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Incoming BYTES
contains highly variable subject matter including commentary on the mundane, the extraordinary and even controversial issues. At Incoming BYTES
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Saturday, December 3, 2011

The trouble with Word Mills: Writers Beware.

The truth always comes to Light

As a writer it is always in my own best interest to pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the publishing industry. 
Writers in North America may be on the move.  Discontent and unhappiness with "word mills"  in the  internet writing community is growing.  It appears to be with some  justification. 
 Such is the current state of the business of "Word Mills," incorporated publishers  that collect, grab possession of,  market, and sell written works from authors and writers.  

It is not difficult for neophyte writers to be taken into this trap.  Writers starting out need somewhere to start, a forum to publish their work in--perhaps the start of an illustrious writing career.  Submissions from new, untested and inexperienced writers are welcomed.
None of the word mills  pay much for articles --essentially pennies --for hours of work crafting beautifully-written articles, How-to Guides, and creative work including short stories, poetry and other genres of work --even if  written by the most skilled, highly qualified freelance writer.

There is a growing movement to challenge the right of publishing "word mills"  like Helium.com ,  Associated Content.com  and others to claim ownership of  the right to commandeer  a writer's copyright in perpetuity. 
Much negative feedback is occurring.  The discussion is growing, and participants should be paying attention with good reason.  
 Good writers are disgusted, packing it in and leaving. Why?   The truth always comes to light.

In North America, copyrights belong exclusively to the creator of a  written work or other form of creative work unless those rights are specifically SOLD to another party.  This honourable process has been thwarted. 

To allow a writer to post an article on a site for exposure and readership,  publishers like Helium, Associated Content and countless others  seize the right to a perpetual license  for free use of the author's copyright.  
The reader should pay particular attention to this  fact.    It is NOT a  "one time use" claimed,  but permanent use --and  includes  the right to sell an author's work at any time without acknowledgment or compensation.

A  "content Word Mill", can,  at it's free will, sell an absentee writer's work --and under heavily-skewed TOS,  (terms of service) NOT  be obligated -- to provide any compensation, acknowledgement or by-line.  Once an article is submitted, the writer is simply offered no choice in the matter.
  Normally a publisher is supposed to pay writers when works are sold for any purpose but this requirement can also  be easily thwarted.   Articles may be sold repeatedly--without notifying or  paying any compensation to the author.    
"Stock content" articles are sold to third party publishers and token fee of a few dollars  (i.e. $5.00)  is paid to the writer.
A small revenue share arrangement for "hits" on the articles and associated commercial ad content may also  be paid to the writer.  Such "revenue shares" may be only pennies each month--or none at all.

If a  writer chooses to dissociate himself with the site for any reason,  and is no longer considered to be  "with " the site,  that sales and revenue share is happily absorbed by the publisher, leaving the writer with no compensation or redress for earnings and for articles sold to third parties.  
Increasingly,  it appears that  TOS (terms of service) of word mills  are a very serious bone of contention.  Terms of service are usually written for the benefit of the publisher and worse yet, they can be rewritten and redefined at any time, with no input from the thousands of writers such changes affect negatively.  

Discontent with treatment of writers is becoming a serious  issue--writer discontent is growing.  The dignity and self worth of writers is being ignored;    at times core issues of  respect for the welfare or dignity of writers  even appear to be an issue.   Many writers who have been with "Word Mills" are, as a result, disheartened.   There is much negative press being generated. 

