Writing for Content Mills: Did You Pick the Wrong One?

Many choices in content millsMany new writers looking to find that first place they can break in and start earning money from their craft end up signing up for a content mill.

Either that, or they end up discovering a revenue-share site like Examiner or Guardian Liberty Voice, or bidding for gigs on Elance.

Soon after, many of these writers are sending me emails like this one:

“I’m a new writer and I was thinking about signing up for Textbroker. What do you think about them?

“I also registered for Demand Studios — waiting for approval — and created a Fiverr profile. I was wondering what your opinion is of those, or if there is a better site I should join?”

The myth of the better content mill

Aah, the worry that maybe you’ve chosen the wrong content mill.

Hope springs eternal within writers’ hearts, that somewhere on our vast interwebs, there could be a content mill that pays great. Or a revenue-share site where your posts would earn you a small fortune in affiliate ad revenue, or a mass bidding platform where prices won’t be nearly nil.

You think maybe, it’s just a matter of looking harder. Because there must be some mistake, right? You’re making a pittance here!

Insecure writers tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. It must be me, we think. If only I were a better writer or researcher, I could discover the Valhalla where you write keyword-stuffed quickie content on any topic you like, that doesn’t require interviews, expertise, or much research — but it still pays terrific.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much reporting I do on why content mills’ business model is failing and won’t ever offer a living wage to writers. (Have you checked out what’s happened to the stock of Demand Studios‘ parent Demand Media lately, since they spun off their domain-name business and have only the content mills left? Investors get it.)

Still comes the question: “Which is the best content mill for me to join?”

I don’t like to be the person who bursts writers’ bubbles, but there is no best content mill. Wish there was…but no.

Taking bad advice

It’s easy to see how writers get sucked into this dream, that a better content mill is out there, somewhere.

After all, there so many posts online about the best content mills to join! I did a Google search recently, and found “best content mills” gets 106 million results.

I turned up insightful advice, such as that the secret is to “join as many as you can.” As if trying to keep up with one mill’s arcane rules, editor demands, and weird topic requests isn’t enough.

Scan these “best content mill” posts, and you’ll often learn their recommended, best, top mills pay $3 an article. So much better than the ones that only pay $1!

I always hope that alarm bells will ring for writers as they see these rates…that there’ll be a “wait a minute” gut-check, and they’ll move on and look for decent-paying clients. But for many, the lure of easy money is too great.

Changing your vision

Soon, these same writers are asking me if I can teach them how to write fast enough to crank out ten articles a day — because that’s the only way they’ll earn enough to survive at a mill. And mills are all many writers know.

It’s a crisis of lack of vision. If you can’t conceive that there is any better writing gig out there, content mills are where you write.

I heard just this week from one writer who wanted to know if $25 was a good article rate or not. She’d recently moved up from a $10 article mill, and her editor was telling her she was lucky to repeatedly revise her articles for him at this magnificent rate. That this was pretty much the top rate.

I told her the last article I wrote paid $2,000. When I got paid for my first essay in the late 1980s, I got $200.

If a raise from $10 to $25 is super-exciting to you, and you can feed your family on that, then ignore this whole article and write for mills.

But from where I sit, it’s not going to make a meaningful difference for anyone writing in any first world country. Writing for content mills will never get you in the ballpark of replacing your day-job income.

There’s a whole alternative universe of great-paying writing markets out there. But you have to believe they exist — and then you have to be willing to expend some effort to find them.

5 Basic laws of writing online

Given how often I’m getting asked which content mill is best, I thought it might be helpful to put together a concise list of basics to know when looking for writing gigs online. Consider these my five business laws for freelance writers:

  1. Content mills, by definition, must underpay writers. Whenever mass content is needed, prices must be low, or the mill won’t turn a profit for its owners.
  2. Revenue share sites can only pay based on your traffic — which will mostly be tiny. Don’t write for them without at least some guaranteed revenue.
  3. Mass job bidding sites will always offer mostly rock-bottom prices.
  4. Anywhere thousands of writers are present, market forces will drive prices down, down, down. It will be difficult to earn professional rates.
  5. The only proven approach for building a lucrative freelance income is proactively prospecting to find your own clients.

