38 responses to “The race to the bottom”

  1. Tracey Taylor

    Hear hear Michelle. It’s really tough making a living as a professional freelance writer these days and getting paid a pittance by a content aggregator is not helping. I too have noticed a slight uptick in the past few weeks. I’m actually struggling to meet deadlines right now (a good feeling as it’s been a while) and at least one magazine that has had a moratorium on using freelancers for the past year came to me with an assignment last week. The content aggregators will go away if they don’t attract readers and you have to wonder about the quality of their content.

  2. Carson

    “Getting those other writing jobs takes a lot more thought, training and work. They’re the equivalent of the high-level jobs companies never list in the help wanted ads. You have to come up with an original idea for a story, find a market, craft a pitch that explains what the story is, why it’s a good fit for the market and why you’re the best writer to do it. If you land the assignment, there’s research and reporting to do before you even start writing.

    That process takes a lot more work than answering an ad. It only follows that the compensation should be commensurate to the amount of work.”


    Your preferred strategy takes more time and more work to land jobs. While you’re concerned about avoiding a race to the bottom, people who are more interested in working than in chasing work are making money while you query and go for “tougher” assignments.

    I’m not saying your method is wrong. If it works for you, that’s great!

    I do think you might want to consider the fact that those who work w/ DS, etc. are ducking a lot of the time and effort you put into your approach. When you do the math, it’s quite possible that some of those who’ve won the “race to the bottom” are out-earning you.

    I don’t work for or with DS, but I do know my way around the shallow end of the content market. Although I do more of other things these days, I had a few years at the bottom where I was out-earning 95% of traditional freelance writers.

    To each their own… And to Deb (who, ironically, used to occasionally tangle with me on the rate question–from more of your perspective), congratulations.


  3. StefanieF

    Great post Michelle!

    As a follower of both Word Count and FWJ, and as someone who’s new to freelancing, I’ve been following the debates about content aggregators for a while now. I’ve considered trying out a site like Demand as a place to get my feet wet. But posts like yours have kept me from making the leap and make me wonder if it’s worth it.

  4. Meagan Francis

    Carson, anyone who’s making a living freelancing is earning more than “most” freelancers. I’m not interested in knowing how writers for places like DS stack up against all freelancers, but how they fare in comparison to other driven, hard-working freelancers. I am all about measuring profitability by a per-hour (rather than per-word) rate, and I have no problem churning out lots of content quickly… but I am hard-pressed to figure out how I could possibly churn out enough articles at $10 or $20 a pop to earn anywhere close to what I earn now.

  5. StefanieF


    Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll have to do some research into hyperlocal news. However, since I already work a full-time job for a local TV news station, and freelance on the side, getting into hyperlocal news might be considered a conflict of interest to my employer. Freelancing for a non-news blog or print magazine is one thing but freelancing for something that might be considered competition is a whole other story!

  6. Are content aggregators a freelancers friend or foe? « Happy Coffee

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  7. I Did it Again–Freelance Writing and the Great Rate Debate | Carson Brackney

    […] I responded to Michelle Rafter’s post at WordCount, “The Race to the Bottom“.  Michelle is far more balanced and insightful in her perspective than many Side A […]

  8. Barbara Whitlock

    The law of supply and demand and the impact of the digital age have affected the traditional flow of freelance work.

    Helium is a site, which I think (and I’m biased), should be distinguished from this pack because of the diverse nature of opportunities for freelancers in our multi-faceted publishing platform.

    We have a freelance gig area, with earnings fueled by our 500+ publishing partners from magazine, newspaper and Internet venues. New titles are posted daily, and established journalists get access to the best paying opportunities with no other obligations to participate. Other writers can get to the same position by demonstrating their expertise within our writing platform.

    We also offer unlimited non-exclusive publishing opportunities, plus the option to republish previously published non-exclusive content, all for upfront payments (to most channels) plus ongoing ad revenue share (in perpetuity with minimal participation – 10 minutes rating once or twice a week).

    Helium also offers free web landing pages called Zones. Many writers use this to establish a homebase or a satellite web presence, drawing benefit to their blogs, for example, from Helium’s high page rank site. You can design these as you like, add photos, youtube, Amazon purchase links, etc.

    Most freelancers include Helium as one revenue stream, one they can rely on for gap or moonlighting income. Some dig deeper so they can earn steady monthly income from non-exclusive content to, to supplement their budget.

