How to Live Write’s 5 Day Content Mill Extravaganza

Join us, and by us I mean me, from July 7th through July 11th as I engage in an unprecedented and potentially useless experiment solely for the sake of being able to use the word extravaganza.

Here’s the jam: each day I’ll spend exactly eight hours on a different content mill site. At the end of each day, I’ll post how much I’ve made. (Note: before anyone sends me a note, I already thoroughly read the ToS of each site and I’m positive I’m not violating any form of NDA.)

The goal: to compare what a “day in the life” is for a worker in each content mill.

The rules:

1. I can only spend eight hours exactly on each site. 8:00 – 12:00 and 1:00 to 5:00.

2. If there is work on the site in question and I’m idle, I need to pick up that work (assuming I can complete it).

3. I can’t just madly rush through the work.

The exceptions:

1. If there is nothing to do on the site I’m working on, I can switch to another site. I have bills.

The sites:

1. Monday – Writer’s Domain

2. Tuesday – Writer Access

3. Wednesday – Zerys

4. Thursday – TextBroker

5. Friday – BlogMutt

This is partly to satisfy my own curiosity; I have really irregular work hours and I really don’t know how much I make in a “reasonable” day. I also haven’t been doing as much content mill work as I used to, so this is in part to see how some content mills are now faring (I haven’t touched TB in forever and Blog Mutt is still high on my skepticism chart).

 

How Did This New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Misunderstand Digital Publishing So Greatly?

Today,  the New York Times published an opinion piece that reads almost like satire. In “I Was a Digital Best Seller,” the writer secures a “deal” to publish a book on Amazon; the deal involved a $2,000 advance on sales and little else. The so-called publishing company, Byliner, did the following:

  • Upload the book, “there was even an author’s page with my picture.”
  • Circulate a press release regarding the book (probably through their own site).
  • Write a tagline involving strippers and cowboys (really).
  • Write a review of the book on Amazon (not allowed).
  • Urge the writer to coax fake reviews from friends and relatives (seriously).

To be fair, at minimum Byliner appears to have done editing work sufficient to secure the author a spot in Kindle Singles, which is actually a significant positive. However, the author ended up running around promoting his own book–something he could have done without a publisher. And, in the end, his book ended up disappearing because the publishing company owned the rights to the book. The publishing company probably got banned from Amazon because they were encouraging false reviews.

After a month of run around, the author ended up selling 800 copies. He resolved to publish his next book as a physical book, away from digital media, after having done absolutely everything wrong that he could possibly do wrong.

The Simple Truth: Tony Horwitz Was Scammed

Horwitz’s relationship to the digital publishing industry is not indicative of the state of digital publishing because, though he doesn’t seem to realize it, he was scammed. There are many companies out there like Byliner that target writers struggling to make it big. They promise the world and offer simple services that anyone else could do. Tony could have uploaded his own book if he had wanted to, with author page and everything. Just a little research into the independent and digital publishing industry could have helped this author avoid this situation.

“One reason “Boom” sank, I suspect,” writes Horwitz, “is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.”

Byliner made this author believe that he could sell a book about a journey through an oil patch as long as he added cowboys and strippers. No, this doesn’t say anything about the digital publishing industry. All it says is that there is always someone willing to sell you snake oil at a discount price.

Keeping Motivated as a Freelancer: The Games I Play

I have a hard time keeping myself motivated if there isn’t someone cracking the whip over me. My goals are too abstract, you know: I’ve got a place to live and a warm puppy pile at my feet and it just doesn’t seem altogether urgent. I find myself casting a long look at Netflix or the newest video game and bam! the day is almost gone.

To keep myself motivated I try to play games with myself or use patterns to break repetition. I know myself and I know that if I try to just go hard on something I’ll eventually burn out. So here are a few of the things I do to set ‘goal posts’ for myself.

Directed Goals

Motivation: High

When I first started freelancing I would give myself specific goals to meet at the end of every day. It would be something like “Make $200 on WA, Make $50 on WD, send in 15 applications on eLance and finish all private client work.” These goals made sense to me at the time because I was just getting started and meeting these goals were exciting on their own. 

If I’m already feeling really motivated to succeed, “directed goals” still work for me. But they only work if my motivation is already pretty high
; otherwise I’m quickly distracted.

Patterned Goals

Untitled

PATTERNED GOALS. Get it!?

Motivation: Middling

When I find myself easily distracted and not very motivated, I try to use patterned goals. I have a problem remaining “on task” for long periods of time; I have ADHD which means that anything new that happens completely distracts me. I.E., everything that comes in seems just as important as everything else, so I can spend my time switching through tasks of seemingly the same importance even though one task is “making money” and the other task is “searching Hulu for what to watch next.”