To sum up, it’s not you — it’s the business model of mass writing and bidding platforms. Trying to find a better content mill is like trying to find a spot on the Earth where there isn’t gravity. It doesn’t exist.

So don’t waste your time switching from one content mill or big freelance-gig website to another, or signing up for many sites in hopes that one will be a winner. That’s time you could spend finding great clients who respect the value you bring, and pay you appropriately.

What’s the best website you’ve written for? Share your experience in the comments.

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52 comments on “Writing for Content Mills: Did You Pick the Wrong One?
  1. Mary says:

    Thanks for all the information. I wondered if any of the readers/writers out there have any experiences to share about the Canadian-based website, Digital Journal?

  2. Nora King says:

    I am greatful to have come upon this discussion. I too have had much difficulty finding work and have yet to find my first job although I have tried for several months now since having completed an online course. I must admit that I thought I had been “had” by all the “promise” of the online course for a lucrative income when I saw the rates offered by these mills. Most telling has been that, after completing an application for enrollment in one of these mills, they ask for your credit card information!!! I immediately back out of this, as no one should ever have to pay for employment.

    • Carol Tice says:

      There are a ton of scams online, Nora. To write as a career, you have to learn to find real clients who pay professional rates. Writers need to realize that their freelance career is not waiting for them on some website’s dashboard that hundreds of writers are checking. There’s never good pay there.

  3. Saikat Kar says:

    Your articles give me hope, but unfortunately, the reality I face disagrees with some of them. I have such a hard time finding even the most basic $5 article jobs that these seem unreal.

  4. You know, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a clear guide on “how to tell a content mill.” I have a feeling that a lot of people (the newcomers to freelancing, anyway) will assume that label applies to every site that’s loaded with articles–but I know of several sites (e. g., psychcentral.com, stretcher.com, ListVerse.com, LivingBetter50.com) that fit that definition and yet have well-written articles by expert-in-the-field contributors. Usually they focus on a clearly defined topic niche and have firm standards and formal guidelines on what they’ll accept–and they don’t buy sight unseen in bulk.

    As for actual pay rates–well, most of them are either clear about not paying at all because their writers contribute for love not money, or they pay somewhere in the $50-70 range.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…7 Blessings We Forget to Thank God ForMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Katherine, do me a favor and go over to this post and mention all the ones that pay over $50 – I’d like to add them to my markets that pay list. http://www.makealivingwriting.com/140-websites-that-pay-writers-updated-2014/

      I find that once you hit $50 a post or more, there’s a different business model, usually. They sell consulting or physical products — there’s some real revenue that enables them to pay more than $15.

      I can tell from the titles of those sites that they don’t let you write about ‘whatever you want’ — one of my ‘tells’ for a content mill is when you see that offer. Because there’s no viable business model where you could do that — real businesses have a specific industry and audience they need you to write to.

  5. Julie says:

    I’ve been meaning to stop at Carol’s blog again – haven’t been here in a while.

    Here’s what’s up with me lately:

    I’m hoping within a year I’ll have the courage to start charging the rates that Carol tells us to charge. I also found out one of my good friends knows about Make a Living Writing, too. Awesome!

    Also, (as much as I hate to bad-mouth any company) I officially boycotted Textbroker:

    I even let them keep my last $5. They obviously need it more than I do if they can only afford to pay $2-$4 per hour. I’m not sure how they can get away with paying U.S. Writers less than even Mc Donald’s employees’ minimum wages.

    I do still work for Writer Access, because at least the four-star writers can make an average living wage for times when they need extra money. However, for WA, it depends on the client. I get some that love my writing, and I’m done with each article in less than a half hour tops (only 150-300 words) and I receive about $15. For these projects, I have almost no expenses except for my Internet connection so it works out okay at least for now.

    However, WA has the occasional “you gotta revise every one you write” types of clients – one in particular only paying $11 for an article that takes me more than an hour to write. Then, I have to spend another hour changing it. It’s not worth working for some clients, but it’s worth it for others, and WA does have an option to sign up for a Premium Certification, which I might do soon. The Premium Certification ones would pay writers 10 cents per word or more.

