Ben Locker

PRO

24 July 2012

Are content mills immoral?

There’s been a lot of talk about money on the PCN forum, and particularly about the poor rates offered by content mills and similar sites.

Content mills - immoral and exploitative?

A couple of years ago, I said that I wasn’t too bothered by content mills making money out of cheap content, dismissing them as places that hire suckers to write for cheapskates. I was rather proud of that soundbite at the time but, of course, it was too simplistic.

They’re really like supermarkets in which only the store manager can earn a living wage.

The irony is that they could be useful social and commercial enterprises that drove up standards for writers, while still offering a cheap and good-value service. Let me explain why.

A selfish business model

The real problem is in the content mills’ business model. If a mill is able to offer prices of 3p per word to its customers (as one current mill claims to), it stands to reason that it can’t pay much more than 2p to its writers.

Indeed, since I first drafted this post, it has transpired that the content mill Copify pays this particular writer 1.5p per word.

Not that he’s complaining.

So what really gets on my nerves is establish [sic] copywriters whose work pretty much comes [to] them writing about how shitty sites like Copyify [sic] are. Copify is [a] site for copywriters and content writers to find jobs and for companies to find article writers. The pay is not amazing, but the jobs are often small and simple meaning you can knock out a few before lunch while watching TV.

Established copywriters mock Copify and refer to it is [sic] a “copy mill” and suggest the quality of work is lacking and the pay too low. They guffaw at the writers being paid 8p a word as though it’s nothing. Most of my jobs earn me 1.5p a word and I’m very happy with that. That means for a 700 word article I get £10 which depending on the article, is good money.

This writer argues that the content mill gives him experience, which will then allow him to get higher paying gigs at some later point. My argument is that you shouldn’t exploit someone, just because they haven’t got experience “” you should pay them fairly for the work they do (though I would worry if they kept the TV set on while working at the proper rate).

Let’s look at the maths. One of the people who commented on the writer’s article directed readers to a site that paid 2p per word “” we’ll use that as our baseline.

Assuming you hired a writer at that rate (the mill giving them 2p from the 3p charged to clients), a 350-word press release would net them £7, with another £3.50 going to the mill. Given that the average salary in the UK is £26,200, the copywriter would have to churn out just over 3,742 press releases in a year (72 per week, or over 14 for every working day “” assuming the writer took no holidays. Ever). That’s the kind of calculation that has made most writers froth at the mouth.

But I think there’s a more worrying dimension. Let’s go back to the 1p per word the mill might be getting out of the 3p-per-word deal. Because it is getting half the money of its writers, the mill needs to sell 7,485 press releases to get its own equivalent of the national average wage. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pushed to research and write 2 really good press releases in a day. But I’ll be generous and assume that some writers could turn out 3 top-class releases in that period. Based on that calculation, they could write 15 in a week or 705 in a working year (47 working weeks and 5 weeks of holiday time). That’s a staggering calculation. Because it means the content mill (assuming it is sourcing only top quality releases) would need to hire the equivalent of 10.6 full time writers to earn it the equivalent of the national average wage. That’s before you take any overheads into account.

And the writers? Well, they’d earn £4,935 per year. I think that’s immoral.

But, but, but…

Of course, the content mills’ arguments run something like:

  • We charge what people are willing to pay
  • It gives people a leg up in the copywriting profession
  • It allows people to earn cash in their spare time.

But the fact remains that, by charging 3p per word, the mills are saying that a full time writer “” even a beginner “” is only worth paying less than £5,000 per year. That’s plain exploitative.

