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

Carol Tice

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

  1. Nora King

    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

      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.

  2. Saikat Kar

    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.

  3. Katherine Swarts

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      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. https://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.

  4. Julie

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad to hear you’re moving forward and finding your own clients, Julie!

    • Julie

      Thank you, Carol. Although I did have some of my own clients in the past, I am happy that for the first time ever I’m working for someone in the same city where I live.

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