March 24, 2008

Internet Proves Lucrative for Amateur Writers

The Internet is increasingly becoming a place for ultra-low-cost freelance writers to publish their online copy on Web sites such as Helium, Associated Content and ThisIsBy.US, site which make micropayments to writers willing to contribute material on a wide variety of subjects ranging from college basketball to how to best remove tattoos to where to find Dr. Seuss coloring pages.

Angie Papple is one such writer. A chemicals specialist in the Army, in her spare time away from her duties she writes articles about things closest to her, like life in the military. At other times she'll analyze a piece of software, or dole out advice for travelers to Hawaii or Puerto Rico.

While some of these pieces bring her mere pocket change, the most profitable ones earn about $40. But most of all, she's just thrilled to be considered a writer.

"It was just a big surprise that someone would actually want to give me money for writing," Papple told the Associated Press. "It really shocked me at first."

Web sites such as Associated Content and others accumulate reservoirs of articles that attract readers and advertising dollars through their high ranks in search engine results or on media-recommendation sites. Associated Content and Helium each say they've signed up over 100,000 writers.

Helium recently established a marketplace where online and in-print third-party publishers can commission works. The site is where Papple found her highest-paying opportunities for her software reviews and travel writing.

BostonNOW, a free newspaper targeted to public-transit commuters, is among the many publishers seeking content from Helium's pool of writers. It recently offered $40 to anyone who could write a "comprehensive" multivitamin guide in just 350 words. The same day, an aromatherapy-related Web site was offering $75 for 750 to 1,000 words on the "positive and emotional benefits of body fragrance."

The pay in the marketplace, as high as $300 so far, is much more than the occasional checks that even the best writers receive from generating material for the main, ad-supported Helium site. But even the marketplace rates pale in comparison to the $1 or more per word rate commanded by professional freelance writers. Indeed, some writers' advocates claim Helium and other such sites lower overall standards for the profession.

Mark Ranalli, Helium's founder and CEO, told the Associated Press his site is not trying to undermine established journalists and copywriters, but instead expects to expand the ranks of paid writers to include part-time talent that would otherwise be sitting on the sidelines.

"My next-door neighbor is far more educated than most freelance writers," Ranalli said. "She's home with three kids, but she went to Harvard!"

Ranalli established Helium to tap into two current trends at once. The first was the ease with which one can mine the Internet's systems (such as the one powered by Google Inc.) to put associated advertising alongside written content. The other was in what Ranalli calls "the wisdom of the crowds", which would make his site's content exponentially more abundant. It's the same principle that fuels sites such as Wikipedia, the advertising-free, volunteer-generated encyclopedia. However, unlike Wikipedia, whose users constantly re-write each other's work, material from Helium users remain unchanged.

So, for example, if Helium has 15 separate articles on the American black bear, it asks its contributor community, excluding the authors of the 15 black bear stories, to vote on which entry is best. The most popular ones go to the top.

While much of the writing on Helium's site ranges from terrible to acceptable, Ranalli noticed that the very best contributors were actually very good. So he launched Helium's marketplace last fall to provide these cream-of-the-crop writers a forum to make more money and a bigger name for themselves with outside publishers that pay Helium a 20 percent commission. Ranalli plans to expand the site this month.

One of Helium's top writers is Paul Lines of Britain, an independent business consultant studying to become a family therapist. Lines has sold enough articles through the marketplace that he anticipates earning $5,000 to $10,000 from it this year. He spends about an hour a day filing pieces for various Web sites on subjects he knows intimately, authoring stories on how to start a business, relationships, and even short takes on the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

"I don't see any reason why my hobby shouldn't make money," he told the Associated Press.

Greenprints publisher Pat Stone, whose magazine is focused on personal gardening experiences, has purchased a few stories from Helium writers for $100 a piece. Although it's the same fee he pays to contributors that submit manuscripts, Stone gets the added advantage of Helium's rating system that guides him to the best articles.

"I don't have time to read 200 responses," Stone told the AP. "The readers among themselves rate them - I just read the top 10. I'm finding good material."

In truth, though, the articles don't always have to be that good to generate results. Mike Bell, CEO of the online buyers guide Software.com has purchased more than 80 software articles from Helium writers. Most are under 200 words, with some containing grammar or stylistic limitations. But Bell finds the low-priced pieces are better suited to Software.com's purpose than polished 1,000-word essays from experienced writers.

"Our view is that consumers are not that particular," Bell said. "They would rather hear firsthand accounts from a (software) user, even if the quality is not that high."

Contributors to Associated Content are paid a cut of ad money and taught ways to make their pieces rank higher in search engine results. The site's managers also search for underrepresented subjects that are likely to generate advertiser interest, and then request its amateur writers to contribute relevant material. The site's "Calls for Content" board lets writers select assignments for as little as $5.

"It doesn't work radically different from the way an assignment desk works in a media company," said Associated Content's CEO Geoff Reiss.

For example, "we'll start talking about lifestyle things for Mothers' Day in March, April," he told the AP.

The site gets the added advantage of tapping into a much larger pool of writers than available to traditional media outlets.

"One hundred and twenty thousand people have signed up"¦.and I don't think we've capped the edges of the market," he said.


On the Net:


Associated Content