Now let’s flip the coin

One content mill recently scoffed at paying £175 for a press release. I think that’s a mistake. Imagine this scenario. The content mill abandons the 3p per word model, but retains the hypothetical split when it comes to the fee “” two thirds to the writer, one third to the mill. But this time it tells clients that the minimum fee for a press release is £75. That’s £50 for the writer and £25 for the mill. Based on our figures above, a writer working full time (3 press releases per day) would earn £150 per day (£750 per week, or £35,250 per 47-week working year). The mill would earn half of that in commission “” £75 per day (£375 per week, or £17,645 per working year). And even though it would be undercutting a huge number of freelance writers, the mill would earn £186,825 from the 10.6 writers it currently hires to net itself the equivalent of the national average wage. That would not only make it a tidy sum of money, but it would send out a strong message to customers that good content costs money “” and can stillbe good value. And it would stop writers who are trying to get a foothold in the profession from being exploited.

Will it happen?

There’s the question. But in the long term, I think it has to. After all, when a supermarket moves into town it might put the local butcher out of business. But if it then hires the butcher to work at its own meat counter, it has enough sense to pay that skilled individual a living wage. And not just because it’s moral “” but because it’s the sound commercial thing to do.

  • Content mills - immoral and exploitative?

What do you think?

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Stephen Marsh

July 24, 2012 at 9:38am

Great post Ben.

I do think that it’s everybody’s right to earn as little as they want, but in my experience valuing your time and work highly means clients will do the same thing.

I’m also not sure how Copify works in terms of using client names, keeping work on your portfolio, or building ongoing relationships. That’s all valuable stuff – but it seems to me that Copify doesn’t even tell you who the client is, necessarily.

But my problem with it isn’t low pay, as such. It’s that for a 300 word piece of website copy, the writer gets around £6 while Copify get £12.

That’s a backwards arrangement.

PRO

Ben Locker

July 24, 2012 at 9:44am

Hi Stephen – I don’t know how Copify slices up the pot, but I have seen it offer copy to clients for 3p per word.

I was working on the hypothesis that, if a mill charges 3p, it’ll pay out 2p to the writer and keep 1p itself.

Of course, if they cut the cake differently, the figures only change in the sense that the mill gets more and the writer gets less, or vice versa. But as we’re talking such small amounts, there’s never going to be a better deal for the writer from such a small pot of cash.

Andy Nattan

July 24, 2012 at 11:09am

I agree with everything you say Ben, but I can’t help but feel that we’re falling for it yet again.

Since they burst onto the scene, Content Mill 1’s entire schtick has been to wind up established copywriters, get us all riled up, and hope we write articles about how they’re really, really cheap.

And it works. And it’s worked again.

The sort of person who’ll use a mill isn’t bothered about our quality argument. They’re bothered about price. So when they’re in that mindset, yet another “by the way, Content Mill 1 will write you a press release for peanuts” post works as an advert. Of sorts.

As for this Joshua Boyd kid.

*slow hand clap*

Well done mate. You’re a year out of university, complaining on your free Tumblr blog about sanctimonious elitists stealing all the work. Above a post about why gun control is bad. Bravo.

Bobble Bardsley

July 24, 2012 at 11:22am

In my previous full-time job (the one I ditched to go freelance because I couldn’t bear it any longer) editorial staff were writing roughly 30 175-word articles per day – that’s 5,250 words per day or roughly 1.2 million over a working year – for around £17k.

I make that 1.4p per word, more or less. And I can honestly say that, in a room full of 40 or so recent graduates who’d studied Journalism or English Language degrees, there weren’t many who were particularly appreciative of the argument that it’s good experience.

Speaking from personal experience, when I was applying for jobs, I’m fairly sure the churned-out, no-better-than-adequate copy I had to show potential employers as examples of my skills lost me several full-time positions that I might otherwise have walked straight into.

Jamie Graham

July 24, 2012 at 11:34am

I had very little copywriting experience when I started out five years ago. Maybe I was just lucky, but I didn’t work for free or for very low fees like the ones mentioned above. One of my first clients was a global media agency who appreciate good content and paid me accordingly.

If you can write well, you can easily demonstrate this via your own blog or guest blogs. You can then use these as examples when trying to win clients – just like I did.

I don’t think the content mills are the only ones to blame – people should place more value on their skills and not work for such ridiculously low amounts. Copywriting is a profession, not just something you fit in between The Jeremy Kyle Show and Bargain Hunt!

