Erik Sherman's WriterBiz
A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.
- Name: Erik Sherman
- Location: Massachusetts, United States
I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Writer Mill AllVoices.com Answers
Erik, you are absolutely right the writers, photographers and citizens that can have their own website, search engine optimize the content, reach a global audience and build a community should develop their own site. As you 80% of blogs out there have an audience of one.Let's address the misconceptions and mistakes in this answer. Do most blogs have a small to non-existent audience? Absolutely. Then again, most blog are not intended to be anything more than outlets of self-expression. And when marketing and exposure is the intent, clearly you need to do work to get more of an audience, particularly an audience that can respond in a way that turns into more work. Or you might be looking for an audience, in which case you want to focus on your connection to them as the primary thing, not the connection to some publication or site.
Allvoices is about people reporting news and opinion and discussing it with allvoices diverse community. The site automatically create context around the user reports with images, newsstories links, blogs and videos in real time. plus allvoices has a community from over 167 countries that contributes and share news. We have a recommendation engine that connects people together from all over the world. The program is an incentive not a salary. Also not everyone needs to join the incentive they can write for views, audience and connections.
As to the assertion that AllVoices "is about people reporting news and opinion and discussing it with allvoices diverse community," I have two words: horse shit. This is a business being run by a woman who apparently has an MBA from Harvard and was a partner at an early-stage VC fund. She has held multiple positions in high tech management. There are multiple Ph.D.s on the management team.
This is not some altruistic venture, folks. It's a business. So when I heard, "The program is an incentive not a salary," I think, "Sure, you want to pay peanuts to get the content that might give you something to sell." Here's the headline from the page on which the company describes the incentive program: "Build Your Brand. Gain Influence. Make Money." Let's take this in three steps:
- You don't build your brand. You build their brand. The more content they have, the more they drive appearances in search engines and, ultimately, the more money they make.
- Gain influence? You have got to be kidding. If I write a piece for the New York Times Magazine I gain some influence -- for that moment. If I write something that hits the front of HuffPo, for heaven's sake, I might get momentary influence. If I write for AllVoice, I get, "Who?"
- Make money? I thought this was about brand?
AllVoices had claimed on its site in February that it hit the one million monthly visitor mark. In responding to Angela Hoy, it claimed 2.7 million. Maybe. I checked Alexa.com, got the percentage of global page views and compared it to that of my own domain. Doing the math, it sounds as if the company is maybe 1.5 million page views a month. You always have to take these site estimates with a grain of salt, but it certainly sounds odd compared to the company's claims. It would also mean that they're bringing in maybe $15,000 a month, which is nothing for a company like this. In other words, the chance of making significant income from the venture might as well be zero.
So there's no money and no real branding advantage. To me, that translates into no reason at all to work for yet another writer mill.
Labels: writer mills
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Another Writer Mill: AllVoices.com
The new program is about building a personal brand, writer's portfolio and citizen journalism. We try very hard to help users make money by teaching them how to promote their material (and promoting it ourselves). Also, we're bringing in partners that will sponsor the top writers. Passionate and quality writers can build great momentum and earn money. We're driving 2.7 million visitors to our site each month. Even though we say "the money you make depends on how well you do", for a lot of writers it's not about the money. It's about writing and sharing their opinions.Now, let's assume $10 cost per thousand for advertising. That's at least $27,000 a month in revenue, or $324,000 a year. That's actually not a huge amount for a business, but, still, it's a business, not a charity. But it is trying to position itself as a place that will "promote" what writers do. You might as well create your own site and work to develop an audience that's interested in you, rather than grabbing some tiny percentage of whatever the site's overall traffic is.