Patterned goals work like this: I switch up in a sequence. My sequence will go “Complete one private client’s work, complete $50 on WA, write an article on WD, write something on Zerys, write a blog post.” I’ll then run through the sequence as many times as I can during my work hours, and I always include something like “write a blog post” so there’s time for me to mentally clear myself.

This pattern works really well when I’m feeling mentally jumpy because if I feel myself losing focus on one thing, I just jump to the other. It means that I’m still working but I don’t feel like I’m stuck.

High Water Goals

Motivation: Low

When my motivation is extremely low, I can’t even get into the patterned groove. That’s when I initiate “high water” protocol, which is exactly what it sounds like: I make myself feel like I’m about to drown. I make a list of the bills that need to be paid in the next week and I zero out the money I already have (essentially pretending I have nothing in the bank). I then tell myself that I need to make this amount of money and I mark off the bills that I pay while working. So I might list:

Electricity – $200

Cable – $100

Water / Gas – $80

And I’ll tell myself that I won’t have the money to pay these if I don’t work through them today. I’ll tick each off as I go.

This is literally the only thing that works for me when my motivation is low: sheer determination to survive.

I’m not sure if everyone plays games like I do when trying to keep motivated but I have noticed that the ability to self-motivate is what separates freelancers from those in traditional jobs. I have dozens of friends who have asked me how they can get started in freelancing but, when it comes down to it, they just can’t do the work if they don’t have a boss. In truth, I can’t either: I have to trick myself.

Don’t Fear the Panda: How Panda 4.0 Will Affect Freelance Writers

J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia Commons

J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia Commons

Every time Google updates its algorithms, everyone panics. It’s easy to see why; sites like Ask.com experienced a loss in almost 50 percent of their traffic. It seems as though the companies that put the most money into their marketing are always the hardest hit, given that they tend to spend the most time trying to game the search engine companies. But that’s not what we care about: how will it affect us?

Actually, Panda has been great for us.

Google’s updates tend to be intimidating because Google keeps its algorithms a secret. When Panda was initially introduced all Google would really say was that it was promoting quality content; Google then gave some rather extensive standards regarding what it thought was quality content, but, naturally, the search engine company never outright said what its algorithm looked for. It let everyone guess. Otherwise it wouldn’t be effective.

This veil of secrecy makes writers and marketers nervous because we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. All we can do is guess.

For a freelance writer, this is actually a good thing. The push towards quality content rather than search engine bait means that better writers will need to be purchased and at higher quality pay. The hope is that eventually companies will stop trying to game the system entirely and will just focus on producing good content. That’s the hope.

So how do you gear up to battle with an upgraded Panda?

  • Build up your professional self. Content purchasers are going to be looking for writers with credentials.
  • Go back to school. Take some free online courses regarding your niche of choice to develop your knowledge.
  • Focus more on personal clients. Unfortunately, content mills are increasingly becoming a harder sell.
  • Get your by-line out there. Even if it’s unpaid. You’ll need to start building a reputation.

Women in Writing: Why Aren’t We at the Top?

Nearly 80 percent of all freelance writers are women. Though many of us also have full-time employment elsewhere (and being a stay-at-home mom counts as being a full-time worker!), so do many of the men who work in freelance writing. It has been known for a very long time that most of the writers in the industry are women.

So why, then, aren’t we rising to the top? All of the major content companies are owned by men. Writer Access is owned by Byron White, iWriter is owned by Brad Callen, TextBroker is owned by Jan (the European, male Jan) Becker-Fochler and Writer’s Domain is owned by Jeremy Lindstrom. Even the Content Marketing Institute, the leading content marketing magazine, is owned by Joe Pulizzi. While there were some companies that I couldn’t find information for, there weren’t any companies that were openly run by women.

Is it because women are inherently less ambitious? Probably not; though women are less ambitious, it isn’t enough to bridge such a gap.  You would expect that four out of five of the top freelance writing companies would be owned by women, but instead not a single one is.

The owners of writing marketplaces are generally behind the scenes; few clients work with them directly. So it can’t be purely an image or marketing issue; it isn’t that people don’t trust women to be effective. It could only be that women aren’t trying and that the reasons must be beyond one of ambition.

I thought, for a moment, that I understood: perhaps it is that men are more likely to know both about freelance writing and programming, which would be necessary to create a site. But that can’t be; most of the owners of these sites hired a programmer (also male, naturally). Even the staffing of many of these sites tend more towards a 50/50 or 60/40 men to women split, which would make sense in another context but doesn’t make sense when 80 percent of writers should be women.