PRO

Andy Nattan

July 24, 2012 at 11:51am

“If you can write well, you can easily demonstrate this via your own blog or guest blogs. You can then use these as examples when trying to win clients – just like I did.”

Thankyou Jamie!

I started as a junior copywriter pretty much straight out of university. All the company who hired me wanted to know was “did I have the talent to write copy”?

I didn’t need a portfolio of farmed clients for that. Just the stuff I’d been writing for years anyway, a writing assignment I was given before the interview, and the humility to realise that the world didn’t owe me a favour.

Stephen Marsh

July 24, 2012 at 1:02pm

“….a writing assignment I was given before the interview….”

Not to veer off course, but another thing I see a lot is people refusing to do anything for free, ever.

Andy obviously built up work in order to get the clients. I did the same – not only by writing speculative material for made up companies, but also by being obliging when one of my first clients said ‘Can you do this 100 words as a sample?’.

I’m not against copywriters understanding that sometimes, you do things that don’t necessarily reap a good financial reward. But if you price yourself as low as content mills encourage, you’ll never recoup those costs from other jobs.

Alastaire Allday

July 24, 2012 at 1:10pm

I’m not really afraid of the likes of Copify. The clients I work with see the difference in value between a copywriter who meets them face to face, finds out about their business, then works with them to write something that meets their objective — and sends a bill for his time, not in copper coin after copper coin at a penny a word, like some old gas meter you have to keep sticking money in to keep you warm. The bad clients end up at Copify. Good luck to them, they deserve each other.

Karen Goldfarb

July 24, 2012 at 7:15pm

I think content mills have a place, albeit a narrow place. I see the content they churn out. Most of it is sub-standard. I have a client that’s planning to use one for his blog and asked me to review the writers’ work. Of four, only one was decent, but at the lower end of what I’d consider decent, and I told him so. Even so, all their articles were riddled with misspellings, repeated usage of words when a new one was needed, poor sentence construction, and were just generally dull. But if he wants to buy copy by the ton, that’s his prerogative.

It would be nice to see these places charge more and hire better writers. I’d love that because I often subcontract and it would be nice to have a place with a pool of writers I trusted, not the drivel put out by the mills currently.

All that said, the places I really do object to are the agencies that crowd-source concepts. That’s asking creatives to literally give away their main and most important product–ideas. But it’s a free market so if you want to play that game, as a client or a creative, again, that’s your prerogative. Me, I’d rather leave the business and dig ditches. At least then you’ll get paid for your effort.

Rob

July 24, 2012 at 8:24pm

I would actually agree with your suggested pricing model but you’ve completely missed the whole area of volume.

Many of the clients who love the Copify service regularly order > 30,000 words per month. Your figures would simply not stack up for orders this big.

In fact, this mass debate is somewhat moot, our customers aren’t going to suddenly start using a traditional small copywriting agency with a handful of staff, because when they need 20k product descriptions by the end of the month, they simply can’t deliver, and with your suggested pricing they couldn’t afford it either.

The companies who use Copify are not “bad customers” but their needs are different. Typically SEOs or eCommerce site owners requiring not only the type of content but the volume they can’t get anywhere else.

As for the writers, exploitation? The work is there for taking and certainly not a “full time” offering.

We source the work, take care of all the billing and invoicing (aka chasing invoices!) and pay out what they’ve earned every week. Ideal for anyone wanting top up their income as and when they like. Hassle free!

In fact many of your “pro copywriter network” membership pick up extra work with us regularly.

When Branson next gets me on speed dial, and he needs a PR for the BBC, I’ll send him your way.

I’m sure next time you get a request for ten thousand car part descriptions you’ll return the favour 😉

Alastaire Allday

July 25, 2012 at 12:22pm

If Rob, above, is indeed genuine, it’s interesting how he attempts to justify his company’s service.