Labels: writer mills
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Analyze the Web Site Before Paying the Ad Money
- # 1 Literary Newsletters Website out of 1,770,000 (GOOGLE)
- # 3 Newsletter Website search out of 90,200,000 (GOOGLE)
- # 9 Author Interview Search out of 4,000,000 (GOOGLE)
A full personal interview page at Pageonelit.com PageoneLit.com and AuthorsPressReleases.com with your photo, bio, book summary, short book review, etc...This is a one time fee for long range promotional goals. Note: Your interview page will stay up forever. Note: Your interview page will stay up forever. This is your interview page to market your book as you like. Plus AuthorsPressReleases.com & Books-and-Authors.netThe claims seem to be accurate, and lord knows book authors want sales. But you're in business to get exposure and results, not to waste money, so let's get beyond the surface for a moment. Here's how Writers Digest described the site:
Page ONE is a one-stop shop for author interviews, contest news, inspirational quotes and writing resources.That's significantly different from endorsing it as a way of getting people to buy your book.
Google rankings are fine, if the particular search term someone uses is what they might use to look for the book you are offering because, after all, search marketing is something that depends on specific intent of the audience, not a general nosing about. If your title would be of immediate interest to someone searching for a literary newsletter, then you're set. If not, then the search results aren't necessarily going to do you a spit of good.
And Google rankings aside, if you are appearing somewhere, then you want traffic flowing in, because only a small percentage of the people are going to be interested enough and motivated enough to buy the book. So what are the traffic rankings of PageOneLit? Not so hot. According to Compete.com, which samples large panels of Internet consumers for their surfing habits, since January 2009, the average monthly number of unique visitors has been around 1,000. That's a pretty damned small number. To put it into perspective, even my domain gets more traffic, and given that you either have to be looking for me or, more likely, something I wrote about freelance writing, that is a sad state of affairs.
Granted, the sample size for both is low, as noted by Compete.com, which measures U.S. traffic to web sites. But that, in its own way, is a clear statement as well. To triangulate, I also checked Alexa.com, whose "percentage of Internet users" going to a site depends on knowing how many users they think there are, but sill gives a potential comparison. That site suggests that my domain has been receiving almost three times as much traffic over the last three months, and, I cannot stress enough, that number is nothing to brag about, as Internet stats go.
To put it differently, PageOneLit.com gets hardly any traffic. If you've traditionally published and are making, say, $1 in royalties per copy, then you need to sell more than 250 companies in addition to what you would have sold to talk about the investment in "exposure" as offering a return on your investment. So the interview is up, maybe gets the majority of its notice in a month and then drops off radically in effectiveness, because that's how traffic works on the web. As in anything else, you get the biggest boost while you're top of mind. So let's be generous and say that the primary sales pull-through lasts for two months. That would mean you'd need to see 250 sales out of 2,000 visitors, meaning a conversion rate of 12.5 percent. In my experience in direct marketing, that is a total pipe dream.
Before you believe the come-ons of people preying on the desire of writers to be read, check the numbers. There are better ways to spend your time and money.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
DOJ Shoots Holes Though Google Book Settlement
For the rest of the post (on BNET), click here.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Checking Language at the Door to a Story
An interesting discussion, as Laura's posts generally are. I found it raised a troublesome more general question. When language becomes obsolete but you don't regularly report on the topic, how do you know it? I've never even heard the term intersex before. That is unsurprising because I run into the topic about as often as discussions of lacrosse. (I'm fairly certain that I've even thought of curling, as in the team sport played on ice, more often.)
Just a moment's thought shows that the linguistic considerations go far beyond gender issues. Any time a journalist is in unfamiliar water, potential mines lie about. What if the topic is business? Technology? Art? Music? Construction? Cooking?
Other than the transitory verbal fad -- whether groovy or rad -- language develops slowly enough that the changes come like a meandering tide. You look down and suddenly realize that the dry beach sand is covered with a thin sheet of sea water. However, if you're off in the mountains, you don't notice.
So how do journalists know that language has changed when they haven't paid attention? There's no office memo, particularly if, as is true of many of us, you don't work out of a news room. I don't have an answer, but then until this morning I didn't even realize that I had the question. Perhaps all journalists need to add one more type of fact-checking, taking a moment when using terms that we rarely employ to see whether they are still in play in their respective fields.
