Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The randomness of content writing

Sometimes I kid myself into thinking that the "publishers" I write content-mill stories for actually care about what I write. Then I get an e-mail from one of them and I'm quickly proven wrong.

For instance, yesterday I turned in a package of three content stories of the longer side. Each was about 600 words. The stories took me longer to write than usual, but I turned them in on time.

The publisher was happy with the work. He had just one complaint: Two paragraphs in one of my columns were both about the same subject. In other words, the eighth paragraph in my story talked about creating a new blog. The ninth paragraph added just a bit more information to that thought.

The problem with this? My publisher spins the stories so that all the paragraphs except for the first and last are jumbled in random order every time a new version of the story is posted on one of his Web sites. If two paragraphs, such as my two on blogging, need to follow one another, this screws up his random jumbling. After all, it won't make much sense to have the second of my two blog paragraphs appearing before the first.

I've always known that I do content writing just to fill in the financial gaps from the writing I like better, the stuff I do for trade magazines and comic-book publishers. Sometimes, though, I get little reminders like this: It's not really the quality of my writing that matters when I'm turning in a content story, it's all about hitting the right keywords and turning in the right number of small paragraphs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How nervous do publisher e-mails make you?

Yesterday, I received an e-mail message from the publisher of one of my top print-magazine clients. I shudder when these arrive these days. Often, they're an announcement that the publisher can no longer afford to hire freelance writers.

Sure enough, this particular e-mail message was bad news: The publisher wasn't firing his freelancers. He was asking them to take a voluntary pay cut on all their stories. I agreed to the cut. What else was there to do? I need all the clients I can get these days.

For writers, the end to this recession can't come soon enough. It's getting a bit depressing to see so many great magazines -- both consumer and trade -- go out of business. And what's happening to the newspaper industry is even more frightening. Again, some truly good newspapers are no more thanks to declining ad revenue. And my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, is a shell of its former self.

This turned out be a depressing post. Oh, well. It's that kind of day, I suppose.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Worries at

I wrote for for about two months. During this time, I never even reached the $25 necessary to receive my payout. I quit writing for Examiner not because I was misled, but because it wasn't working for me. There wasn't enough money there to make it worthwhile.

And, really, unless you have the perfect topic, I don't see how anyone can make enough money writing for to make it financially worthwhile. When I was writing for the site, Examiner was paying a penny a page view. I was averaging a very pitiful 70 or so page views a week.

You could argue that I should have spent more time promoting my stories. But for what? An additional 10 page views a day? That's still only 70 cents more a week. Is that really worth the effort it takes to promote your writing?

It looks like has just gotten even worse to write for financially. Several Examiners online are fretting that Examiner is no longer paying even a penny a page view. Instead, if you get 50 page views on a day, you'll earn something like 26 cents. (Just an example.)

Now, this does stink. It stinks even more because Examiner -- which I'm sure has the right to screw around with its pay system however it wants -- doesn't seem to have explained the new pay system to its writers. There's no excuse for that. If you're going to screw your writers, at least tell them why.

By the way, if you want to read some fun stuff about Examiner, check out this blog post and this one, too.

I've read plenty of forum posts from writers thrilled to be "hired" by I wonder why. Why would anyone be happy to be paid even a penny a page view? I also cringe when I hear forum writers say that the people complaining about are dinosaurs who don't recognize the future of reporting or journalism. I certainly hope -- with no fact checking or editing and such awful pay for writers -- isn't the future of journalism.

Look at it this way: Even if you promote the living daylights out of your stories and generate 1,000 page views a day -- pretty unlikely -- you'll only earn $300 in a 30-day month, if my math is right. Think how much work goes into that $300. It's a shame.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The summer doldrums at Suite 101?

I admit that I've been neglecting Suite 101. I started out like a ball of fire, writing 30 stories in my first month. Not coincidentally, perhaps, that was my best month at the site: That month I earned $28.81.

Now, I realize that's not exactly lottery-winner money. But it's far better than the $14.21 I earned last month, or the shockingly awful $3.60 I've earned so far in July.

Is it just that I've slowed down considerably with Suite 101? After those first 30 articles, which I wrote in March, I've added just nine more.

Maybe it's the summer. People are outside, right? (At least those people who aren't content writers.) They're not reading about low-down-payment mortgages or the first-time homebuyer tax credit. (Bastards!)

One of the writers at Suite 101 recently posted in the forums there that he just finished his 500th story for Suite. I had one thought about reading that: **&%$! (Sorry, this is a family blog.) The writer, of course, didn't give out his earnings at Suite 101. This is a no-no, I understand. There's a lesson here: Most places that forbid writers from giving out their income are paying out horribly low monthly incomes. Why else wouldn't they want their writers telling the world how much they're making?

Anyway, I do plan on sticking with Suite 101 through the rest of the year. My initial goal was to get to 100 stories. The way things are going, though, I might shoot instead for 50.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sometimes it's fun: Writing about fortune cookies and halloween

I moan a lot on this blog about the challenges of trying to make a living as a freelance writer. I complain about low pay, unresponsive editors and publishers who always seem to make the worst possible decisions.

But then you take on an assignment that's actually fun. And everything seems worthwhile again.

That's happening now. I'm writing a series of short, short fact-based stories for a Chicago-area publisher. The stories will appear in a book of useless trivia. What could be more fun than useless trivia? I love useless trivia. In fact, I can tell you every baseball World Series winner since 1926, and every SuperBowl winner ever. And I can do it all in correct order.

