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 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.
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.
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 About.com — 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.