Ultimately the answer is probably tied into why women enter freelancing at all: most women enter freelancing to spend time with their family and starting a company would seem counterproductive to that. But it’s still strange.  As noted in the prior statistics, these were the statistics for full-time freelance workers, with an average salary of around $40,000. Surely someone already devoting that amount of time to their work could devote an equal amount of time to a company?

 

No, Don’t Get Bizarrely Personal on Your Professional Blog

Above all things, a professional website should remain professional. You are a writer, not a celebrity; you are not there to incite or enrage but merely to reflect your knowledge and your being. A quick wit and personal touch can be endearing and even inspiring, but no one wants to know what you ate for lunch today, what you think about President Obama or how you beat your meth addiction (OK, that’s a bit of an unrealistically extreme example). That’s what your personal site is for.

Large volumes have been written about not getting too personal on your professional sites and social media accounts. When you get too personal, you run the risk of alienating your audience. As a professional, your audience is not just a readership. Your audience is composed of prospective clients, current clients and colleagues. And absolutely no one is interested in your day, your parking tickets or your fights with your mother-in-law.

We all want, of course, to believe that our daily musings have value. And they do… to us. That’s the difference between personal and professional. We must not make the mistake of thinking that we are as entertaining and insightful as we find ourselves. We must question the actual goals of our audience. Our audience, with rare and sometimes creepy exception, is not interested in us. To meander through the nonsense in our minds is only to keep them from their true goal, which is to find out more about the industry.

Too often, we believe that stirring up the pot is something that a writer must do. We lash out at others because it’s exciting and fun, and because we falsely correlate attention with success. None of this actually gains us anything tangible. It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. In marketing terms, this is a focus on traffic rather than conversion. You may see many people peering into your windows, but they are not admiring you; they are laughing at you.

Before posting anything to your professional site, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this something that I would present to a client who had just walked in through my door?
  • Do I have a message? Will my reader take anything of value away from this?
  • Am I being negative? Am I sending out any form of aggression?
  • Who is my audience? Am I speaking to someone who has an interest in what I am saying?

Why Can’t We Be Friends? (Why Can’t We Be Friends?)

Polls have shown us that viewers prefer articles with images even if the images have nothing to do with the text.

Polls have shown us that viewers prefer articles with images even if the images have nothing to do with the text.

I was a programmer long before I was ever a writer, to the tune of probably a decade. Programming is still my first passion and my truest love, but it’s nothing that I would ever go into as a profession; you don’t necessarily need to turn the things you enjoy into monetization opportunities at every conceivable turn.

Programming is a very geeky hobby, through and through, and you feel it within the community. Some communities are very open and others very clannish, but for the most part they are very polite. The creed of the geek has always been to share and share alike: by helping each other, we help ourselves. A little romanticized to be sure, but for the most part I’ve found it to be true.

The writing community, on the other hand, is something else. I’ve made a fair amount of remarks regarding my belief that writers should find a community and I still believe it to be true. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t take a long time to find such a community. In fact, you might have to build it yourself.

file0001246012379

This is just a stock photo of a man thinking.

A great deal of writing communities—though of course not all—are incredibly volatile, to the extent that it’s a wonder anyone gets help at all. Many of them are extraordinarily insular and have their own cultural mechanisms, down to the language they use. This is my observation purely from lurking rather than being attacked on any personal level. I’ve joined communities only to see new users repeatedly beaten down, humiliated and trashed.

One of the more popular self-publishing forums that I’ve been on has a habit of jumping to unfortunate conclusions. I was witness as someone, a male writer, posted a note introducing his editor to the forum, stating that she was quite good. Within a day, the forum had decided that the male writer was the editor hawking her own wares in disguise, despite all evidence that they were, in fact, two real and different people. This kind of thing happens again and again and there is nothing you can do to sway the mob mentality; once a single person sets the tone, everyone else follows.

Writers come from different economic backgrounds, educational backgrounds and even geographical locations. We are all genders, races, ages, sexualities and blood types. But what really strikes me is the amount of in-fighting that occurs in the profession. You don’t see plumbers sniping at each other on community forums. You don’t see zoo keepers banding together in virtual groups against other zoo keepers. That would be awesome, but it doesn’t happen.

Writing is hard. It’s a very difficult profession to make a living in. I wonder if it isn’t the stress of the work combining with the feeling that you’ve achieved something beyond what an ordinary person could achieve. Maybe you feel that you deserve to dole out those lumps that were once dealt to you. I don’t know what it is, but it makes me feel a little depressed that we can’t be a little more patient with each other and a little more loving.

We don’t need to be as skeptical as we are. We don’t need to be as jaded. It is a hard profession, but you don’t have to become hard.