    If I must work for a CM, Writer access is one of the only ones I would respect.

    By the way, I did have mixed feelings about Fiverr:

    Fiverr is okay if you don’t undercharge yourself. On that site, you have the freedom to set your own rates. You can decide how much you’re willing to give a client for $5 then when you become a Level 2 (which I became) or higher, you can start setting up Gig Extras. However, I had a problem getting more clients after I raised my Fiverr rates.

    I didn’t want to sell myself short anymore, though. I was for a while only pulling in about $200/month extra for well over the allotted hours I should have had to work. (I’m too embarrassed to say now how many hours per week I worked for that money!)

    Still, even Fiverr is better than Texbroker because you have the freedom to set boundaries on how much work you will do for the price. However, I hate that content mills and bidding sites will not let you communicate directly with your clients. I don’t know most of their first names even.

    Because of the above-mentioned frustrations, I’m moving toward localizing myself now:

    I officially have my first Green Bay, WI client as of 11/19/2014. It’s a cleaning company for whom I worked from 2012-2013 and August 2014 to present. I’m assisting them with WordPress setup and content management and will be doing social media (probably) for them. It’s such an exhilarating experience working in an office setting around other people instead of being isolated for nine years like I was.

    I want to add that if it weren’t for the Make a Living Writing blog, I may have never had the courage to make the steps I’m making.

  6. Calvin Black says:

    Carol,
    This post was such a great affirmation for the direction that I’ve decided to go. I joined Elance over a year ago looking for a side income but the time spent trolling the job lists and applying only to be beat out by those who are willing to write for pennies was very disheartening. Promoters of great side income streams push Elance and Odesk, and Elance itself highlights top Elancers who are making great money, how do you explain the existence of these success stories?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Easy — they’re outliers. Every rule has its exception. I do know a couple of people who earn $60K on Elance. Usually, they have a highly desirable, fairly arcane expertise area and can write as a subject matter expert, off the top of their head. So they can write fast.

  7. Pete Boyle says:

    Great post Carol,

    There have been times where I’ve found myself at a bit of a lull in my workload and thought about heading over to a content mill or bidding site to see if there’s anything extra I could pick up.
    Unfortunately I never actually bid for anything instead wasting time trying to find a decent paying gig that hasn’t had hundreds of people apply to it!

    I always like reading your articles on content mills and bidding sites. It makes me realise that it is truly just a race to the bottom and a huge waste of time. As Amel said above, why should we be looking for jobs that can cover us for a week when we could be working with clients with whom a single gig could cover a month?

    Thanks again Carol
    Pete Boyle recently posted…The Single Most Important Tool In a Freelancer’s Toolbox is…My Profile

  8. Christy Mann-Iiames says:

    Thank you so much for your advice and information on content mills. I have decided to start freelance writing and was looking at all these mills wondering which one would be the “best”. Your article was just what I needed. Now instead of wasting my time and energy trying to earn pennies, I am going to use my previous knowlege and experience as a reporter and marketing assistant to build my business with paying clients.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Christy —

      Thanks for making my day! You are the exact person I wrote this post for, and everyone like you.

      If you have reporting experience, there is NO REASON you should ever write for a content mill. You have skills! You have a portfolio! Just market — send queries, pitch companies that need blogging. Find your own clients.

  9. Thoroughly enjoyable and provoctive read Carol. Thankyou!

    I have been writing on and off for WritersDomain.net and had reasonable success with it. As a recipient of the blind disability support pension it is supplementing my income nicely. However, aside from the remuneration which provides pocket money for my craft beer hobby, there is very little satisfaction in it. At first it was great to earn a little more money on the side however that novelty is likely to wear off quickly. Writing about topics such as Toyota wreckers and the like will get long in the tooth before too long. If I do not find something that is personally rewarding, writing for WD will eventually seem soul destroying.

    I must ask… The Australian Writers’ Centre offer a four week long course in magazine and newspaper feature writing. At AU$400 it almost seems too good to be true, however the AWC claims that its graduates have gone on to write for major publications. Should I throw caution to the wind and go for it?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Graham, afraid I know nothing about Australian writing courses. I do teach an Article Writing Masterclass myself, and we’ve had grads do great things as well. I think I took a magazine writing course at my local college at one point for less than $400.

