Everyone Wants to be a Writer in the 21st Century

With computer access and self-publishing it seems everyone wants to be a writer now. Even worse yet, everyone thinks they have what it takes, and if they can’t find a publisher or agent, they resort to self-publishing. The problem is not everyone has the ability to be a good writer, and self-publishing makes good writing skills unimportant to many new writers.

Where Does the Problem Begin?

What is it that makes everyone today want to be a writer? One of the biggest problems seems to be money, and this is where the self-publishing industry is partly to blame. Writers in the 21st century do not feel there is any need to have a traditional publisher–in fact many are not even attempting to obtain an agent or publisher. What is this happening? Some of the reasons you may hear include but are not limited to the following:

  • They are afraid of rejection–a common reason is “I know no one will publish my book.” Maybe that should be a clue that either you aren’t good enough to be a published writer or need to polish your book some more first.
  • They want complete control of their manuscript. In other words they don’t want a publisher deciding on what the book will be titled, what kind of design will be on the cover, the typeface of the inside or the price of the book. Apparently the days of the publisher knowing what sells is lost to the self-publishing industry that lets writers make their own decisions, ones that are seldom based on research and marketability.
  • Self-publishing offers a higher “return on investment” according to many self-published writers, but this is a fallacy in my opinion. There are many other things to consider such as the number of books you are likely to sell compared to traditional publishing. There is also the loss of one sales outlet: the brick and mortar book store since very few book stores carry self-published books. Those that do make it into bookstores are there only because the writers make some kind of agreement with the bookstore, quite often meaning the store accepts the books on consignment. This means the author must literally purchase their books and provide them to the bookstore and hope they sell. Some small stores might be willing to take a chance on a local author, but this is not the normal process.
  • Writers tend to think they know more about the publishing industry than agents and publishers or they develop a mindset where they don’t care what sells as long as they can publish their manuscripts and receive “royalties,” which are really not royalties but rather the difference between what the author paid for the book and the sales price.
  • They fall for self-publishing companies that say they is “no cost” to publish thinking that means they don’t even have to proofread or edit their work. This makes the author look bad and gives self-publishing the stigma it still retains.
  • They think being traditionally published eliminates any type of marketing and are disillusioned when they find out differently. They figure if they have to market their own material they might as well self-publish. the reality is traditional publishers are doing less marketing than they used to do, but this should not discourage writers from choosing the traditional route if that is what they really want to do.

Everyone Wants to Write a Personal Memoir

Another problem that has developed with the advent of self-publishing is that everyone thinks they have a unique story that will be interesting to the reading public. I am amazed at the increase in the number of people who want to write personal memoirs thinking everyone will be interested. For those who wish to self-publish memoirs so they can give copies to friends and family members, I say go for it, but the problem is there are too many writers–or writer wannabes–who think they have a special story that the public will find interesting. Even if you think your story is unique chances are someone else already told the same story and/or went through the exact same trials and tribulations.

Self-Published Authors Are Another Problem

I also see self-published writers as being a problem because they encourage new writers to self-publish without knowing whether the writer has writing ability. They also do so without telling both the advantages and disadvantages or know if the manuscript is ready for publication. We have to reach a point where all writers have enough pride in their work to make sure it is polished before they put it into the public’s hands. In addition, potential writers need to understand not everyone has what it takes to be a writer, and just because you have a computer doesn’t mean you should be a writer.


Demand Media Has to Answer to Regulators for Accounting Practices

Most freelance writers are familiar with Demand Media, and some like myself have been exposed in the past to the way they treat writers with their stringent demands for such low pay. Demand Media/Demand Studios and all their other entities give a new meaning to the word content mill, and the information they recently disclosed to the SEC following their IPO filing in August 2010 should make all of us in the industry stand up and take notice.

Profit or Loss?

According to Demand Media’s IPO filing in August 2010 they had a loss of $22 million in 2009, $14 million loss in 2008 and a loss in 2007 of almost $6 million.  While this might not come as a shock to some people, the problem is that Demand Media’s CEO, Richard Rosenblatt, has been telling people in the media that the company is profitable.  Where is the problem? How can there be two separate answers to the same question? A company is either profitable or it isn’t, and quite honestly, I find it difficult to believe any kind of a loss because of the low payments they make to writers and editors who work for this content mill.

Demand Media’s Answer

The article that appeared in CNNMoney.com indicates that Demand Media treats payments it makes to writers and editors as a capital expenditure and expenses it over a five year period. Their reasoning is that they continue to make money from the articles writers publish for a period of 5.4 years, so they do not feel they should have to expense those payments at the same time they pay the writers. What this means for the writers that choose the flat $15 payment instead of revenue share is the company is still making money off those articles beyond the time covered by their payment to the writers.