I couldn’t help crack a wry smile at his use of the line “hassle free!” at the end of his pitch, just like a certain popular payday loans company.

Just because you take the “hassle” out of it doesn’t mean it isn’t exploitative. Just because you don’t have to deal with clients, or send out invoices, doesn’t justify paying people 1.5 p a word.

There’s a joke up on Sickipedia at the moment:

My boss pulled up in his brand new BMW today and I couldn’t help but admire it.
“Nice car,” I said as he got out.
“Well,” he said, noticing my admiring looks, “Work hard, put the hours in, and I’ll have an even better one next year.”

Congratulations, Rob. You are that guy.

PRO

Tom Albrighton

July 25, 2012 at 2:54pm

Based on his email address, I can confirm that Rob is the real deal.

Alastaire Allday

July 25, 2012 at 3:50pm

Maybe now would be a good time to ask him why he was brand bidding on your company name and on Ben’s name on Adwords (if he doesn’t consider you competitors, that is…)

PRO

Tom Albrighton

July 25, 2012 at 4:01pm

I would pose the question, were your suggestion to do so not so impeccably eloquent in itself.

Mark Mauloni

July 25, 2012 at 6:32pm

I’m not a massive fan on charging on a per word basis. It often leads to the inclusion of words that shouldn’t really appear in the piece. I agree with Ben’s per job pricing model. It makes much more sense. Surely the point of all copywriting is to achieve a goal (e.g. inform, sign-up, sell, etc.) not a word count?

Lucy Smith

July 26, 2012 at 2:11am

My favourite thing about Copify is, and will always be, the Standard vs. Professional page under their FAQs.

Per-word pricing works for something like proofreading, but with copywriting it often takes more time and effort to write a short piece than a long piece. And, quite apart from the fact that per-word pricing devalues the work to little more than typing, that is why it’s not a fair pricing model.

TC/Writer Underground

July 26, 2012 at 5:41pm

At these prices, it’s probably fair to guess that most of this content is generated after a brief bout of online “research” — it’s essentially someone else’s work, but rewritten enough to

Unless anyone believes you get insight, interviews and actual original thought for a penny a word.

We can only hope that search engines improve to the point that all this pointless SEO copy — an artificial construct if ever there was one — will prove to be less valuable than the cost of generating it (we’re getting close).

How to kill content mills | Freelance Copywriter – Alastaire Allday

July 30, 2012 at 4:06pm

[…] But Ben Locker raises a very good point over on the Professional Copywriters’ Network — never mind the quality, are content mills immoral? […]

Mel Fenson

August 2, 2012 at 7:28am

Hmmm. there are lots of valid points in the article about content mills and I’m a huge fan of driving up rates for ‘proper’ writing. But I do feel a bit uneasy about linking to a particular writer’s blog to humiliate him. Perhaps that wasn’t the intention? But I think as comment #3 for this post shows, that was the outcome.

I originally started out writing on the fringes of the – hideous name alert – ‘Mummy blogging’ community. I was regularly depressed when some perceived misdemeanour or difference of opinion descended into a bitchy fight in the comments box. I would hate to see that start to happen here.

On another note, the argument about writing for peanuts also rages in the world of blogging and journalism. Journalists are outraged that bloggers will write in return for a link, when they have spent years perfecting their craft and want to pay their mortgage. I’ve been on both sides of that debate and there’s a huge difference between a 400 word blog post dashed off in 20 mins and a 1,000 word feature that took 5 hours to write (including interviews, etc.) and editors can tell – and will pay – the difference.

I’ve always thought that we should give the client some credit; the good ones know that if they want quality, they have to pay for it. And If they don’t know that…well there’s always another client.

Claire Broadley

September 28, 2012 at 1:26pm

I wrote for one of these sites once, almost as an experiment. The client had split their website into separate jobs: each page was listed separately. So, in theory, a 20-page website could have been written by 20 different people. It was bonkers! On top of that, they paid far more (after fees) than they would have paid me to write the whole thing in one go.