      You’re smart to realize that writing bizarre content-mill topics isn’t going to be sustainable, and to look at improving your skills.

      I think that’s a big thing many writers miss, is that mill writing is going to be a living death. Most people can’t do it for very long without becoming very unhappy. It’s not very creative, it’s not interesting, and as you say, it pays pin money. It gets old fast.

      • Thankyou very much for the advice Carol. 🙂

        At first I was skeptical of the AWC’s courses’ merit, especially as I was of the belief that a degree was the only pathway to a rewarding career in freelance writing. Perhaps this is not the case after all.

        At the moment I am struggling to find motivation for hammering out a couple of articles for WD. On a good day I will manage two or three however there are only so many angles one can create for air conditioning. I would much rather focus my energies and attention towards my blog but no money means no beers and thus nothing to write about. :p

  10. Oana says:

    Wow, well said. And unfortunately I know too well what you are saying…

  11. Enstine Muki says:

    Hi Carol,
    I think this is my first time here. I found your link on Anne’s 50 top female bloggers and I must say this is a wonderful blog to read daily.

    You’ve written on a hot topic here Carol. I’m gradually getting into this writing business and I worry about finding clients that pay good. I have a few that come to me through my blog but I’m looking to step the number up.

    Thanks for these tips and do have a wonderful week ahead
    Enstine Muki recently posted…Please DON’T CLICK! I don’t want you to know this TRAFFIC secret!My Profile

  12. Rohi Shetty says:

    Carol,
    Thanks for this great line:
    “Trying to find a better content mill is like trying to find a spot on the Earth where there isn’t gravity.”

    I’ve tried Suite101, Bukisa, and Constant Content. Constant Content is slightly better than the others but ultimately not worth it.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…How James Chartrand Helped Me Publish 6 Kindle Books in 5 MonthsMy Profile

  13. Rob S says:

    I recently started writing for a content provider. The difference between this company and a content mill is that they already have corporate clients and need writers. They don’t advertise for writers. When they need new writers, they ask their freelancers for referrals. Although they take a big cut (and earn it), the pay is still good. I just finished a 600 word article for $175. When I used Demand Studios, it would have been $15 and I would have gotten $10 to $20 at most through Elance.

    I like writing for this company because I know I’ll be getting work every month. In my spare time, I still look for magazine and other higher paying work, but it’s always hit-or-miss.

    I can’t offer any advice about how to get work with one of these companies because this came to me out of the blue. It wouldn’t have, though, if I hadn’t done a lot of writing before.
    Rob S recently posted…Freelancing, Expat Living and FreedomMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great to hear how you’re earning more than 10x more than mills, Rob!

      All I can say is…keep raising your sights, until you have client who pay you $600 for that 600-worder. Or more. Find your own clients and eliminate that ‘big cut’ from the agency, and you’ll earn a lot more.

  14. This cracked me up:”As if trying to keep up with one mill’s arcane rules, editor demands, and weird topic requests isn’t enough.”

    Happy timing on finding this post. I’ve used all kinds of sites for income during the past few years, usually at about 5 cents a word. In the past few months I’ve pushed past my discomfort with marketing myself and I’ve been trying out better opportunities.

    Acquiring private clients takes time, yet it’s happening. I’ve been enjoying your site during these changes. Thanks for all the inspiration.

  15. Michelle says:

    Love the post, Carol. Been there, done that with the mills. In order to eat, you have to produce at a rate that requires an amphetamine addiction to keep going.

    I like that you mentioned their “arcane rules,” great way to put it. I remember the nightmare of 50 page wacky style guides that changed constantly. No one knew the “correct” format for the week of anything. I recently found a client that paid 30 cents a word (getting there) and all I needed was sound journalism knowledge. Got approved on draft one. It’s hard, but finding those clients is worth the discomfort of breaking out of your comfort zone and self-marketing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Awesome to hear you’re moving up, Michelle!

