The New World of Freelancing Jobs for Writers

Earlier this month, writer Scott Turow spoke about freelancing opportunities and the writing profession when he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “The Slow Death of the American Author.” You can read the whole thing at their site, but here’s a quick summary.

Freelancing Jobs


1. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court decided people could import and resell foreign editions of American books.

2. This is the newest symptom in a cultural disease that is killing income streams for writers.

3. Google is killing writers by directing people to pirate sites, and by taking advantage of the fair use loophole with their Google Books function.

4. Book pirates are taking food out of the mouths of authors and their children.

5. The halcyon days of being an author for a living are gone forever.


With respect for Mr. Turow’s work and his contribution to the profession, I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms. Things are changing in the world of writing, but our best days are still ahead of us. The trick is understanding that the “author” model is changing to something that looks more like other freelancing jobs. Let’s look at his points one by one.

  1. Yup. This is true. The Supreme Court made this decision after a college student from India realized the Indian edition of his textbooks sold for a fraction of the American price, even though they were in English. The Court decided that if it was fair for publishers to engage in arbitrage by gouging Americans, it was equally fair for consumers to engage in arbitrage by finding the best deal possible. 
  2. Not really. Some copyright factors are cutting into traditional income streams. The days of being Scott Turow, or Stephen King, writing one book a year and making a few hundred grand annually…that stream is dying and some Internet chicanery contributes to that death. But the web as a whole, with the new opportunities for self-publishing, easier promotion in the hands of writers, and broader access to clients for all freelancing jobs — that’s making this the best decade to be a writer ever. 
  3. Nah. Remember back in the 1990s when Garth Brooks made a stink because record stores selling used CDs were killing his sales? He still made money the way musicians make money — with concert tickets. Google promotes books with their services, and any freelancer worth his salt can gain far more from Big G than it costs. 
  4. Again, no. Yes, some pirates distribute books for free and the author gets no cut. However, the amount of money that actually represents is a rounding error in comparison to how much freelancing writers earn if they do their jobs. The amount is smaller than the margin for error in the calculation. 
  5. Also again, no. Like I suggested in #2, and all over this blog, this is the best time ever to be a writer. Yes, we have to learn new skills — but none of those skills are harder than learning how to write. No, we can’t just turn out manuscripts and trust a publisher to do the rest. But we can learn those skills and create exactly the freelance living we want, doing jobs that are fun and challenging and interesting. 

Mr. Turow speaks from the point of view of anybody for whom a system worked well when that system is beginning to change. He can choose to panic and make his fears come true…for him. Or he can do what the rest of us freelance writers do: adapt, learn new skills, work a little harder and come out better than he came in.

If you’re not sure how, Scott, reach out. I’ll be thrilled to show you.


Market Review: Content Mills

Freelance writing success For readers who don’t know, content mills are a model mostly from the 2005-2011 era. They used search engine optimization tricks to derive advertising revenue from massive piles of C+/B- content. To do this, they needed massive piles of writers willing to write short articles for a low payment per piece.

Lots of professional freelancers are pretty hard on these sites, but if I’m not a raving fan I’m at least a lukewarm fan. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly about these sources of writing income.


The Good

The important thing to remember about content mills is they’re a deeply, deeply mercenary market. They’re in it to make money by gaming the system. If you’re also willing to game the system — especially their system — you can make a surprising amount of money.

For example, Demand Media pays approximately $25 for a 400-word article. That’s a little more than 6 cents a word — not bad, but not great. If you’re not too worried about never winning a Pulitzer, you can crank out three or four of those in an hour on topics where you’re already familiar. Making $75 to $100 an hour ain’t too shabby.

The other thing about content mills for freelance writers is they have a nearly bottomless demand for content. I keep my account open over at Demand even though I don’t write for them much any more. That way if I’m having a dry week, I can log in and make my earnings quota. They always have work.

The Bad

For freelance writers who want to expand their writing, content mills can become a “golden handcuff” trap. The money’s pretty easy, and you can make enough to get by. A year later, you find you’ve done nothing to grow your writing business or to improve your craft. You’re workin’ at the mill, and have gotten used to punching that clock and going home.

Since 2011, content mills have become riskier to depend on. Google doesn’t like their business model, and released the Penguin and Panda updates specifically to break it. This killed a lot of the mills in the past two years, but a few are still operating. You should get an account at one or more, but not rely on them for all your income.

The other bad side of content mills is they’re kind of annoying. Editorial and writing staff aren’t top-shelf. You’ll have to get used to snotty editors and weird rules. My favorite story was the time an editor from a home improvement mill sent back an article because my “math was wrong.” Turned out the editor didn’t know that 2x4s are not, in fact, 2 by 4. But this is a small price to pay for the money to be made.

The Ugly

Listen very carefully. Freelance writers aren’t the only people who look down on content mills. Publishers do, too, and potential clients at all in the know about our industry. If you write for a content mill, use a pen name. I’m not saying you’ll definitely lose opportunities if they find out you wrote for eHow or — but why take the chance?


Mystery writing star Lawrence Block tells a story about how he used to write porn for a living before he became famous. It paid the bills, and let him write for a living before he could write what he wanted to for a living. Content mills are a bit like that. It’s harder work, and you shouldn’t necessarily be proud of it…but it pays the bills so you don’t have to go find a real job.