Should any publisher or content Word Mill be allowed to commandeer the right to use a copyright in perpetuity contrary to the wishes of a writer?  Here at Incoming Bytes  we  think not. 
 Recent algorithm changes in  Google's unique-content " Panda" program have also  severely reduced the income paid to writers, -- in  cases from hundreds of dollars per month to mere pennies.  
The individual reader of Incoming Bytes  must decide if they believe a "Word Mill"   increases it's  profit immensely from such changes ---while the  writers,  the producers of the valuable, marketable content, struggle and scramble in real life --to try to earn lost income --and in many cases, even a basic  living.
 Issues of trust or a questionable editing policy  are always sources of irritation and trust in any writer/publisher relationship.  Lack of respect often comes into play, creating difficult situations.
Games can be played by enthusiastic  Word Mill supporters, by  unskilled  editors, or equally by the process of malicious favoritism,  placing poor quality work  in a  higher "ranking" than superior work.   The reader should understand that "Top-rated articles" are the displayed content seen  by the visitor to any Word Mill site; lower-rated articles are usually  down-listed, hidden and thereby ignored, earning nothing.  
The fact is, the readership generates the income and the Word Mill decides which articles are convenient to read.

 Perhaps this discontent and signs of cracking in the "Word Mill" publishing industry is best summed up by the phrase:
" Word Mills no longer offer credibility and writers no longer trust you" 
 Here at  Incoming Bytes  the old adage  "the Pen is mightier than the sword"  comes to mind.  

Let the neophyte writer be forewarned. Times are changing.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


  1. Well said, Raymond. It should also be noted that articles may be sold at will by the Word Mill publishers without the knowledge, consent or remuneration in favor of the writer. Should copyright infringement be identified for a writer's article(s), the publisher washes their hands off the case and leaves it to the writer to file charges, take action in some form or remain silent about it. Should some action be taken, these publishers benefit as the articles posted at their sites stand to benefit at the expense of the writer since the original article is still withing the grasp of the 'Word Mill' publisher in question.

    And yet they say... "it is of importance that you notify us should there be an infringement of copyright and we will do all we can to help you. However, since the criminal site is a scraper site, and not within the US, we can do nothing about it. The author is free to take up any course of action that he sees fit." So much for their help.

    Perhaps I should start a site and borrow all the best articles that I like from these sites. What can these publishers do to me since they have already said what their limitations and decisions are. I am not in the US. I can do as I please.... and perhaps so should I.

  2. That is quite a mouthful (both of you).

    Content aggregators (what you call word mills) have traditionally been hobby sites. In recent years and the decline of the newspaper industry, aggregators marketed themselves as the solution to the ailing reporting market by offering cream-of-the-crop articles and evergreen pieces at a fraction of the cost of production.

    As with any other exploitable industry (think sweat shops), the employees (writers) are the ones bearing the brunt of the situation for little (or no) pay, while the owner rake in the profits.

    Perhaps, in a future post you can discuss the ramifications of leaving an aggregator for both the aggregator and the writer. I am certain few know it.


  3. I agree with Mandy. Another issue is that people who think they've read the TOS and understand them, don't bother to reread them frequently. As was mentioned, content mills are known for stating clearly in their TOS, that they are free to change them at any time and without notice.

    Ursula is right in that many people who initially joined these sites may have done so in the hope of being able to earn a bit of money from something they enjoyed doing -- that being writing. The horrible shape of the U.S. economy and the high unemployment rate, coupled with the slim chances that some people have of being able to earn the kind of money that they had been earning from legitimate full time employment, has forced many people to look to writing for content mills as a way to earn something. Unfortunately for writers, these content mills have benefited from a lot of high quality work, including some rather specialized content provided by experts in the field, which they can use in attempt to elevate the site's credibility, yet without paying a fair price for the content -- if they pay anything at all.

    I have no problem writing content for sites, and relinquishing my rights to the content, provided that is clearly stated in the site's terms of service. I go in knowing that. When a site alter's the wording of the terms of service in such a way that allows it to use content as they see fit, including using it without giving credit to a writer or compensating the writer, while maintaining perpetual rights to the content, it seems to me that they can no longer insist that a writer maintains rights or the copyright to their content. Perhaps in the technical sense, the writer does, but this kind of wording is cleverly crafted in such a way that the content site can legally steal a writer's work -- with or without compensation.

