved onto another company that pays far better, and the editor has been very helpful and supportive. For advice to others aspiring to work for CP, I wouldn’t make them a primary source of income, if at all. Unreliability is the word that comes to my mind.

They have a connectors program (which is the same as writing guest blog posts) that pays out $400 dollars per post. Yeah, it sounds great, right? Just try getting that $400 dollars. You’ll be jumping through hoops and pulling your hair out. You’ll spend a good two months without pay while you wait for someone to accept a post. Another catch is when someone does allow you a post, and it’s not up to CP’s client’s standards, you’ll be posting for free. Honestly, I didn’t need the extra stress and work without pay for my effort.

I loved CP when they started. The team they had was genuine and awesome. Now, they are beating down on writers to produce great content, which I’m sure many of my fellow writers do, but for pennies. I’m learning I can make $50 and more per blog post on my own without their help.

Elle Blake:

I started Copypress as an advanced writer. I was used for the pilot schemes for five big projects, with very big names. Three of them we won. One was my project alone, and paid $20 per post, two were expanded to bring in other writers. Pay has always been low-ish. The editors were relatively friendly, and the community was awesome. CP constantly promise higher pay.

Last year, they lost the three big clients in the same month. All said that they needed higher quality work. CP’s response was to ask the writers if they’d write for lower rates. It put most of the writing down to $5 a piece. I refused, but some writers continued.

They then brought in a certification program, where writers needed to take training and submit original samples to get work. All the work is now $30 Sharebait or $7 product descriptions. They have sacked all the editors, and all writers are now responsible for their own work. Any mistakes equal being sacked.

The Facebook groups are in meltdown, the usually friendly staff are endlessly being “reshuffled” to be never heard from again, and there seems to be less work every time I check. They do send out emails asking for advanced writers to help getting a project, but they expect you to be available at a moment’s notice for rewrites/changes, and don’t pay extra.

The biggest issue with CP is the pay. They promise the earth, and many people fall for it. The new big thing in mills seems to be promising the earth, and delivering a pittance.

Internet Brands

Ashleigh Johnson:

I only wrote for them for a few months back in 2008. I made about $25 total.

They paid no more than $5 for 100-150 word, SEO-heavy, coupon-code blurbs that probably ended up on some scam-ridden pop up page.

I barely communicated with any editors. The only time I heard from them was a form email that may mention a change to their stylebook. Yes, even crappy content mills have stylebooks.

The assignments were kind of scarce since the pieces were so small and so easy to write. You just had to be quick on the draw. I did not get a byline. I couldn’t even tell you where my pieces are on the Internet.

Coupon code clips that were written according to a stylebook have proven to be useless.

 Break Studios

Ashleigh Johnson:

I wrote 2 articles for them back in 2008. They were paying $8 per article then.

There weren’t multiple rewrites. I faintly remember being asked to change a comma or something. That’s it.

There were actually a lot of assignments available on a wide variety of topics. I did have a byline. My articles are still online on one of their sites. I got two useful clips out of it that I actually use to this day. That’s the only positive thing I got out of working for a content mill.

Media Shower

Angie:

I volunteered to sign up and see if the “headache factor” was similar to the only other content mill I know — Demand Studios.

I got a reply to my application two weeks later. They loved my portfolio, and wanted me to write a test article for them, for which I’d be paid their standard rate ($25 for a 500-word blog post). They provided the title and gave general guidelines for what they wanted included — which is much more than Demand provides.

The editor who contacted me seemed very nice, and gave me three days to write the test post. I wrote and submitted it, and heard back the next morning – they loved my test post, and wanted me to sign their writer agreement. I received payment that day.

Their agreement requires you to “keep all information relating to your work with Media Shower confidential, now and forever,” and also that all work you produce for them is theirs, and you can’t reproduce it without permission. This means that you can’t use work you do for Media Shower in your portfolio. I’m guessing that you can ask them on specific pieces, or get links, but as I haven’t gone any farther than this with the company I don’t know what the response would be.

Payment (aside from the test article, for which you’re paid immediately) is between the 7th and 10th of the month (depending on weekends, etc), for all work completed the previous month.

Content Authority

Alexandria Ingham:

Pay is between $.007 and $.015 per word and they have different tiers. Everyone starts at Tier 1 and then works their way up, getting a review after five articles per tier or so – most writers on their forum are at Tier 3 and get 0.01 per word.

There’s no direct contact with clients but the editors are quite easy to work with. They’ll only send pieces back if the client as requested something or there is something really bad missing – the odd full stop missing or capital letter and the editors will change it usually. If the client asks for something that wasn’t in the original piece, there is the opportunity to dispute.

No byline. The only reason some people stick around is for the knowledge you gain in the earlier stages. I’ve seen many people comment on how much it has helped their writing so they’ve managed to go onto bigger and better pastures.

That’s my experience, except with the sites like Suite101 and HubPages, where I write for sample pieces and just for fun really – not Suite101 anymore since that went down the drain and I got my pieces off there before it affected me too much with bad press.

Epinions

Debra Stang:

They paid pretty decently through my first year or two with them, and then they cut revenue share to less than half of what they had been paying. Buh-bye.

Web Answers

Debra Stang:

I still spend about half an hour on Web Answers a day. Answering the questions (where do folks come up with these things?) is a good way to relax, and every couple of months, I get a deposit of about $150 to my account. Not bad for a little light entertainment.

 

What do I take away from all this? I’m struck by how many stories are about sudden changes in pay and working conditions.

If you write for mills, remember it’s writer beware — especially if you have all your eggs in one mill basket.

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