Image courtesy of stock.xchng user dewlittle.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Writer Mills Making Money on Articles
Let's start with Helium.com. As I've noted, if you crunch through the numbers they've made public, the average article makes 80 cents. (Ironically, while searching I found a piece I wrote about the company back in 2007 when it introduced its "Marketplace," with writers setting prices from $20 to $200 and Helium taking a 20 percent commission for the massive undertaking of listing the piece.)
But have you ever wondered how much Helium charges for what you write? I did a little snooping and got a price list directly from the company itself. It still has the Marketplace, only the customer sets the price and lets writers compete for the job. Great, eh? But the real eye-opener is for that stock content it offers. Purchase fewer than 25 articles and you're paying ... $30 each. Up the volume to between 25 and 49 and it's $25 each. That's every time the article sells. Quite the mark-up.
It's not the only case of a writer mill charging vastly more for content than it pays. Look at AssociatedContent.com. A typical online advertising CPM, or cost per thousand page views, is $10. If the ads delivered with an article get 5,000 views, that's $50 in revenue at a conservative estimate. How much does the writer get paid? Between $1.50 and $2.50. For 50,000 page views, or $500 in revenue, the payment to the writer is between $75 and $100. Let me tell you from experience in blogging commercially: the chance of getting 50,000 hits on a collection of articles even over the period of a month is pretty flipping slim unless you have many up. (By the way, since 2006, AssociatedContent has racked up about $21.4 million in VC money. It claims such clients as Autobytel.com, IAC, Mojo, and GoDaddy.com. The CEO was formerly chief marketing officer at CBS Interactive and, before that, was at Google for four years.)
I don't have the numbers on the flat fees that AC may pay, but I do on Delegate2, otherwise known as PureContent.com, which is the firm that shows up when searching for the former name on Google. You may remember my reporting that the company offered $3 for a "simple" 250 word article. What do they get for the short simple articles from their clients? According to a price list from the company, that would be $16. And for a more complicated article that has writers spending "extra hours researching your subject"? Try $50 for the same 250 word article. So what are they paying the writer? $10? For hours of research?
These mark-ups of 500 percent are large and show how much the writer mills depend on authors opting for orts. There's a reason I refer to this as piecework or a company store. Let's use one more term: sucker bait. They're looking for people who don't realize how much more money work can provide.
Google Fast Flip as the New News Stand
Monday, September 14, 2009
Freelance Writing Versus a Freelance Business
The writing and business camps, if I can put it that way at least for the moment, have different outlooks. The writing camp wants to make some money, maybe a significant sum, and wants to spend time only writing or editing instead of drumming up business, going through queries, and the like. And if someone understand the ramifications of that choice, and the potential upside of the other, it's fine. I'm convinced, however, that a good many don't.
To understand how experienced, monetarily-successful freelancers approach what they do, you have to understand that they are running businesses. It's not that money is the only measure of success, although it's an important one for practical reasons. You must make enough money to cover:
- higher taxes of independent work
- expenses that can run far more than you might think
- sick time
- vacation time
- health insurance
- life insurance
- disability insurance
- all personal expenses
- profit for the business above your "salary"
That realization begins to color how you look at writing. Sure, you can write something really interesting at a low rate (or for nothing, as I do in this blog and often, though not always, in writing plays). However, you need enough income to cover your expenses. The higher payment must subsidize the lower and the work you might do for the love of it.
As my colleague Michelle Rafter notes in her blog, it translates in part into freelancing being about selling. That's because sales is intrinsic parts of running any business, whether writing or masonry. There are other tasks as well, including marketing (a little different from selling), business development, financial analysis, planning ... also taking in new ideas, reading the work of others, contemplating, professional development, and, not to be ignored, constantly improving and honing your work. Also occasional rest, or else you burn out.
These are things that become impossible when you work in a low pay, high volume paradigm. (If the pay is low enough, you can call that a pair-of-dimes. Sorry, couldn't resist.) When I see people considering work with the writer mills calculating what they can do, they make assumptions of the volume of work they can both get and undertake. "Sure, I can knock off three pieces in an hour, so I should be able to do 21 in a day." But that includes two massive assumptions.
