Writing for peanuts and loving it

Writing for peanuts and loving it

By BRIAN BERGSTEIN, AP Technology Writer
Mon Mar 24, 2008 1:22 PM ET

In her spare time, away from her duties as a chemicals specialist in
the Army, Angie Papple fires up her computer and writes an article
about something close to her, like life in the military. Other times
she’ll analyze a piece of software. Or she’ll churn out advice for
travelers to Hawaii, where she lives, or Puerto Rico, where she’s never
been.

micro_freelance.jpgMark Ranalli, founder and CEO of
Helium.com, sits in his conference room in Andover, Mass. Tuesday,
March 18, 2008. Helium.com is one of several internet sites used as a
platform by amateur and professional writers to post articles on a
broad range of topics in hopes of marketing them. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Some of these pieces bring her mere pocket change. The most
lucrative ones earn about $40. Most of all, though, she’s thrilled to
be considered a writer.

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

The Internet is full of words written for no money at all, just for
passion. And it’s veined with pieces (like this one) written in
someone’s regular line of work. Now, though, more and more online copy
is being cranked out by a hybrid class: people like Papple, happy to
serve as ultra-low-cost freelancers for sites that — unlike many
personal blogs — actually get readers.

Greasing the wheels are sites like Helium, ThisIsBy.Us and
Associated Content, which dangle micro amounts of pay to amateur
writers willing to contribute material. Virtually any topic is open,
from advice about child-rearing to an exegesis of mood rings.

These sites hope to accumulate big troves of articles that rank high
in search engine results or on media-recommendation sites, then lure
ever more readers and advertising dollars. And people are biting.
Associated Content and Helium each say they’ve signed up more than
100,000 writers.

Recently Helium took an extra step to blur the line between amateur
and professional writers: It set up a marketplace where third-party
publishers — both online and in print — can commission works. That’s
where Papple has found her best-paid gigs for software reviews and
travel writing.

Among the publishers that have been seeking content from Helium’s
pool of writers is BostonNOW, a free newspaper aimed at public-transit
commuters. It recently offered $40 to someone who could churn out a
guide to multivitamins that was "comprehensive" — though just 350
words. That same day, an aromatherapy-related Web site was willing to
pay $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 way better
than the occasional checks that even the most prolific writers can
expect from contributing to the main, ad-supported Helium site. But
even the marketplace rates would sink the spirits of professional
freelancers who try to command $1 per word or better. Indeed, some
writers’ advocates lament that Helium and other online word mills lower
standards for the craft.

Mark Ranalli, Helium’s founder and CEO, counters that his site is
not out to undermine established journalists or copywriters. Instead he
expects to expand the ranks of paid writers to include part-time talent
that otherwise would be sitting fallow.

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

Ranalli developed Helium to jack into two online currents at once.

One was how easy it was becoming to mine the Internet’s lucrative
systems (especially the one powered by Google Inc.) for putting
contextually relevant advertising along written content. While that
model already fueled information-rich sites like The New York Times
Co.’s About.com, Ranalli wanted to tap a second big Internet idea —
"the wisdom of the crowds" — to make Helium’s content exponentially
more abundant.

That same principle fuels Wikipedia, the advertising-free online
encyclopedia generated by volunteers. But while Wikipedians endlessly
redo each other’s work, contributions from Helium users remain intact.

That means Helium has, say, 15 separate articles on the American
black bear. To make that mishmash useful, Helium asks its community of
contributors — excluding the 15 authors of the black bear entries — to
vote on which of those 15 articles is best. The top-rated ones rise to
the top.

Much of the writing on Helium ranges from awful to marginal. But
Ranalli noticed that the very best contributors were actually pretty
good. As the site’s user numbers kept rising, the thin layer of cream
on the top amounted to a sizable number of people.

So he launched the marketplace to let Helium’s best writers try to
make a bigger name — and more money — for themselves by hooking up with
outside publishers, who pay Helium a 20 percent commission. The
marketplace launched last fall in a limited manner and expanded this
month.

Paul Lines of Britain has sold so many articles through the
marketplace that he’s on pace to earn $5,000 and $10,000 from it this
year. He spends about an hour a day filing pieces for various Web sites
on subjects he knows intimately: He’s an independent business
consultant and in training to be a family therapist, so he’s penned
pieces with relationship advice and how to start a business. He’s also
written short takes on the U.S. presidential election.

"I don’t see any reason why my hobby shouldn’t make money," he says.

Pat Stone, publisher of GreenPrints, a 13,000-circulation
magazine that is subtitled "The Weeder’s Digest" and devoted to
personal experiences about gardening, has purchased a few reminiscences
from Helium writers at $100 a pop. That’s the same fee he pays
contributors who send manuscripts on their own. But the advantage for
Stone is that when he solicits an article, Helium’s rating system
guides him to the best pieces.

"I don’t have time to read 200 responses," Stone says. "The
readers among themselves rate them — I just read the top 10. I’m
finding good material."

The truth is, however, that the material doesn’t always have to be all that good.

Mike Bell, CEO of Software.com, an online buyers guide, has
purchased more than 80 pieces about software from Helium writers. Most
of these items are less than 200 words. While some have iffy grammar or
stylistic limitations, Bell finds that these low-priced nuggets are
better for Software.com’s purposes (his site, too, needs lots and lots
of content that generates ad revenue) than polished 1,000-word articles
from experienced freelancers.

"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."

At Associated Content, contributors are paid a cut of ad money
and schooled in ways to make their pieces rank higher in search engine
results. The site’s managers also hunt for topics that seem
underrepresented online — but likely to draw the interest of
advertisers — then ask its amateur contributors to produce something
relevant. The site’s "Calls for Content" offer board lets writers grab
assignments (planning a NASCAR-themed birthday, say, or the
significance of right-side abdominal pain) for as low as $5.

"It doesn’t work radically different from the way an assignment
desk works in a media company," CEO Geoff Reiss says. For example,
"we’ll start talking about lifestyle things for Mothers’ Day in March,
April."

Except that the pool of writers ready to respond is way beyond
the bounds of traditional media: "One hundred and twenty thousand
people have signed up," Reiss says. "And I don’t think we’ve capped the
edges of the market."

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