Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing about food for 2 - Does it pay?

This is Part Two of a multi-part series of posts about writing about food and drink on, where I write as the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner and the Knoxville Coffee Examiner. For Writing about food and drink for Part One: How it works, click here.

In my last post, I detailed how writing for the online magazine works, and I also mentioned some rather tempting information about the potential pay that some Examiners prove is possible to be earning on the site. In fact, there is evidence floating around out there that some Examiners have made four figures per month writing for the site. Here's the seeming truth behind how that might be going down:

  1. They write about celebrity bullshit that people shouldn't care about but eat up like it's something I cooked;
  2. They watch Google Trends and pick the top-searched celebs to pour out info about, some of which may be suspect;
  3. They post "news articles" on those topics, many of which are simply rehashes of the most popular links on Google concerning about a dozen times a day and publish them as news, which gets fed into Google's news reel rather efficiently.
  4. They market the crap out of what they write on their Twitter accounts using all kinds of clever tricks and apps.
These four suppositions are based upon my memory of seeing the evidence I referred to (but cannot seem to quickly find again at the moment), and, if you're quick and relatively good, they could be a guideline on how to actually make money on

Wait... ouch... "actually make money?" That's harsh.

Well, perhaps it's not warranted. There are some very web-savvy writers that produce expert-quality, solid content on their niche areas on that are doing fine without selling out hard to the celebrity path to riding several someones' coattails to relatively illegitimately earned internet cash. Those people seem to be making in the two-figures-per-day pay range, at least from what I have guesstimated (and having a Ph.D. in math makes me a pretty good guesstimator, most of the time). Two figures per day of nearly passive income isn't bad. It's something like $3-10k a year for what, at least on the front lines, is only a few hours of work a week. It won't pay off your house, but it actually could keep up with your mortgage if you're in the mid-to-high end of that range.

How do they do it? I wish I knew.

Maybe I overestimate my content (see Gourmet Food here and Coffee here), but I know I'm no slouch in the writing department (though some folks that outperform me from time to time are, a bit to my chagrin). As of the time of this writing, here's what typical (and atypical) numbers look like for me:
  • Total subscribers: 15 (food), 2 (coffee);
  • Number of articles: 102 (food), 5 (coffee);
  • Been writing since: 30 Nov 2009 (food), last week (coffee);
  • Typical daily performance earnings: $1.20-1.50 (food), $0.10 (coffee);
  • Record daily performance earnings: ~$10 (food), $0.25 (coffee);
  • Typical number of new articles per week: 4-5 (food), 2-3 (coffee);
  • Overall typical number of incentive dollars per week: ~$8;
  • Typical time spent on one article: ~30 minutes (both).
  • Overall earnings last month: $60-70 (because of their reporting mechanism, I can't say for sure until I'm paid later in the month).
  • Overall time spent per month (just writing): ~15 hours.
  • Overall time spent per month (including promotion): ~25 hours
  • Typical income per article (now): ~$1.75+$1=~$2.75 (sadly competitive with other by-hire online freelancing gigs), but woefully
While this has put a few bucks in my bank account that wouldn't be there otherwise (I can just hear my mom saying, "That's about a hundred and forty dollars (total time writing for them) you wouldn't have had otherwise!"), the average is working out to be that I'm making a little over $2 an hour in performance pay for my time writing for, or make that about $4 if you throw in the local incentives, but under $3 an hour again if you count promotional time. Those wages aren't too bad for a guy with a Ph.D. in math, right? Oh wait... shit... they are. Sure, $140 might seem like a lot, considering, but by the hour, given my degree, etc. that's not. It's nary a drop in the bucket.

So, why do I do it? A few reasons: (1) it's kind of fun; (2) I like to share/teach; (3) I wouldn't mind getting "discovered" and thereby make some real cash off of this, and is better for getting discovered than cooking quietly in my kitchen and mumbling about it on Facebook from time to time; and (4) I'd like to believe my pay could go up at some point.

So... has my pay gone up? Let's just use the Knoxville Gourmet Food gig for now since the coffee deal is too fledgling to know any different yet. Here's what my daily readership has done, in a nutshell, since I joined:
  • Month #1: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from bubkus to about 70 page views per day;
  • Month #2: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from about 70 page views per day to about 120-150 page views per day;
  • Month #3: Except one day when one article went nuts on StumbleUpon and got over 800 hits in a single day, it's been level + noise since then (This is the article, about chicken noodle soup, originally posted on this blog, that went nuts on Wednesday, February 3. Feel free to click on it and Stumble it to get that ball rolling again or something. That was awesome.).
So, that has me wondering... what's different?

Well, I went balls-to-the-walls publishing articles up until about six weeks ago, at which point my daily readership seemed to be going steadily up, more or less linearly. It had to be annoying to my subscribers (in fact, I know it was because my subscriber numbers actually dwindled during that time). Since, I've leveled off more nearly to the recommended publishing schedule of about 3-5 articles a week, and my daily performance pay leveled off just as quickly. But wait....

It seemed to me, hence the balls-to-the-walls publishing coming out of the gate, that overall performance earnings, given relatively constant quality (not really reasonable... I'd say it's gone up, at least in terms of my ability to write for the web), should be [dork warning] directly proportional to article count. Tips I received from other seasoned (and popular) Food and Drink Channel Examiners strongly backed this theory, only without numbers to confirm it. Month 3 suggests strongly to me that such isn't so, however. So... what's the deal?

According to an interesting writing experiment on 20sMoney, the reason is simply that older articles on may lose their visibility over time (due to how they index (rather poorly) with Google), cutting into the potential performance pay that those articles could generate, i.e.'s performance pay might not really be that great a form of passive income, despite its highly competitive rate. Why? I'm with their guess: they do well in the searches because of sheer volume initially, but there's so much underqualified stuff floating around in the juggernaut of articles published each day that there is substantially good reason for Google to try to keep a passive lid on how much traffic they receive over time. I'm not saying that's approach is a bad one -- I can't think of a great way to ensure consistently high quality in the format they do across so broad a spectrum of topics with such a strong local initiative -- but that any punishment it sees in search-engine visibility is probably somewhat justified.

From where I sit, then, there really needs to be a call for more qualified Examiners to take up the mantle and start elevating the overall image of the site. With stronger credibility and a unique and effective vision, it could become a real media powerhouse without selling out to the Big-Media corporate voice that looms over seemingly most of what we see and read out there.

Of course... then there are the highly successful folks (firmly planted in the two-digits-per-day range) that make me wonder what it is that I'm missing. I have it on authority that some of the articles that some of these wonderful people wrote last year netted over $1000 for the single article (and is still getting lots of residual attention). That's some decent freelancer pay even for a well-researched, carefully designed and presented article sold to a major publication. So... it is possible to do well.

To close, since some aspiring Examiners might have a sour or bitter taste in their mouths after reading my disclosure of my position so far, I will take heart in that I've only been cultivating relationships and readership on for about three months. Many of the heavy hitters have been at it nearly since got started almost three years ago, which gives them a firm position to have made friendships and networking relationships on the site, which are, of course, for any blogger or journalist, the equivalent of manna. This article will likely need some updating three months from now to see if these Month #3 doldrums find a fair trade wind blowing through them at some point down the road, but the current lack of growth is a bit disturbing.

Stay tuned for more articles in this vein, but you can get started by seeing the original here: Writing about food and Drink for Part 1: How it Works. This text right here will soon be replaced by links to later articles in the series; thanks for your patience.

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