One is that the stream of work is available. A person who does work for Demand Media has told me that the work isn't unlimited and that there are times when the assignment stream temporarily dries up. If that happens and you've committed to depending on this source of work, you are screwed because you are unlikely to find other outlets quickly enough. It goes to Michelle's point about sales cycles. Writers who are well-established in their careers are constantly marketing because a) only some of those queries will turn into assignments, and b) you need a variety of sales cycles so the business doesn't become feast or famine. When you've gone down the path of waiting for someone to give you business, then you depend too heavily on one source. If it slows, even if you start marketing like crazy today, you may not have work for another few weeks. Planning on favorable circumstances is setting yourself up for an eventual crash.
The second assumption is that you can keep up the pace. "No problem," I'm sure some say. Well, let's put it this way. As someone who wrote me correctly calculated, it would take 7 pieces a day five days a week to gross $2100 a month -- an inadequate figure for almost anyone, I'd argue, if you sit down and calculate all the expenditures I mention above. Beyond that, that would be 2400 words a day at least. Over 52 weeks it becomes 624,000 words, or enough to fill six large novels. Now I can write large volumes of publishable material if I know the topic well, and I've been known to write in the 300K to 500K words range in a year. But 624K? I'd find it impossible to maintain that type of volume and my health and sanity at the same time. It's not just the writing, because wire and daily newspaper reporters are used to cranking it out, but finding the topics and doing the research. If you're covering hard news, there are always releases and events and incidents that offer fodder. But evergreen articles? Anything but easy.
Penny a word work was tough in the 1940s and 1950s when pulp fiction writers had to bang it out to make a living, and most quickly got tired and aged. But with today's cost of living, getting a few cents a word is a recipe for disaster. Even if it works today, it will soon blow up in your face. And the writers who have been freelancing for years and sustaining themselves and families know that because they've seen the bad times as well as the good.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Mediabistro and the Reputation Economy
BNET Media story
Blogger Claiming Newspaper Rip-Off Goes on Video Attack
She's received support online as well as an eventual offer by the paper to pay. Normally I'd advise registering copyright in a timely fashion and then sending a demand letter quoting how much statutory infringement can run. But this seems to have worked. Shows you what public pressure will do. Wonder if her name is pronounced Do Pay?
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Writing for a New Media
But it does mean that there's going to be a premium on ability, quality, and learning to use and mix new combinations of media in ways that no one ever considered. Text will have to call out to video to integrate it into the point someone is making. Video will need links to background and amplification that can't happen in that medium. Audio can provide an intimate narration as something looks as images and graphical devices that neither video nor text can provide. All of them will be glued together in new ways. Look at the links I mention in the BNET piece, or listen to NPR's Planet Money experiments in presenting financial information or how OpenSecrets.org illuminates campaign finance information. Not all the tries will work, but some will. Those who want a spot in the future must become part of the attempts to forge a new approach to what they've done in the past. Those new to the endeavor have one big advantage of not having the same number of fixed associations. But those with experience, if they can break free of even some of the assumptions, can add immense depth.
Maybe your efforts will involve merging analysis, opinion, reporting, and commentary in what I'm finding to be an exciting and liberating format in blogs. Or you might find yourself reaching for a video camera, or dusting off pens and drawing paper. Don't assume what technology you need to use or what the results might be. We all have time to ourselves, so invest some of it to try something different. As my drawing improves, I'm hoping to start incorporating it in various ways in my work. If you're a musician, consider composing something that supports the emotional mood of a report and running it in the background. Or create a photo essay loaded with linking hotspots that offer context for the image that someone is seeing. Maybe the old media won't be willing to shake loose, but it's the glory of working for yourself. Try something different. Who knows? You might end up creating a new genre.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Writer Mills Making Big $: Demand Studios
Anyone who follows this blog knows that I've been taking shots at what I've come to call writer mills: companies that grind writers bones to make their dough. But I realized that there's one aspect I haven't covered: what the companies themselves are making off the cheap content. Maybe it's my own twisted perception, but these sites seem to exude a sense of "we're all in this together" bonhomie. Better change the last word to baloney.
