Big Ideas, Delivered With Impact

Was I Wrong About Helium?

In Writing on July 2, 2009 at 4:58 pm

By Tim Beyers
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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.

  1. Nicely played, Tim. I thought you’d lost your mind for a moment. 😉

    Can we run some mathematical calculations for your hourly wage and your earnings per word? Then we’ll be talking in financial terms to which people can really relate.

    I’m entirely with you—I like the idea of democratized journalism, even democratized profit models—but not at the expense of the proletariat or the media’s integrity.

  2. I hadn’t thought of risk shifting Tim. I love your analysis. The Helium business model also shifts the editorial burden onto the writers with Helium’s rating requirement. Yes, I know they claim to have an Editorial Advisory Board culling new articles, but they have a lot of work ahead with over 1.25 million articles to read.

    You’re right about the quantity aspect. No matter what they say about quality, quantity rules. I tried to get them to change the writing star model to a quality oriented model but they didn’t want to hear about it. All they want is a “D” average and lots of content to qualify for writing stars. It’s upside down. If I want more stars I’ll go to Staples and buy a box.

    I finally gave up and resigned as a senior steward in April. I haven’t written a thing since early May and the meager earnings aren’t enough to mortgage my content to Helium. I’d rather shoulder the risk myself, be myself and post to my blog (and work on my book).


    The Aware Writer

    • John, Ron —

      Thanks for commenting. What I wonder most is if there’s a workable business model for content aggregators that *doesn’t* shift risk from publisher to writer. I’d certainly be interested. (As would we all, I suspect.)


  3. I’ve sold some reprints to FundsforWriters, too, although those were originally published on my own blog, so that dynamic is a little different (the benefit for me is less quantifiable but I maintain control).

    I clicked on some of the ads on your Helium page in an attempt to boost your ad revenue, and I have to say they weren’t especially revelant (not your fault, but maybe that’s part of why the earnings are so piddly). One was for, another for Visit Vermont, and another was for ZipCar. Then I refreshed the page and got some writing-related ads (I didn’t click on them, but I suspect they may have been for similarly dubious services).

  4. It doesn’t matter how much you earn on Helium if they “forget” to pay you. They blamed human error when they missed their 10th of the month payday last month. Well, it’s the close of business on July 10 and I haven’t seen my payout. I saw a question on their community board wondering if others have been paid so it’s not just me. Helium has been in business since 2006 and has yet to turn a profit. Maybe they don’t have the money?


  5. Whoops. Helium paid at the end of the day today. The very end. Guess I have egg on my face.


  6. I think there is a place for revenue sharing sites, which I assume is what you mean – but Helium is probably the worst of them. The fact that they keep your articles forever, constantly change the rules and won’t even disclose how they calculate earnings all mean that the writer is totally at their mercy. I write on HubPages now, and earn three times the money for a quarter of the articles. And I can delete them whenever I want.

  7. […] fair wages and stay on top of collections. Our own Tim Beyers wrote an eloquent piece on exactly how the pay metrics work (or don’t) when writing for content […]

  8. […] Was I wrong about Helium? – Tim Beyers, aka The Social Writer, explains how he made more selling reprints of a story he originally published on Helium than what he earned on the site. […]

  9. […] how can writers ensure they are being paid fairly for their work.  Tim wrote a terrific post about Helium’s business model, in which he discussed selling one of his own pieces to the content aggregator. One of […]

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