      I think there’s a myth that writing for content mills is ‘easy,’ just like we think fast food will be fast. 😉

  16. Cherese Cobb says:

    I agree with you Andrea. Why fight for peanuts at the bottom when you can fight for (insert favorite food here) steak at the top? I started writing four months ago, and I am not making a livable wage yet. However, I know that it takes time to break into the writer’s market. I have one high paying blogging client now. I know if I keep ticking away, I will this work. That wouldn’t be the case, if Carol hadn’t convienced me that content mills are a waste of time; after three months, I had only made $20. I just stopped working for them two weeks ago!
    Cherese Cobb recently posted…Pumpkin Gingerbread TrifleMy Profile

  17. Tom Bentley says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that content mills are garbage mills, for pay and for product. Carol, you’ve done great work on this topic to educate writers and turn them toward more rewarding (in many ways) projects.

    But there are some rare content marketers that do well for writers. For instance, the last month or so, I’ve been writing for Skyword.com (who dub themselves an “enterprise-class content marketing platform”), writing a range of marketing pieces for Google. This past week I was writing 250-word emails for $400 a piece, which is decent pay. There are some content intermediaries out there who can hook you up with good projects.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hey, nothing wrong with that rate! I consider Skyword one of the ‘move-up mills’ that are aggregating better clients who’ve realized they need something that’s actually readable, unique and interesting.

  18. Andrea Kluge says:

    Hear, hear, Carol! I almost went with a content mill when I started out but simple math was all I needed to steer clear of this trap. Early on, I lost a potential client to Fiverr, so much the better. It’s not a question of “How do I compete?”, it’s “Do I want to compete?” For me, the answer was “No!”

  19. Sam Edge says:

    The problem is that there is a huge market feeding those who believe it’s easy to make money online – or anything for that matter. I come from a background of offline business success in planning and project management but I’ve struggled more that I care to admit trying to adapt my skills to the online marketplace.

    My delusion was that I could make money with out having to talk to humans – which isn’t my strength. I just wanted to write – which I love. Unfortunately, it turns out that networking, marketing and interview skills are just as important working online as in traditional business – no matter how many SERPs there are for “making good money on Hub Pages / Elance …”

    Finding and nurturing quality gigs is hard work. I’ve been able to get as much as $0.20 / word writing for paying blogs. This takes me at least a full day to just write the article. This is only good for a part time income – but it’s infinitely better than any content mill.

    I’ve been spending more time submitting query letters to magazines. I’ve not yet landed a high paying gig, but it’s coming. You have to pay your dues in any business – the satisfaction of breaking through is the payoff.

    In my short time working online, I’ve found that a trusted source of information is gold. You will always find the answer your looking for if you Google it – even if it’s not true. I’ve found Carol to be a voice of reason in a sea of snake oil.

    Thanks Carol.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks Sam! That’s a snappy slogan there — and so happy to hear that’s your perception, since that is my goal with this blog, to be a b.s.-free zone!

      Mind if I use it on my About page here? If you’ve got a head shot of yourself, email it over to me. 😉

      For you, Sam, sounds like the trick is upping your speed — it shouldn’t take you a day or more to write a blog post that’s going for $.20 a word. I’ve written tons of 500-word blog posts around that rate in the past, with a goal of taking a maximum of 90 minutes including research. You might check out my ebook 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster — got some tips on how to do that.

      • Sam Edge says:

        Thanks Carol, that would be amazing. I’ll send a pic to you directly.

        I do need to up my writing speed. My writing habit is to start with an idea and muscle my way through – editing as I go so my first draft is close to final. It’s a habit that’s worked for me in business communications but not so much here. I’m getting better at preparing outlines and doing less editing on the first draft. I’ll definitely check out your ebook.

        This old dog needs a few new tricks. 🙂 Best, Sam
        Sam Edge recently posted…Nov 4, PEST AnalysisMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Yeah…editing as you go is bad for your creative flow. Instead, spit it out, and then go back and edit. Probably halve your writing time right there.

  20. Oleg says:

    A very on-point assessment, Carol. Unfortunately (I’d like for things to be different, but who wouldn’t?).

    I’ve never worked for content mills, but I have spent years bidding on Elance, and I have seen prices plummet as the site’s popularity grew. These days it seems to be targeted exclusively at startups in need of cheap workforce, with no consideration whatsoever for freelancers. And it’s only likely to get worse.