So here's the first of a series, because I find it to be the most egregious case of a company making literally hundreds of millions of dollars -- a year -- off writers who will spend more time researching a story than a company offering peanuts for time, the one irreplaceable resource.
I've written before about Demand Studios and had the company respond, and in various comments had many people agree that you'd have to be nuts to work for that kind of money as well as had one person claim in the comments to be making something like $3K a month.
So what does Demand Studios make? I did some pretty easy snooping around various sources of information independent of the company. First, stop thinking of it as Demand Studios and use the real name of the corporation: Demand Media. "Studios" gives it a homey feel, as though you're working with a small group of people also trying to make a living in a tough world. Think again.
First, the CEO of Demand Media is Richard Rosenblatt. In case the name doesn't sound familiar, this is the now 40-year-old who sold MySpace.com and its parent company to Rupert Murdoch for $600 million. Certainly he didn't get all of that; venture capital backers would have taken a huge slice. But this is far from someone who is living paycheck to paycheck.
Speaking of venture funding, Demand Media has received it to the tune of $355 million since its founding in 2006. No, I'm not misplacing a decimal point. The company has received huge amounts of capital from such investors as Oak Investment Partners, Spectrum Equity Investors, and Goldman Fucking Sachs and, as a result, has shown about a $1 billion market valuation. According to a BusinessWeek article in July 2009, Demand Media was pulling in more than $200 million a year. The company hasn't confirmed that, but Rosenblatt says that it is profitable.
Are you starting to get a clearer picture yet?
Let's dig in more and look at some of its business activities:
- It owns eNum, which is one of the top sellers in the world of Internet domains.
- It supplies content to, among others, Reuters and USA Today.
- Via Pluck, a social network software developer it bought for a reputed $75 million in cash according to TechCrunch, it provides software to the likes of Gannett/USA TODAY, Guardian Unlimited, Hearst Corporation, Fox, The Washington Post, Scotts, Circuit City, and Kraft.
- According to ReadWriteWeb, another reliable source of tech info, Demand Media has a network of sites that is the 24th most visited in the US, as reported by comScore. These are page views driven by massive amounts of content, most of which is generated by freelance writers. To put that into perspective, that's more popular than NBC Universal, ESPN, and Expedia, as BusinessWeek notes. And the traffic brings such advertisers as Ace Hardware and Target.
- It's cut a deal with Sony to put self-help videos onto the former's Bravia television sets.
- Demand Media claims to have delivered a huge number of video streams to consumers, whether directly from its own sites or through YouTube. In fact, it says the number is over a billion.
Demand Media rakes in the dough, depending on the power of content, and is happy to have writers and editors slaving away at sub-burger-slinging wages. And there are thousands and thousands of writers who get taken in. Those who do aren't going to like what I'm about to say: You are all a bunch of sad dupes and Rosenburstwithbucks is undoubtedly laughing his ass off, or at least shaking his head in wonder, at the amount of time people will sell their souls and lives for less than what it would take to buy them and their significant others a cheap meal out just to get their heads patted and have the occasional compliment tossed their way. If you've been writing for Demand Studios, or any of these other writer mills, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and watch this clip of Harlan Ellison talking about getting paid as a writer.
They want everything for nothing. They wouldn't go for five seconds without being paid, and they'll bitch about how much they're paid and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers?Or for Demand Media or any of the writer mills? This makes me so angry that I want to grab writers by the collar and slap them repeatedly until the dazed look leaves their eyes and they get mad. Get mad at me first if that helps, but then get mad at those big corporations that are conning you and get mad at yourselves for letting them. That's all this is, a giant con job from the companies that writers are actually doing something valuable. And they are -- something valuable to the companies and to the rich people that start them and invested in them.