Devaluation of Writers’ Needs

As a writer who once did work for Demand Studios, I have often said the way they treat writers is inhumane at best. While to novice writers, payment of $15 for a 400 word article may seem like a nice sum of cash, the reality is you have to work very hard to earn it, and in some cases it may take you more than an hour to research and write the article. Even if you choose an article on a topic you know well, you must still find at least one online source to use, and you must have at least five subheadings in each article.

Their required editorial reviews can also cause problems for writers who already have experience because they may assign you to an editor who treats you as though you are new to writing which was my experience. The combination of this dual accounting practice and their treatment of the very people who make them profitable is enough to make one question the integrity of the company and its entities in its entirety.

Should a Writer Pay an Editor?

I recently became involved in a discussion on the topic of paying an editor to review writing prior to publication. It surprised me to read the remarks from one of the posters who was dead set against the idea of writers enlisting the services of a professional editor. This person had the idea that anyone who charges to editor a manuscript is exploiting writers. This line of thinking actually shocked me. What was even more shocking was when this poster indicated that any writer who is not good enough to be published without the benefit of a professional editor is not good enough to be published in the first place.

The question now is this: are professional editors taking advantage of authors when they charge them to edit manuscripts before they go to publication? Is it only authors who are contemplating self-publishing who should go to the expense of hiring a professional editor? In the mind of the poster I mentioned, this is indeed the case: only authors contemplating self-publishing need to bother with a professional editor.

Where is the mindset of the aforementioned poster? The biggest problem appears to be he/she feels that when you have a piece edited by a professional that person will take away from the voice and style of the original author. While this could certainly happen, the job of an editor is to help an author turn a manuscript that may not be salable into something that will make money for the author, publisher and agent. This need not involve changing the voice of the original author nor should it do so.

First time authors should certainly take the time to hire a professional editor if only to make sure their manuscript is as perfect as it can be before they send it to an agent or publisher. There is nothing worse than sending a manuscript full of errors to an agent or publisher; it is also the easiest way to find your hard work in the slush pile without a second glance. That doesn’t mean once you are published you can depend on your own self-editing skills. Remember, you are close to the writing, and you are likely to miss things. As writers, we tend to read what we intended to type rather than what we actually typed thus missing some errors.

The final answer to the question whether a writer should pay an editor depends on whether you are a hobby writer or a serious author looking for publication in the traditional market. Even if you aren’t looking for traditional publication now because you are writing something in the niche market that will not appeal to the average publisher, you want to make sure you don’t submit anything that is less than perfect because publishers communicate with each other. If you submit something that is full of errors you will not be well-received in the publishing industry the next time you are ready for publication.


Writing for Content Mills: How it Can Affect Your Reputation as a Professional Writer

There are probably very few writers who have not been exposed to content mills at one time or another, especially those who have taken the steps to become full-time freelance writers either by choice or necessity. When you first start your writing career as a full-time freelancer it is natural to see dollar signs and not give it a second thought. In addition,  you think you have to begin by writing for free or making minimal pay just to test the waters and find your niche. Writing a few articles for minimal pay will help you get your foot in the door, but you still have to be careful where you post your articles.

One of the mistakes many novices make is becoming involved with content mills and not understanding the importance of looking for better paying writing gigs. They initially see this as a way to make money, but since most content mills hire freelancers on a work-for-hire basis, you are not accomplishing anything more than earning a few pennies on the dollar for the work you perform.  While some content mills pay larger amounts such as Demand Studios that pays $15 for a 400-500 word article and actually puts your name on the article, there are many that want to pay a penny a word or less with no credit to the writer.

The other tactic content mills want to take is pay-per-hit. They expect you to write a perfectly well-written article free of errors, perfect grammar, and well researched, but they don’t want to pay you for it unless people read it! This is a tactic Suite 101 employs completely while Demand Studios tries to encourage its writers to choose those articles from the article pool. They also want to hire writers that have substantial knowledge and experience even though they want to pay very little for those writers. In reality what they are hoping to find is highly experienced hobbyists.

As I already mentioned, there is nothing wrong with building your portfolio by writing for free or low pay, but you have to learn when to stop. You also have to understand that if you don’t receive a byline for the work you do it is not going to help you build a portfolio. Work-for-hire or ghostwriting means you sell the copyright to what you write in exchange for a previously agreed upon price. This means you cannot then or at any time in the future republish that manuscript anywhere either online or offline. If you are looking to build a portfolio writing for a content mill without a byline is not going to provide you with what you need.