    As with all shifts in the US economy, folks find they need many revenue streams to meet their needs. A site like Helium provides additive value for freelancers.

    If anyone would like more info about Helium, my inbox is always open: [email protected].

    Barbara Whitlock
    New Member Outreach Manager

  9. Yo Prinzel

    You know, querying for work is not the only way to get high-paying gigs. I rarely query and never apply for jobs–I just position myself where my potential clients are and network–the rest takes care of itself. It’s not rocket science to create a good income, one that pays 10 or more times that of the content mills. Now, that doesn’t mean that those who choose not to are unworthy or losers, but it does mean they are cheapening themselves and I have no idea why they would.

    Content mills have a limited place for freelancers, but those that choose to write for them full time (you can make thousands of dollars by writing until your fingers bleed!!) are short-sighted or possibly lazy. I wish they understood that there is a MUCH easier way. Why do they think we keep blogging about it? I have nothing to lose if people continue to write for content mills–please, that’s less competition for the rest of us. But some kind of overpowering altruism keeps us going. We take the fall for trying to empower others in whatever way we choose; we are called villains, whiners, whatever–and for what? To try and make life better for our own competition. Huh…maybe we are sadists.

  10. Twitted by debbieharry

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  11. Barbara Whitlock

    Thanks Michelle, love your blog and enjoy following it!

    Best wishes on your continued success,


  12. The great freelance rate debate continues « WordCount – Freelancing in the Digital Age

    […] called it the race to the bottom, and maintain there are better ways to break into the freelance business, and better business […]

  13. Lori

    You have me on my favorite tirade now, Michelle. 🙂

    You wondered aloud up there what all the fuss was about. I see what you’re saying in theory – that if you don’t want to take the crap jobs, don’t. Yet there’s a larger issue at work here, one that’s creeping in to our entire profession. Employers are beginning to view these lousy rates and the standard.

    I’ve talked to other writers who’ve said their local clients are pressing the issue, citing these Demand Studio – content mill jobs as reasons why they’re not paying more. That’s the issue in a nutshell. The moment employers think they can get writing for pennies on the dollar, we’re all DOA.

    I’ve seen a denegration of rates since I started writing. In fact, it’s exactly opposite what we should be seeing rates do. Cost-of-living increases? Not with writers. I’ve had to defend my rates more in the past year with potential clients than ever in my career. It’s not as though my rates have changed – clients’ perceptions of a writer’s value has.

    I’ve beaten this drum often on my blog and in my annual Writers Worth Day campaign. We’re not going to change the habits of job posters, but we can postively impact the mindset of writers. Otherwise, how low will it go?

  14. tara

    I think Barbara from Helium made a good point. Journalismjobs.com has stories every day about newspapers, magazines and publishing houses that are cutting back.

    Some people have the luxury of being able to write where and when they want want because they have another source of income. Others find themselves laid off and need a job right away so they can remain living indoors. They turn to so-called content mills out of need, not choice.

    If all you’ve ever been is a staff writer and you’re laid off, Wal-mart’s not going to hire you. There is no shortage of “experienced” cashiers and stockers. Try getting some other ridiculous job without a high-level connection. I recently went through an experience with a Christian job search group that promised networking galore and job referrals. One of their top board members started calling me 3-4 times a day and needless to say, those phone calls had nothing to do with jobs — at least not the kind I had in mind.

    A lot of companies are also turning to staffing agencies. They promise the chance of a permanent position. After you write the content they need, you’re done.

    It’s a different time and place. This is not the late 1990’s, when there was an abundance of $500 article opportunities because everyone had a staff position and couldn’t be bothered. Someone who has not gone through this will simply not grasp it. Having said that, there are writers on elance.com making six figures a year, according to the earnings posted on that site. So, it is possible. Always strive for something better. Absolutely.

    But look at the reality of your own circumstances. If you need a job today and Starbucks and an online writing job will keep the lights on and the water running, you just do what you have to do. It might not be your dream job, but it can keep a part of your dream alive.

  15. tara

    One more thing….I also agree that businesses that used to pay $30 an hour for copywriting now want to pay $10 an hour. This is partly market driven. It also has to do with chauvinistic white males whose wives either sit home all day or write as a hobby for nothing. They think you’re a cute little woman with a hobby similar to selling Avon when really you should be at home baking pies.

  16. Stacy

    If you were making $30 an hour as a copywriter, you need to work on filling your funnel with clients that value your services.