For those who feel the need to write something, anything, start a blog. Create a newsletter. Put together a fanzine. Just do something that belongs to you, so that should something come of it, you're the one benefiting. Let the big time investors do their own work for a change.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Writers Mill: Delegate2
What They WantPeople who can write on a variety of subjects with a good grasp of grammar and strong writing skills to join a claimed roster of 500 writers and 100 editors. At least, that's what they claim at the site where the writers are directed. On the site where they try selling the content, they claim 1250 writers and 200 editors.
What They OfferAt the low end, a "simple" 250 word article for $3. But wait, they make up for it in simplicity, as "most experienced writers being able to complete four in an hour." Oh, yeah, that's about in the upper end of burger-flipping money. They pay in one month arrears, which means that they don't pay until the one time the next month that they do pay. Depending on timing, that could technically be longer than 30 days.
What That MeansThat's 1.2 cents a word. They say that they pride themselves on establishing long-term relationships with writers, though they've only been in business for two years. I'm surprised that "experienced" writers would last two hours.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
A Writer's Online Game
What you don't see is that you must find ways through Switches to remove Obstacles and set Moving Platforms free, which are necessary to get you to where you ultimately need to go. This is a great example of what can be done when creatives focus on a new way of looking at an old topic. Plus, it's fun, albeit frustrating.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
A Disastrous Marketing Success
So why am I not learning something useful instead of writing? Because the teleseminar was a complete and total technical mess. At first all you could hear was a moderator, incessant beeping as people came onto the line, and, eventually, Jim Camp who had to dial in through some separate means and tell the moderator that neither of the guests had been able to be heard, as everyone who dialed the published number was automatically put on mute.
They discussed it back and for a minute or two, constantly being interrupted by all the beeps, an experience that you've probably seen only as a small annoyance if you've ever been party to a conference call. Camp suggested that perhaps everyone could drop off the call, give the guests five minutes, and then call back. This was at around quarter after the hour.
I tried hanging up and giving it a few minutes. The beeping was even worse than before, and one lone, thin voice kept saying, "Hello ... hello ... hello ..." The very popularity of the event and its resulting size was causing all the problems that drove me and, probably, thousands more away from the call and onto something productive. That became a complete waste of everyone's time and left Camp's organization appearing unable to handle operational planning. Not good if you're in the negotiation business.
If you're going to be successful as a freelancer, or even help a client work on a marketing campaign, then you need to be cognizant of the problems brought about by success. I'm sure you've heard people, who were surprised by and unprepared for a strong positive response to marketing, say, "It's a good problem to have." The only difficulty with this phrase is that it's completely wrong. It's not a good problem to have. It's never a good problem to have.
There's nothing good about being unprepared for success. In fact, to call it a good problem is like a backward expression of sour grapes. Instead of writing off failure as something you wouldn't want, you're writing off not being ready for having succeeded. This is only an excuse for a lack of planning and anticipation that are part of smart business.
When you are planning any event or activity -- marketing campaign, customer relations outreach, technical conference, or what have you -- these issues need to be brought up at the onset. As part of the creative team, you should at least ask some of the questions:
- Is there an upper limit on the number of people who should be invited? (Should there be a response mechanism that can restrict the eventual number?)
- Are there any technical restrictions that might require particular directions? (Should we tell people to press the number 6 immediately after getting on to mute themselves?)
- Has anyone tested the venue? (Is it possible to can the beeps?)
- Is there a better mechanism to deliver the content? (Did anyone consider an interview format podcast for release on the web, possibly only to people who would fill out a form and qualify themselves?)
- What are alternative plans if something doesn't work as required? (Is there a separate number for those who need to talk?)
- If everything blows up, are there at least tentative emergency response plans that might help repair some of the damage and transform the experience into something useful? (Will someone tape a podcast, make it available, and provide an additional white paper or some other inexpensive-to-produce and yet valuable-to-receive apology?)
Don't fall into this trap of poor self definition. Go off and consider what skills and abilities you actually bring to an engagement, whether corporate writing or editorial, and how you make a client more successful and keep the company or person from wasting money, time, and energy. Look at the hats you actually wear during the process, and in a relaxed way make sure people realize this. Why be a "freelancer" when you could realize that you are a communications consultant and be paid accordingly better?