You’re Not Imagining It… Amazon’s Ranking Algorithm Has Changed

The ranking algorithm for Amazon’s books (and potentially all their products) has, in fact, changed. There isn’t very much written on it yet, but it has made a noticeable difference for many writers. Many writers are reporting that their sales have suddenly dropped off, while others are seeing a noticeable increase in sales–very few are saying that their sales have remained the same. For me, when the algorithm changed my sales almost tripled and then quickly evened off, but higher than they had previously been. Several of my titles which had previously garnered no interest at all (niche subjects, such as experimental fiction) suddenly experienced sales as well. My hard copy books doubled in sales and have continued at that rate.

Why the discrepancy? I’m not certain. It seems like Amazon has significantly changed their algorithm to push some books down and some books up, but I have no idea why. It’s only been a few days so I’m hesitant to draw any conclusions yet.

The Summer Rush is Starting Early

Get Ready!

April through September are the busiest months for most freelance writers. More web content spending occurs throughout the summer, for whatever reason. If you’re thinking ahead, you should be working much harder right now to compensate for the leaner winter months. If you’ve just started freelance writing, rejoice! You should be able to improve your revenue by anywhere between 25 to 50 percent, based purely on anecdotes from my friends and colleagues.

The seasonal nature of freelance writing means that you do need to plan ahead, especially if you’re interested in writing full-time. It’s not that there’s a drought during the winter months, but more than there’s an incredible influx of work starting in May. Some writers may find that they have more work than they can handle!

This is an excellent time to try charging higher rates. After all, when demand goes up and supply stays static, isn’t that supposed to happen? When you find yourself with too much work to complete in one day, bounce some higher rates at your clients and see what sticks. If nothing else, it’ll make it easier for you to decide which clients you work on first.

Amazon Returns

This is kind of funny–after I posted my last article, with an aside mentioning that I get a very low rate of returns, someone intentionally went through, bought three of my books (unrelated to each other: one fiction, one content marketing and one self-help) and then immediately returned them all. It might have gone unnoticed, except I literally only get one return a month. I don’t know who it is that I’ve made angry, but return rates don’t actually affect us at Amazon. If anything, all you did was give my books a very small boost upwards for a moment.

Free Book Promotions + Writer’s Domain Reviews Getting Faster

 

Free Book Promotions: Further Observations and an Experiment

I have a project going on: I’m going to be writing similar eBooks (different topics but same popularity level) and publishing them under made up names. I’m going to promote each differently. This is obviously not exactly a scientific experiment but I expect it may yield some usable results.

Book #1 will be published on Smashwords and Amazon at the same time. No promotions. This will be a baseline.

Book #2 will be published on Amazon. Free promotions.

Book #3 will be published on Amazon. Discount promotions.

I’ll compare sales at different time periods.

I confirmed again that book sales for other books absolutely tank during a free book promotion, even if they aren’t a related subject. They bounce back immediately thereafter. And before someone chimes in that it’s the quality of the books, I have a way below average return rate on my books.

At the same time, the free book promotion seems essential to launch a new title. I’ve noticed that some swear by 5 day promotions and others the 3/2 split. But, I wonder if which is best actually depends on your goal. I suspect that the way to give away the most free books would actually be to schedule 5 separate promotions on the best possible days (usually Sunday or Monday).

Most free book promotions give out the majority of their copies the very first day. The 3/2 split takes advantage of a boost on the first two days, which tapers off on the third. It’s a way to get the most copies out.

But the goal isn’t always to give out the most free books; the goal is to boost the popularity of your book. If you run a 5 day promotion at launch, you boost the popularity of your book those 5 days and then build organically on that popularity for the next quarter.

If you run promotions throughout the quarter, you boost popularity a little at the beginning, get a little organic feedback and then don’t receive the last part of your free ‘boost’ until later in the quarter.

It’s the same theory behind blowing all of your advertising budget at the very beginning of the month on a single day rather than trickling it out over 30 days. This theory assumes that you get seen by 1,000 people on day 1 and then those people keep telling others throughout the month. Otherwise you get seen by 30 people on day one, 30 people on day 2, 30 people on day 3 and you experience diminishing returns.

Writer’s Domain Reviews are Getting Much Faster

The reviewers have been blazing through my back log at Writer’s Domain and I’ve been getting paid out on a regular basis. Looks like they’re really picking up speed now that they’ve standardized their responses. The more generic responses aren’t as useful as the responses they were giving before but the overall process is much faster–I suspect for both writers and editors.

I have noticed that they are definitely stopping at the first major error they encounter (and that these ‘errors’ are rather subjective), but that will probably iron itself out later on. I was initially skeptical but it seems like this system actually does work better. The reviews may not be as specific and accurate but it doesn’t matter because at least they’re getting done.