Many writers who become involved with content mills doing work-for-hire tend to write articles and other material they would not ordinarily write under other circumstances.  For instance,  I prefer fiction writing but do non-fiction for a living. I would only ghostwrite fiction in genres in which I would not write for myself and even then I may not choose to do so. I once agreed to ghostwrite a fiction book based on the Mafia with the background information provided by the client. I began to have problems collecting what the client owed me for projects I wrote previously, so I told them I would not write the book. However, I have no interest in Mafia-related writing, so it was a genre outside of my interest.

This brings us to the question concerning how this might affect a budding author. If you aren’t getting a byline, you certainly cannot include that work in your portfolio unless you have permission from the author of record. On the other hand, if you receive a byline, isn’t that a good thing? While writing for free or small pay for a website can help build your reputation as an author, you have to look at the source. When I first started looking toward publication in the first five years of 2000, I wrote many articles for an online publication and even became an assistant editor-in-chief and major editor. However, as I began to look toward publishing other material, I had to re-evaluate my involvement since the publication in mind was more interested in quantity than quality.  I also believed it was time to move forward and begin looking for earnestly for paying gigs. However, if you can build your reputation writing a few articles for free for a reputable online or offline publication you will have clips and tear sheets you can use in your portfolio.

On the other hand if you write for content mills, even those that put your name on the work, you may be damaging your future potential. Most content mills are not looking for the high quality writing that is necessary for an author to obtain a contract with a literary journal or other high paying publication. In fact, many print and online magazines look negatively at authors who have published with content mills because in most cases the work is minimally edited and the majority of authors are just looking for a few extra dollars–these are popular outlets for college students and others just needing some extra money.

One of the problems is the content mills target those they know are unfamiliar with the effects of their involvement. I have written for my share and only recently discovered the real scope of the market and how it could affect my future as a professional writer. I won’t say I will never do it again because writing puts bread on my table, but I will be more selective with the clients for whom I write. In the meantime I am seeking other outlets for my work, clients who value my services and wish to pay me a living wage for my writing. After five years as a full-time freelance writer it is time to move forward in my career and look for higher-paying work and perhaps write one article for the same pay I previously received to write five or more articles.

Novice writers need to look to their future and evaluate what they what to do. If you are seeking a career as a writer content mills will have a negative effect on your future reputation. Keep in mind if you published articles in your college newsletter, those are clips you can use in your portfolio. Did you write for your church bulletin or other volunteer organizations? All of these outlets are sources of clips and will help your writing career much more than writing for the content mills.

Writers Helping Writers

I don’t want anyone to take that title the wrong way. In reality the purpose of this post is to rant rather than be helpful. Why is that? As a writer trying to move in an upward direction in both income and prestige, it is very frustrating when other more experienced writers attempt to place more importance on their work than yours. While certainly they are in the know about the publishing world, it is frustrating when someone tells you that you are not a professional because you don’t make $100 an hour and/or are not published in a trade journal or other prestigious publication. These writers tend to place more emphasis on how much money you earn for your writing and seem to forget it takes time to reach the point when you can earn a nice wage as a writer.

I belong to several different writing lists and while most of the people on those lists are very helpful, I have to admit there are many others who feel that are better than I am because they have already “made it.” They have the impression that everyone who makes the effort can make $100 or more an hour. Hah! How I would love to make that kind of money–I would settle for making even a quarter of that. Of course, in the eyes of these “professionals” making $25 an hour is not enough. I thought everyone had to work their way to the top–at least that’s the way it was when I worked in the “real world” before my employer downsized my job and I chose to pursue my love of writing instead of trying to get back into the rat race.

I worked the 9-5 routine all my life until 2005 when my company decided to downsize. Since I was the newest person in the department, I was the first to go. At 53 years old I wasn’t looking forward to looking for another job, so I decided to build a freelance business. My hope was by the time my unemployment ran out I would be making the amount of money I needed to stay afloat financially. Unfortunately the recession hit and even writers took a beating in the process. I went from making between $300-500 a week to making the same amount in a month!

How does the recession affect those of us who have not yet made a showing in the world of major publishers and magazines? They don’t know our names, so it’s more difficult to get your foot into the door. The hope of myself and others in my position is that by joining writers groups that are infiltrated with “professional” writers we can learn some of the ways to get into the market. Instead what happens is many of these “professionals” tell us we are not professionals because we do not make the same amount of money they do. Those of us who have only been published online face even more negativity from these “professionals.”

Is there a place where new writers can go for help without facing the nasty comments from some of these other writers? We are looking for honest help because we don’t know where to start. Yes, there are online sources and there is the Writer’s Market Guide, but these sources don’t always tell us which publications are more likely to work with those who have only been published online. I want–and need–to find sources where I can make even $50 an hour or write a couple of columns a week and make enough to add a decent amount to the family income.