    The odd thing is, the more you charge, the better clients you get. People use price as a judgment of quality. Is a Prada bag really that much better at carrying your stuff than a $30 purse from Sears? Not really. But people look at the price and assume it must be.

    Think about how businesses work. No one says, “Hmm, sales are in the toilet and my job’s on the line. We need a new 6 page brochure to hand out at a trade show next month. There’s these two copywriters, one that quoted $2,500 for the job, and one that quoted $300. I know! I’ll go out and get the $300 copywriter. I bet he’ll do a really good job for that price.”

    Michael Stelzner charges $7,500 for a 10 page white paper (about 4,000 words), and is consistently booked. He says it’s about a month process, but he can work on four at a time in different stages of development.

    Many copywriters make over $100K a year. A few make seven figures.

  17. Mridu Khullar » Blog Archive » The Debate Surrounding Demand Studios

    […] From WordCount: Content aggregators like Demand Studios represent the lowest rung of freelance opportunity. It doesn’t take a lot of journalism training, writing experience or time to put together the kind of evergreen how-to articles these types of sites thrive on, which is one reason why the pay’s so low. Another has to do with supply and demand. When there’s a large supply of writers, professional or otherwise, willing and able to do the work, sites like Demand Studios don’t have to offer higher rates to attract the labor they need. […]

  18. Lisa

    I love writing for DS. I have 6 kids and I make $40-$60 an hour from home. I never have to send a query, I never have to pitch an article, I just grab a few titles that I like and write them up for $15-$25 each. What could be easier than that.

    If you don’t like it, don’t write there. I’m so amused by all you “old-school” writers who are bothered by this. Get a life.

  19. Lisa

    And Helium.com is a joke- the lamest site to write for, unless of course you can pay your bills with badges and stars. I can’t. Press a helium writer to see what they’re making there, it’s always next to nothing. But it’s a confidence-builder, they say. To each his own.

  20. Jeremy

    That’s the whole debate, “old school” versus “new school” and most people seem to confuse the two. Web content is different than “articles” with primary research. It doesn’t take as long and shouldn’t be compensated as well.

    Old school jobs are drying up as magazines and papers shut down or drastically scale back, leaving a lot more competition for those high paying gigs.

    If you are an editor, you will probably use someone you know first, and failing that you will at least go with someone who wrote for some of your now defunct competitors before you take a chance on a new writer. That doesn’t leave a ton of room for new writers (although that is no excuse for not trying).

    The advertising dollars that used to go to a relatively small set of publishers with a finite space are now spread around what’s left of the print market and the internet with its infinite space, meaning revenue is a fraction of what it was for each publisher.

    They can’t pay the premium rates and survive. Thank AdSense for that. Advertisers don’t have to pick a couple of outlets and hope for the best. They can still use those outlets, at less money and who knows if people even will pay attention to it, and make an AdSense (or other network) buy and only pay when people actually act on an ad.

    The New School is web content, copywriting and SEO. Print will always be around, but the rates will continue to drop just like the rates for web content will rise, not a ton but they will rise. DS, which gets knocked unmercifully and not always deservedly so, but they have occasionally raised their rates as they realize that good, not stellar but better than the slop on a lot of places, will attract more visitors and encourage better ad clicks. Other content mills will follow their lead and pay more as DS continues to dominate the industry.

    Take a look at a lot of the job boards out there, they are offering $1-$3 for 500 word articles. You could do a lot worse than Demand, and many people do. Judging by the forum over there, and in my case, a lot of people use DS for filler work when they aren’t chasing or writing higher paid work. Querying is great and all, but the print process takes a while to get paid, so having a bit of steady income is nice.

    And none of the other content mills pay like DS. Helium, AC and Suite 101 are mostly, if not all, about pennies per thousand page views. They can dress it up all they want, but it is the truth.

    Anyway, I liked poking around your site. You’ve got a lot of good information for freelancers here.

