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How a Writer Can Move Up From Content Mills – Mailbag

Carol Tice

Escape From Content Mill HellOn this edition of Mailbag, we tackle a question I get a lot: How can a freelance writer kick the content-mill habit and move up to better-paying clients?

On the recent post about Demand Studios’ IPO, reader Mike Biscoe was concerned about the revelation that DS doesn’t make a profit, which puts them at risk for going bust. An excerpt of his comments and questions:

I’ve been working for Demand Studios since 2009. Almost exclusively. I live in Thailand and because the cost of living where I am is cheap, I can pay the bills simply by writing DS articles. My only other income comes from occasionally writing articles for similar content mills that pay half of what DS does. Prior to 2009, I have no experience in writing anything other than regular letters to my grandma.

I am here on a tourist visa and therefore can’t legally work. If the [DS] job goes, I go. Since I am newish to writing I can’t say I know that much about what a logical next step would entail. Though I don’t think DS is going out of business tomorrow, it reminds me that I must look ahead.

I want to begin formulating a plan for more meaningful mid- and long-term goals.

Do I carry a scarlet letter for the rest of my life for writing eHow, Trails and Livestrong articles?

In spite of what good DS might do for me, there have been times when I’ve been so frustrated by the process that I’ve imagined jettisoning my laptop right through the window and listening with satisfaction as it crashes on the rooftop five stories below. In other words, I don’t want to believe that DS is my only hope for employment as a new writer.

Thanks for the information and clear-headed advice.

To get the easy stuff out of the way first: You’ll only be branded a mill writer forever if you put DS on your resume. Leave it off, and no one will know. End of stigma.

Here’s the nut of my answer to your main question about kicking mills and getting paid more: To move up, you’ll need to actively market your writing business. That’s the gist of it. Getting better pay involves getting off your tushy, and looking for better clients.

There are some basic ways to do that — plus one I’ll throw in that’s unique to your being an expat living in an exotic locale. Here are seven ways to break in to better markets:

  1. Create a writer Web site and SEO it. If you don’t have a site that promotes your writing, create one as soon as possible. Make sure you use key words about the types of writing you want to do in your header and home-page copy. Put up some clips — yes, for now they’ll be from DS sites, but replace those as soon as you can with others. This will allow some prospective clients to find you. So once you’ve done the active work of creating and properly optimizing your site, you can passively snag clients with it. I’d put in “American expat in Thailand” somewhere, if I were you.
  2. Create a personal blog. You can make a strong audition piece — especially if you’d like to blog for pay for others — by starting your own blog on your writer site. Don’t doodle on there — write each entry as if your career depended on it. It does. This technique paid off for me huge, and now some months I make half or more of my income from paid blogging.
  3. Direct-mail or email prospects. Identify a type of publication or business where you know something about their subject matter, and then do some online research. Create a list of prospective publications or companies. Contact their editor, marketing manager, communications director or other likely target. Since you’re overseas I’m betting mail or email will be the way to go rather than cold-calling on the phone. Introduce yourself in your mail or email piece and simply ask if they use freelance writers. This has a low response rate, but you will usually get some clients, as Chris Bibey recently testified over on All Freelance Writing.
  4. Seek out guest-post opportunities. If you’ve written for DS, there are probably blogs where you could guest post. Subscribe to Blogger Linkup and respond to sites seeking guest bloggers. Yes, it’s usually for free, but it’s a valuable form of marketing for you. Being seen on high-traffic blogs can get you clients — and it gets you clips from places that aren’t from DS sites. Try to spend some time on these guest posts and really make them strong. You’re auditioning for better-paying clients. The bigger-viewership site you can appear on, the better.
  5. Network online. I’d ordinarily recommend getting out to some in-person networking events, but since you’re in Thailand, it’s probably hard to drop by a big-American-city Chamber of Commerce networking event. But you can meet and connect with lots of people on LinkedIn groups, and networking sites such as Biznik. The latter is another good place to create strong articles that could serve as example clips.
  6. Leverage your locale. OMG,  you’re living in Thailand! I bet you’ve visited plenty of interesting tourist spots there. You could write a query letter to all sorts of travel magazines offering to share those. You could also hit all the simple-living mags and Web sites with your “how to live in Thailand on $1 a day” ideas. You’ll need to learn to write query letters, but it’s not that hard, and well worth it for the money you could make. You can read a book about querying if you need to learn more. You can resell your Thailand-travel story angles umpty-dozen times. You might start with tourism companies that need brochure copy or marketing letters, and work your way up to calling on airlines that fly to Thailand and pitching their in-flight magazines (these are usually top payers). Find editors online or in the Writer’s Market.
  7. Apply for jobs you see online. Start diversifying where you write for — even if it’s at DS rates — by answering online job ads. You should be able to gradually increase your rates as you acquire non-mill clients. Problogger often runs ads for bloggers at rates at or a little more than what you’re making, and the work may make for stronger clips for moving up.

There’s more about how to market your writing here and here.

How would you advise Mike to move on beyond content mills? Feel free to add more tips in the comments below.

Photo via Flickr user extranoise