    As someone who has tried to make a living from content sites for the past several years and seen my income reduced by 90%, I am no longer willing to put forth the effort that I had been, especially when I have no guarantee of payment. I am focusing my energies on writing for sites that offer a clear and straightforward payment plan. I look for payment for my work, and an offer of revenue share with no guarantee of other payment isn't sufficient anymore.

    The future of these content sites remains to be seen. Some may adapt to changing times. Those that want to survive will have to work with the people who butter their bread -- their writers, and in some cases, the editors. Sites that come up with "new and exciting" promotions over and over again, as a way to lure writers, may soon discover that their writers no longer trust them.

    The face of writing online has definitely changed. Writers will have to adapt to more stringent requirements -- and that's not such a bad thing because it pushes a writer to constantly work to improve their writing. Sites that expect more of their writers, but don't want to offer fair compensation and clear and reasonable terms of service, may discover that their reputations suffer tremendously because writers don't trust them. Their overall credibility as content providers may ultimately suffer as well.

  4. Having been burned by several of these sites We finally came to the conclusion we were better off writing our own website or blog. In the Old West they would have strung these polecats up so they were between heaven and earth, and that would have been the end of these parasites. They have practiced a form of slave holding, and we were the slaves, now let them collect what they deserve. We too should get our just desserts.

    The word mills of the world have fulfilled one function and that is giving us all a chance to hone our skills as writers, and apparently that is the end of it. Too say the least we earned a little money from the effort, but experience ultimately is an expensive experience.

    There is a line from Dante's Inferno when Dante stopped to look at some interesting people on the side of the road doing some interesting things on the road to Hell when his guide said to him, "Look ye upon them and pass them by, for they are those who might have been." So be it with the word mills!

  5. Excellent article Raymond. I shake my head and wonder how they can get away with the legal three card monte. I'm one of those rare people who actually read the TOS and Helium's makes me shudder.

    I bailed out over 2 1/2 years ago when I saw the writing on the wall and the real faces behind the Helium mask. I resent having to log in and rate (shudder) simply to keep the few pennies that are rightfully mine.

    Speaking of the TOS. The terms for images are even more onerous. No self respecting photographer (I count myself among them) would ever agree to allowing their original works to be stolen in perpetuity.


    I've met a lot of good people and made good friends so maybe the pain has been worth it.


  6. If I can ever figure out why I can't get an AdSense account going, I may just go it on my own too...

    One major problem that I see at these writing mills is that there are too many people who write really crappy articles, and they usually belong to cliques. They rate each other's articles high and think that since they are near the top of an article's ranking, they have the better article. As a steward, I so often see the best article being near the bottom.

    Most of my "Stock Content" sales at Helium are in the lower 25% of ratings.

    I have found no less than 28 of my articles online where they had no business being there - I did not sell them nor did I get a Stock Content sale for them. As with all of you, I was told that it was up to me, but Helium would do all that they could do, which was to tell me that I was on my own. Thanks for that! Is that why my earnings have gone from over $150 a month to under $25 a month? Think not, and it's not only due to Panda, as they say, either.

    So, here it is - let's start our own publisher's clearinghouse of articles - a group of well-heeled writers who will write whatever publishers want for flat fees of $35 each. Probably less than what Helium or other sites charge...

    Constant Content is a pretty good site, but they take like 40% of your income as the middle man.

    There are a LOT of good writers here, more than enough to start a collective - all we need is a leader... Red?

  7. I am working on it as we speak. Already consulted a few people to see what the best course of action truly is. Holding pattern for information. Everyone is welcome to meet me tomorrow @ 1000 EDT (GMT-5) at our hangout to discuss it.

  8. Excellent article. I am glad I stumbled around and found you. I am a disgruntled freelancer also.

  9. @Barbie, thanks for dropping in! I am not surprised when more disgruntled freelancers realize what the word mills are doing to us. Shame on THEM; they make millions of dollars from our work and only pay pennies. There are many alternatives that should be explored; and do with YOUR work whatever you wish. I am. Thanks again, Barbie!

