Was I wrong to tell my fellow freelancers to not write for content aggregators? Recently, I sold a reprint of an article that I first wrote for Helium to Hope Clark for her FundsforWriters newsletter. “5 Ways to Boost Your Word Count” appeared in the June 21 issue.
One query, 31 times the earnings
Find the original article from last August here. Helium readers and reviewers liked it but didn’t love it, ranking it 11 of 23 articles on the topic of writing more. So far, my story — which I have since improved — has earned $0.47 in shared advertising revenue. By contrast, Ms. Clark paid me $15 for one-time reprint rights. One query and a modest rewrite netted me 31 times the earnings.
Had I never written for Helium and instead pitched FundsforWriters directly, my take-home would have been $40 — 85 times my 11 months of Helium earnings. And even that would have been low: My final piece was 595 words long, I’d have been paid just 15 cents per word. Better than the 2.5 cents a word that I actually received but still peanuts. (Welcome back to the 1950s.)
Interestingly, either rate is far better than the average take-home for a Helium writer. Freelancer Erik Sherman did the math and found that most earn 80 cents per article and the very lucky ones earn $5 per. Why not just pay in Monopoly money?
The real problem with content aggregators
Mostly, I like Helium. I’m glad to see a forum where writers can develop their craft, as I once did. What troubles me is the business model. Content aggregators have cleverly shifted risk from publisher to writer. Here’s how.
1. Everything is on spec
Magazine writers and even digital regulars like yours truly work under contracts. Assignments are made, deliverables promised. The publisher shares in the risk by promising payment of a certain amount, at a certain time.
Helium and its peers don’t face this issue. Rather, they’re like high-risk borrowers with you, the writer, as the bank. You lend your writing and in return you expect a payoff — except that you have no control over the rate or the schedule. You can’t even repossess the property. Helium’s license is irrevocable.
2. Quality will suffer, because it must
As Sherman’s math proves, only via extraordinary volume could any writer hope to pay even a grocery bill with their Helium earnings. I can’t even imagine it. And I say that as someone who writes more than 22,000 words monthly for The Motley Fool.
Pressure to produce creates mistakes, even among the most prolific of us. I’ve had more than my share writing 50 stories a month. At 500 or more — the level at which a Helium gig might produce meaningful income — the odds of a mistake becoming a serious blunder or a lawsuit-inducing catastrophe increase dramatically. Volume means being less careful.
And who suffers when you’re less careful? Not the aggregator. Helium isn’t a brand as The New York Times is. The brands — the ones that confer accuracy, quality, and so on — belong solely to the writers who reside there.
The secret of successful freelance writers
Top freelancers get a good hourly rate. They accept reasonable risks for fair rewards. And when they take outsized risks, they expect outsized rewards. Helium, in the end, demands outsized risks for meager rewards. Balance the equation, content aggregators, and you won’t need to invite top writers to join you. They’ll show up on their own.
© Copyright 2009, Tim Beyers.