An unsolicited offer of work popped into my email inbox last week. The sender wanted to know if I’d be interested in an assignment of 400 to 500 words on a specific subject for a prominent business publication that would provide me with interview leads and give me about a month to finish the work?
Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Having just wrapped up work for a long-term client and not yet landed work of the same caliber to take its place, I definitely was tempted.
Helium Content Source Service for Publishers
Except for one not-so minor detail. The writer was an editor at Helium, a content site I’ve written about extensively here and elsewhere, debating the pros and cons for freelancers of working for it and similar establishments.
These days, in addition to running its own website, Helium also provides editorial services to other publishers through its Content Source service. Publishers can buy articles from Helium’s existing content pool or choose a subject and have Helium contract with one of its writers to create it, which was the offer made to me.
As difficult as it is to say no to assignments, turning this down was a no-brainer. I’ve worked as a freelancer for long enough I don’t need a middle man to get assignments from “prominent business publications.” To start now would be taking a giant step backwards. Also, I have no idea what the assignment paid, since the information wasn’t included in the initial email; as a result, I have no clue whether it would have been worthwhile even to go through the motions of sending in a resume and samples of my work, which was also required.
The $10,000 Red Flag
What I found out later made me feel even better about turning down the work. I was curious how Helium is marketing itself to publishers, so I checked out the company’s website.
Here’s what I found: a clause buried deep in Helium’s content source publishers agreement states that a publication that wants to retain a writer who previously provided it with content through Helium must agree to first pay the company a $10,000 bounty. Here’s the specific wording (added emphasis is mine):
Customer, conditional upon the payment of the fees, may directly contact, recruit or solicit writers who have provided content to Helium which has been purchased by the Customer through the Helium Content Source. If Customer hires such Helium Writer as either an employee or independent contractor during the term of this Agreement or for one year following the termination of this Agreement, Customer shall pay Helium $10,000 per writer hired. Customer further agrees that it will not attempt to solicit or contact any other Helium writer that it identifies through Helium other than as provided for in this Agreement.
Just think: if I’d taken that assignment and it turned out that the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or Portfolio.com was on the other end of the assignment and loved what I’d written so much they wanted to bring me on as a regular contributor or hire me outright, they’d have to pay Helium what amounts to a $10,000 headhunter’s fee or quit the contract and wait for an entire year before approaching me – like that would ever happen. It’s a hefty enough amount that my guess is no magazine or newspaper would consider approaching a writer directly.
It also raises an interesting point for writers who do work for Helium. Say you aspire to work for a publication but are unaware it’s one of the company’s Content Source partners. If you successfully pitched them a story, would Helium go after the publication for taking it? What if a publisher came to you not realizing you wrote for Helium? What would you have to do to prove that you hadn’t gotten the work through Helium? Seems like things could get very complicated very quickly.
If anyone reading this has worked on an assignment for a publisher through Helium Content Source I’d love to hear about it. If you haven’t, now that you know more about this, would you?