To stick to the topic, though ... I'm writing about the history of fortune cookies and digging up interesting trivia about Halloween. The fortune cookie bit's pretty fun. Did you know that fortune cookies weren't even started in China? In fact, hardly anyone in China eats or serves fortune cookies. In the United States, though, 3 billion fortune cookies are produced each year. And did you know that Illinois, of all states, produces the most pumpkins every year? Or that the witch is the most popular costume choice among adults, with pirates second? Did you know that 90 percent of parents admit to sneaking candy from their children's trick-or-treat bags?

Now you do. And I do, too.

These stories are fun to write. They're easy. And they pay well.

It's easy to get down on this industry. But it's hard these days to think of any industry that's exactly thriving. An engineering friend of mine has to take 10 unpaid days off this year. Another friend of mine, who works for the city of Chicago, has to take 15 unpaid days off. A third friend works in the banking industry and is hanging onto his job for dear life.

Writing is stressful these days. But unlike most jobs, it can actually be fun at times.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why don't the salesmen ever have to fix their own mistakes

I'm a freelance writer. But I also hold down a full-time writing job as the editor of a trade magazine covering commercial real estate. It's a bit of a drag, but it's provided me a steady income, and insurance benefits, for more than 10 years now.

The problem is, we're operating with a skeleton staff these days. The company laid off 2/3 of our editorial and sales staff earlier this year thanks to the bad economy. Because of this, everyone's handling several jobs at once. Mistakes slip through.

For instance, in our most recent issue, our advertising staff forgot to include an ad that was already paid for. That's a no-no at any time, but it's especially bad when every dollar counts, as it does today. The advertising staff also put in the wrong contact information on a second ad. Another no-no.

And who has to clean up the mess? The few writers left on staff, of course. You know, the folks who had absolutely nothing to do with the mistakes that were made.

For instance, I now have to interview officials at both companies that the sales department screwed over. Then I have to figure out how to weave these interviews into the stories I'm already working on for the issue. Sounds like a great time, no?

What makes all this worse is that the reason we're operating with a skeleton staff is because our sales men and women haven't been selling enough ads. And now we're all doing extra work because these same people keep screwing things up.

Nice job, everyone.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another client cutting back

My mood swings are getting more severe these days. One minute -- a publisher is interested in my script for a graphic novel! -- I'm thrilled. The next -- another client has gone out of business! -- I'm gloomy as hell.

Today's one of those dark-cloud days.

My favorite print-magazine publisher sent an e-mail message this morning to all his freelance writers. Not surprisingly, the publisher is going through some tough financial times. In his message, he stated that all of the publishing company's employees have taken 10 percent pay cuts.

He then asked us freelancers if we'd be willing to take the same 10 percent cuts on our freelance stories. If we said "no," we wouldn't be getting any new story assignments.

I said "yes." Of course. My options aren't exactly unlimited. This publisher is one of my top-paying ones. It would be economic suicide to walk away.

So, get out your umbrellas. It's another stormy day in the world of freelance writing.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Don't forget to follow your writing passion, too

We can all get wrapped up in our latest deadline assignments. I've been spending a lot of time producing weekly content packages for two clients lately. The pay isn't bad, by content standards, at least. But it is time-consuming work.

And sometimes, if I'm not careful, I'll lose track of time. And I won't leave enough of it to pursue my real writing passion: comics.

I started writing for the comic-book business about two years ago. I have some credits to my name. I've even managed to make the tiniest bit of money in this business. (That's no easy feat. There aren't many people who make ANY money writing for comics.)

Today I set aside a large chunk of time to work on a synopsis of a young-adult graphic novel I've been working on. An overseas publisher is interested in publishing the story. The publisher just needed me to create a two-page synopsis of the story, beginning, middle and end.

It would have been easy to have let this slip through the cracks today. I have two content packages due, one tomorrow, one Wednesday. I also have an edit to complete on a story I wrote for the Washington Post, and a short story due for a newspaper chain in the Midwest. These are all deadline stories, with real, live, often impatient editors behind them.

But the young-adult graphic novel? That's my passion. It's why I write, to create stories that I'd love to read. I hope that's what I'm doing with this one.

Yes, there's no money in it now. But there could be, if the publisher likes my synopsis.

So don't forget to write the things you want to write once in a while. It's a great way to refresh your creative energies.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The danger of burnout

Be careful what you wish for. Two months ago, I was desperate for work. My very best print-magazine client had stopped assigning freelance stories. One other had gone out of business, and a third was moving from a monthly publication to one published just six times a year.

So I started grabbing whatever I could to make up the difference.

That included two content-writing gigs for two different publishers. One would pay me $300 a month. The second, $350 a month. It didn't equal one assignment from my formerly top print client, but at least it helped.

Until now. These two assignments are dragging me down. They're a lot of work -- basically, I'm producing a package of content stories every week for both publishers -- and take up more time than they deserve. And now that I've secured a new print-magazine client -- one focusing on healthcare, so it's strong -- and some writing for a trivia book that will basically let me take on as much work as I want, I'm finding it difficult to keep up with the content-producing work for these other clients.

The problem is, I'm not willing to give up the work just yet. There's no guarantee that another slow month isn't just around the corner. My wife is going back to school, which means for the first time we'll be paying for childcare this fall. We need to sock away as much money as possible.

So for now, I'll continue working the late nights pounding away at nonsensical stories about dating, collectible coins minted in Canada and pinup artists. It's a living -- sorta' -- and, burnout or not, I'm thankful that I at least have enough writing work to pay my mortgage, our other bills and take a rare trip to the movies.