  21. Barbara

    I read your post and I do have to disagree. I’ve been writing for DS for nearly 18 months and my income has only gone up. Those of us who write regularly for DS discuss ways to make DS and our other freelance gigs a viable full-time (read “paying”) opportunity.
    I posted a thread last week about this and gave some behavior-specific actions to forum readers, such as posting office hours so friends, family and children understand that yes, we are working.
    I’ve tried different sites like Helium, Triond and Textbroker. I find DS to be waist, shoulders and head above these three I’ve mentioned — I don’t want to write a 400-word article for $3.75–Textbroker. They’d love for me to continue for them, but that doesn’t pay my rent. As Lisa said, badges and stars won’t make my car payment–Helium. Pageviews don’t pay my insurance or my utility bills–Triond. While these are all “okay” sites and not scams, they, primarily Helium, promised more than they delivered. Nor do I want to rate other writers’ work endlessly (more than 10 minutes, Barbara, I’ve done it) to get my work available for pay.
    Clicking on the Find Assignments tab, claiming my full limit of assignments, then beginning to research/outline and write my day’s goal is how I earn my money.
    I have been identified by DS as a top content creator (I was able to participate in the recent conference and discussed changes I would like to see made; I was awarded a free one-year membership to SPJ).
    So with everything I have tried and worked on, I find that DS works for me, a single parent of a college student. It also allows me to work on my book evenings and Sundays. Thank you.

  22. Barbara

    One more thing — we are encouraged to complete primary research/interviews and talk to real people about the articles we write. We do need to cite them and list their name(s) as references.
    We also need to cite the references we find, on and offline and post those for the copy editors (fact-checking purpose) and readers (additional reading).

  23. Jenny

    While I don’t agree with you, Michelle, I must point out an inaccuracy in your comment on why newspapers publish. Having worked behind the scenes at two different newspapers (not as a writer) I can assure you that their main goal is to sell advertising. Subscription rates barely cover the cost of delivery. Yes, they do that by offering information readers are willing to pay for, but advertising is king. It keeps the lights on and the presses running. Writers get the axe and the ones that remain get a heavier workload while the advertising reps get more and more perks. Not fair but the nature of the beast.

  24. Joe

    “For one, you scan a job board like Freelance Writing Jobs to find out what’s posted – like looking through the classifieds for a job opening. See something you like, fill out a form – or in some cases go through a training period – and voila, you’re ready to start.”

    Yes, exactly. You don’t need any writing skills or experience to get a job from a job board. It pretty much falls in your lap as soon as you email your name there.

    Did you even reread what you wrote or were you too busy riding your high horse into the sunset to bother? This piece doesn’t offer a very good picture of either content sites or the overall writing market. And it’s clear that you’re trying to knock Freelance Writing Jobs at every opportunity. Countless freelance writers credit Deb and her site for not only helping them to find a few jobs here and there, but for starting their successful careers. If you took the time to look at the site, you’d see there’s far more than just low-paying content work advertised every day (magazine markets, copywriting, editorial, etc.). But why would you do that in a piece about good writing and research?

    It’s hilarious (read: ridiculously hypocritical) that you sing the merits of investigative journalism and research in an offering that desperately lacks any research or objective facts. In fact, all we get here is a one-sided editorial with little to no substance or understanding of the changing market. Perhaps if you’d interviewed a few people that actually work for DS or other content sites, you’d see that there are folks that make upwards of $4K a month doing so. Since you’re talking “rent” and not “mortgage”, I’m going to go ahead and assume that that’d pay it just fine, despite your snide comment otherwise.

    And it’s also safe to say that people make the decision to work for DS because it offers many advantages–advantages that you fail to offer in your short-sighted, opinionated post (e.g. constant availability of work, no time spent querying, less time on research). It also offers the opportunity for burgeoning writers who don’t get “3 offers from publishers in a week” to build experience and a portfolio with which to work from in the future–not sure how interested those supposed big publishers would be if you had no experience whatsoever. I’m also pretty sure you worked your fair of low-level, grunt jobs to get to the point where publishers were knocking on your door. Did you have other colleagues out there knocking the work you were doing at that time?

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  26. Zachary Grove

    What, specifically, is at the top? Magazines? You were very vague regarding your higher end freelance opportunities. Is that because you don’t want to attract a glut of competition to the good jobs the way there is a glut of competition for DS articles?

  27. The Truth About Demand Studios | FrogenYozurt.Com - Literature & Entertainment

    […] “Content aggregators like Demand Studios represent the lowest rung of freelance opportunity. It doesn’t take a lot of journalism training, writing experience or time to put together the kind of evergreen how-to articles these types of sites thrive on, which is one reason why the pay’s so low. Another has to do with supply and demand. When there’s a large supply of writers, professional or otherwise, willing and able to do the work, sites like Demand Studios don’t have to offer higher rates to attract the labor they need.” Reference: WordCount […]

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