Trouble at t’mill? By @carlpeter

So, taking the leap into the world of freelancing after nearly 19 years in what I thought was a relatively safe Higher Education environment was a big leap of faith. Looking back, with the benefit of a few months ‘out here’, I know I made the right decision. There’s a cold wind blowing through the university system and we’re lurching towards the kind of educational sausage factory that secondary education became back in the 70s. But I can’t comment on my own institution for contractual reasons, so let’s just say it was time to go and I went. I have been lucky to be able to get some regular work and some irregular work so far but, times being what they are and rent being what it is, I found myself investigating what some people call ‘content mills’.

If you’re not familiar with the term, a content mill is effectively an online copy broker. These companies  attract clients who require the services of a copywriter and then offer whatever projects they have to their community of copywriters, who can then browse the jobs on offer and accept them if they wish. When I say ‘jobs’, I don’t mean large copywriting projects. These can be individual articles or web copy of just a hundred words or so. The largest I have seen to date has been an assignment for a 3750-word piece. Each job has a price attached to it and that price has been, in most cases, around a penny a word.

“A penny a word??!!” you shriek in dismay, “that’s literally forced labour!” Well, I wouldn’t be quite so dramatic about it myself but it does represent a small return on your time as a copywriter. If you’re accustomed to charging fancy metropolitan agency rates for your services, content mills are probably not for you.  It’s entirely likely that you won’t be able to get past the effrontery of the offer. “A penny a word indeed? Don’t they know my agency charged £4k for the seventeen words we wrote about that new fish product?” No, they don’t. And no-one cares. By the time you pitch up at a content mill looking for work, your dignity is already packed away in a box for another time.

There is a voracious appetite for content and a severe unwillingness of people to pay for it. Everyone’s a writer*, and in these days of instant online publishing gratification, the skill of good writing has become devalued. Content mills inflate this devaluation (or deflate the value, if you must) of your skills as a writer – what you are being paid for is not the craft and quality of your writing but the speed at which you can describe ways of sourcing home heating oil in seven different ways. And each way has to be different. And that’s the real downer in working at the mill. The copy you write, the vibrant fruit of your writing loins, is not designed to inform or entertain. It’s designed, usually, to trick search engines. There, I said it. Your copy, properly researched, written, edited and despatched is thirty minutes flat is not for real people at all, it’s link bait.

Surprisingly, I’m all for it. If I could get better jobs that pay a decent rate, I wouldn’t be churning out articles at a penny a word. It keeps me busy, the money aggregates slowly. Over the course of a month, it could pay your electricity bill or more. I don’t have the luxury of not paying for my utilities or not eating. I’d rather be describing factors affecting the ability to reach a divorce settlement than freezing to death and starving. That’s my choice.

So my summary assessment of content mills? Probably necessary. Like smoking, eating fatty foods or bungee jumping – if you’re against it, don’t do it, but don’t deride people who do. No one twisted my arm to work for a penny a word and I’m not so proud that food becomes an option in my life. This guest blog itself is just a longwinded linkbaiting piece to get you over to my website where you can learn about my excellent services (sorry Don!). Now, should I accept this order for an article about personal injury claims, or not?

(*everyone thinks they’re a writer)


Peter Hough is a copywriter and all-round content guy at

Follow his tweets on @carlpeter