    @ SKBeal, you got it right. They are stealing from writers that have made them a fortune. "Their" writers already have NO faith in them whatsoever. Thank you so much for commenting, Susan!

    @ Red, the aggregators unfortunately are going to learn the hard way. Their reputation is already preceding them. As for writers, we shall continue to make our way as we always HAVE. The implications of leaving word mills for the writer is that we have learned a valuable lesson; for the word mills, the implication is that some of them have destroyed, or continue to destroy their own reputations and no longer have any respect.
    Thanks Red!

  10. thank you for sharing this. I stumbled up upon this while reading another blog. The problem with writers (even myself) is that we are so eager for an audience that we get taken in by sites like Helium, etc. I am ready to move on and make some real money. Any suggestions?

    1. Katley, thank you for visiting. You have noted one of the most prevalent problems, as neophytes it is exciting to see our work published--in any forum. The business of writing is changing. Quality is what counts. Word mills are flooded with bad writing--and are now paying the price for it.

      Writing in any environment --like a word mill-- can provide valuable experience, and even provide some tiny incremental income, no doubt about that but it is really a good idea to be VERY familiar with all Terms of Service--which word mills change at will to suit themselves.
      Writes ARE taken advantage of, NO site should have perpetual license to do whatever they like with our work including selling it at will. Writers should have control over their own work, period, no excuses.
      Consider doing some specialized niche writing, consider blogging, consider specialized articles for magazines--and of course the never-ending creative market. Develop your own web site with GREAT content. The trend to eBooks is growing. Meantime if you have articles in a word mill like Associated Content or Helium, drive as much traffic to it as possible via social media like FB, Digg, Stumble, G+ etc. Good luck with your career, and do visit again! Thanks for commenting! ~R

  11. thanks for your suggestions, Raymond! BTW I've been looking into niche writing and my blog's been up for almost two years (have you checked it out?

    I'll be stopping by again, since I enjoy reading blogs that make me think as well as smile. ~K

    1. You're welcome, Katley, I had not seen it before, but will be examining your blog too! Niche writing works if you find the right niche --and the right publisher. Good luck, and we shall meet again! Thanks for visiting!~R

  12. Another great post, Raymond!

    However, I must disagree with leaving the sites - you're just giving them whatever income you would've earned! If you don't want to submit articles anymore, that's fine and a growing happening, but you should always keep your accounts open, in order to get whatever income becomes available to you - why give them even more money that should have been yours, when all you have to do is keep your account active?

    As well, when a writer doesn't submit an article for one year, and doesn't rate any articles, their accounts are closed. And, the lower 90% of articles are being deleted to pare down the crap - this is a good thing, even if you have some articles deleted. You're writing score will rise and publisher interest will increase.

    1. Point taken, Marc, if you abandon the pennies, you give them to the word mill. "Minor maintenance" is required, such as 'rating' at Helium to keep the money coming. Thanks for visiting, sorry for the slightly belated response! ~R

  13. Raymond, this is ALL new to me. I guess it is because I have always written with no expectation of making any money anyway. I think I average about $100 a year. But this is the first time I have seen this side of the industry. What an eye opener! Well, I am somewhat disappointed but not too surprised. I will be stopping by more often for more inside information. Glad I stopped by. Don Hancock (Sir Don)

  14. Don, a belated point here, you CAN make money working with a word mill but it's never very much. The word mills make a fortune on the work of writers with expectations. That's the key. Be aware, especially of the 'terms of service' which are not always clear--are written for the benefit of the word mill business--and seem to be changed at will. Helium has gone through major changes that disillusioned a lot of very good writers. I make less than 25.00 a month now, but was making hundreds of dollars each month prior to the 'changes'. Thanks for dropping by, Sir Don! ":)


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