    One simple thing I’ve realised – nobody wants you to write stuff. They want you to make them more money, give them more customers, keep their existing customers, make them look like experts etc. Content by itself, in isolation from these benefits, it worth bugger-all.

    Writers who get overly hung up on the nature and volume of content, as opposed to its purpose and its ability to generate income for the client, will *always* get shafted in terms of price. Even a billionaire will haggle with them for the cost of one word, because they won’t understand just how valuable that one word, in the right place, can be.

    Content mills only aggravate this, because you don’t event have direct access to the client. All you get is unscrupulous editors who take advantage of you. And that’s no way to do business.

    • Carol Tice says:

      You bring up a point I meant to make in the piece — writers and other freelancers need to understand that places like Elance are not set up to benefit them. They’re set up to benefit the clients, by delivering what they need for pennies. That’s why you’re smart to stay off these places, or at very least be extremely selective about what types of gigs you bid on there.

  21. Ann-Louise Truschel says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of content mills. Unfortunately, these mills will continue to exist because many writers don’t know their worth or are afraid to demand real money or because so many “contributors” aren’t writers; $10-25 is probably more than they’re worth.

    The caveat is, and always will be: You get what you pay for.

    • Carol Tice says:

      And in the case of the mill model, getting a $10 article is just fine, because these SEO keyword-stuffed pieces aren’t really meant for people to read. They’re just for search engines to index, to try to get someone to click an ad on a page.

      It’s a fading business model that never really worked well, but with each update to its algorithm, Google is systematically shutting it down. Anyone who’s relying on writing these type of articles for their living would do well to be planning their next move, as demand for this type of writing is shrinking fast.

  22. Louise says:

    I’m not quite up to supporting myself entirely on work for private clients, but I’m getting close. Real writing is infinitely more rewarding than typical mill work. Reporting is fun and exciting, you get to learn tons of new stuff and you’re treated like a professional instead of a disposable drone. It’s thrilling to have your real name attached to work you’re proud of. Totally worth every second spent marketing, IMO.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m with you, Louise — most mill writing seems to be a sort of living brain death, and as you note, you’re expendable. So gigs may come and go unpredictably.

      It’s far better to build expertise, and learn to write for people to read rather than robots. Then you have more value to clients. I’ve even had clients wait for weeks for me to be available — that’s the position you want to be in, not just another writer among hundreds signing into a dashboard and all scrabbling for the same set of listings.

  23. Fayola says:

    Hi Carol, I have often wondered about these freelancer sites, especially when you quote their “rock bottom” prices. True, $25 is nothing to an American, but that can buy me a week of groceries here in the Caribbean. Couldn’t it be a good side income for someone like me, not to mention writing experience?

    • Raspal Seni says:

      I think Carol already replied you in the above post: “If a raise from $10 to $25 is super-exciting to you, and you can feed your family on that, then ignore this whole article and write for mills.”

      Yes, $25 maybe a decent amount in some countries and could buy a week of groceries for you (how about 0.25 cents an hour, some people charge at these content mills?), but as per my experience working on oDesk, such experience isn’t worth.

      And, if you’re looking to get testimonials from clients at such content mills, they’d hardly be of any use. The testimonials you get are from some unknown clients having no headshots or links to their websites.

    • Carol Tice says:

      It could be, depending on where you write for — I gather some mills won’t take non-US writers.

      But in essence, that is the writer mills are set up to serve — the ones who’re looking for a bit of side income, rather than a full-time living. It’s the writers’ mistake to try to earn a full living at it.

    • Amel says:

      Dear Fayola,
      Let’s suppose that you were able to earn $250 per article instead of $25. That would buy groceries for ten weeks instead of one. Living in a “cheap” country does not obligate you to make the minimum needed to survive.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Right on, Amel — it’s a change in mindset that’s needed from, “I’m trying to make enough to not starve” to “I’m trying to earn a comfortable living here, put away money for retirement, take vacations, etc.”

  24. Shahrukh says:

    Great article, couldn’t agree more with what has been mentioned.

    Keep it up 🙂

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