"We need six to seven articles a day with 200 words each. $15 per story. ... Ten articles, 400 to 600 words each, three key word links, and level one and two "spun" versions. Less than $500. ... Ten articles, 300 words per article, $200. ... 100 short customer review submissions, $50. ... Ghost articles, 100 words, $3 per article for content farms submissions."
These are actual freelance writer solicitations, taken from several freelance markets online. Consider it a welcome to the world of digital content, where amateurs are writing for as a little as $10 per story or a few cents a blurb. Some of them make nothing at all. Many of them will never see a byline. And even for those that do receive a byline, their stories appear nowhere in particular.
Worse, the majority of offerings aren't about original writing anymore. Almost half of the proposed work is for "spinning content," which is the catch-all term for rearranging paragraphs and using a thesaurus to make the same articles sound like different articles. Right. Some publishers want to automate the process so they receive ten stories for the price of a fraction of one. They'll get plenty of takers too. The amateurs are desperate enough to outbid each other to oblivion.
Expertise is nonessential. Proficiency is in the eye of the beholder, sort of.
Content mills, or content farms as they are called, are not just about little companies or shady operators anymore. It's becoming a standard practice.
AOL asks its writers to produce as many as seven articles a day to drive its hit-and-run visits primarily from organic search engines and others try to eek out $15 for 100 words that make it past the black hole. Yet, AOL had $315 million laying around to buy the Huffington Post. Yahoo too. It recently bought a content mill, hoping to cash in on Google traffic.
At the same time, these rates can be considered generous. Plenty of e-zines and news sites convince writers to work for free, offering the favor of exposure, appeasement of their vanity, and the promise of future "influence." All of these terms are nothing more than the newest carrots in the marketplace of quick content, inflated opinion, and illusionary traffic.
No one is exempt from receiving these offers either. I recently had someone I thought was a friend ask if I wanted "to be considered" to volunteer time for their upcoming paid subscription e-zine. It wasn't the first time. It likely won't be the last.
I sent them a video of Harlan Ellison. The context might be different, but the sentiment is the same. If the publisher can make a living off what the writer writes, then the writer can make a living too.
What Ellison doesn't consider in the modern age is the effect on unsuspecting readers. People assume the content they are reading has some sort of vetting process, especially when it comes from big brands. A growing percentage of it has very little. The content is nothing more than people plunking on keyboards in a virtual sweat shop.
The cheap content has another side effect too. The goal is to generate an ever-increasing mountain of slush that can be spammed across social networks and capture search traffic. You can see it everywhere in the news today. Half of everything reported is speculative, designed to capture our attention long enough to click on a link that refutes its own headline.
Of course. In many cases, some amatuer-publisher arrangements make pay-per-post writing and Twitter perks look like gravy trains. And yet, the companies adopting content farm approaches are the same ones that question the ethics of pay-per-post schemes. Can you imagine? They paid a writer $3 to question the ethics of another writer who accepted $150.
What writers need to know before they jump into the profession.
There is a time and place to write cheap or free, but it's never based on the terms offered by the client or publisher. It's only based on your terms. (The same can be said of pitches from public relations professionals.)
No Experience. While there may come a time when no one asks for clips or samples, amateurs do have to start somewhere. They need about five clips and samples. There is nothing wrong with writing a few for the favor of a byline or, assuming the publisher is reputable, working on speculation for the right acceptance rate. Even so, no one is going to be impressed by poorly edited clips under 200 words. You'd be better off publishing a blog, assuming you have some talent.
Topic Passion. Sometimes you might want to cover a topic that is near and dear to your heart, perhaps even an article that helps generate exposure for a nonprofit. It's an admirable pursuit, even if whatever you are passionate about isn't related to charity. That might even be what you are hoping to achieve — a forum of sorts, now and again, without starting a blog.
Promotional Purposes. You own or work for a company or already have your own blog. Writing the occasional guest post or agreeing to a temporary cross-post endeavor sometimes serves as a nice introduction. But you have to make sure it makes sense for you and your company or your blog. All guest posts ought to be accompanied by a bio and direct link somewhere. Even then, choose carefully. Not every promotional opportunity is worth the time it takes to write something.
Personal Favor. In the same vein as promotional, writing an occasional guest post for another blogger because they don't want their blog to go dark while on vacation is a nice gesture. The relationship exchange rate usually works both ways. Mostly, it only makes sense when you have a commodity or service or blog in the first place. Sometimes you might even help someone start something, but never do it if you expect something in return. It's a favor, nothing more.
Community Passion. Maybe you belong to some community and want to contribute something. There is nothing wrong with it. Sharing between friends and people with similar interests is much like bringing a pot roast to a pot luck. Just keep in mind that every social network has its own rules of content ownership. Be very wary of any network or service that claims all rights, especially if they supersede your own rights.
While there might be a few other special cases, there aren't too many good reasons outside of these five. Expect some people to try and convince you otherwise.
Ninety-nine percent of all offers that promise "more work in the future" are lies. Unless it is in writing, no one will ever give you stock in a start-up company or publication (and even if they do write a contract, consider such offers with the skepticism of an investor). Accepting a reduced rate to help someone during a rough patch (or extending excessive credit) is money that you ought to consider lost revenue until proven otherwise.
It might sound cynical, but it's reality. The difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional can produce something that people want and the amateur has to convince people that they can produce something people want. Having worked on both sides of the fence as the vendor and client, I learned most of it the hard way. Sometimes two or three times. You don't have to.
So what is a fair rate for freelance writers?
When I owned and published a limited subscription international trade publication, we paid $300 per 700-word article, which was 30-50 percent higher than publications with similar circulations at the time, regardless of where the writer lived. More recently, I asked two writers if they would volunteer to write for Liquid [Hip], but haven't given them assignments because it conflicts with my belief that writers deserved to be paid. I don't have a budget.
I ran into the same conflict a few years ago too. I passed on a lucrative offer to become an editor and co-publisher of what seemed to be a well-financed online publication. Negotiations broke down because I wanted to pay writers and they wanted to appeal to the willingness of amateurs to crank out free content. No hard feelings. We're still friends.
At the same time, maybe amateurs need to know that professional freelance rates for copywriting range from $45 to $150 per hour, web content from $40 to $100 per hour, and technical writing from $50 to $100 per hour. Two hours per half-page is a fair estimate of time, with adjustments for research, interviews, and revisions built in to the estimate. Some writers do charge more, but anything less is amateur. Too much amateur work will only keep you there.
By the way, some material, like print ads and outdoor, take more time, regardless of how many words. Ergo, it often takes more time to write less. So expert magazines often pay less than those rates above, with the low approximately $150 for 600-750 words.
Anything less, regardless of praise, should convince you to look at what kind of revenue they generate, how nice their offices might be, and what kind of cars they drive. Why? Because you might be the person who affords them those luxuries.
Related articles on quality content and content farms.
• Content Farms And The Death of Remarkable Content by Lisa Barone.
• Four Ways To Improve Content by Geoff Livingston.
• Mahalo’s Calacanis: Time To End The Content Farm Arms Race by Danny Sullivan.
• I Worked on the AOL Content Farm & It Changed My Life by Marshall Kirkpatrick.
• Blekko Bans Content Farms Like Demand Media’s eHow From Its Search Results by Erick Schonfeld.