The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive

My content mill sent me a shirt.

It is a thank you for all the hours I’ve spent writing both byline- and error-free copy. Content mills are where the bulk of the commercial internet gets written, these days, by a lot of people willing to write a lot of short pieces on how to braid hair, how to plunge a toilet or the best way to cook a steak. (The secret? Marinate and then grill until it feels like one of the four sections between your thumb and your palm.)

People don’t like content mills because they devalue writing, even though they are also one of the largest employers of writers. Mine is one of the good content mills, I’ll always stress, because they’ve actually been very good to me, not like some of the other mills I poked my head into during those early days when I needed money badly. The assignments are solid, and I can earn $20 for under 20 minutes of writing.

I mean, I don’t write for mills anymore, except for this one. I have clients now, but sometimes I have an empty hour and decide to exchange it for $30 or $40 or whatever they’ve got on file. The work is there. It’s hard to turn it down.

A year ago, when the mill was still tracking this data, I was the fourth highest earner. Not for any given time period; for all time. For the history of the company, at least as long as they had been tracking this data.

The shirt still came as a surprise, even though I realized instantly that I should have anticipated it. They did, after all, send me an email asking me for my shirt size.

This isn’t the first time a boss has given me a shirt. The first time was when I was working for a temp agency, which are of course like content mills for offices.

The agency placed me at an insurance company where I alternated hours at the reception desk with hours stuffing envelopes in a windowless room. It was still too early in the millennium to trust employees with earbuds—that would come a few years later, at another temp job and another stack of paper to sort and fold—so I marked the time by silently reciting poetry, lips and fingers moving simultaneously as nobody watched me. I was young and easy under the apple boughs, bored and patient under the flickering lights.

I suspect my boss gave me a shirt because she was tired of seeing me wear the same five sweaters every week. I had one brown turtleneck, one black turtleneck, one black v-neck, one black scoopneck, and one brown scoopneck. I matched these with one pair of black pants and one pair of brown pants. Some weeks I would wear the brown turtleneck on Tuesday, and some weeks I would wear it on Thursday.

The shirt she gave me was pink. She claimed it was too small for her and that I should wear it. I never wore it to the office. I never wore it at all.

I wore the shirt the content mill sent me the day after I got it. The blue matched my eyes.

When I worked as a telemarketer, doing outbound sales for a major city orchestra, the only time I sold the highest-priced ticket package was on the first day, during my very first sale. I offered it as the first in a list of options, our best package only costs $800, and the man on the other end gave me a bored “okay, why not” and that was my first sale.

Later I would offer the lowest priced seats first. I’d explain that the view was obstructed but the music was still great. I couldn’t imagine anyone paying $800 for orchestra tickets, and so I never presented it as a serious option.

I took the job at the telemarketing office in part because I loved classical music, and in part because they didn’t have a dress code. That was the year I couldn’t afford new clothes. I bought a five-pack of men’s white v-neck undershirts and wore them with jeans.

Now I have all the clothes I want. I go to the thrift store down the street and come back with armfuls of pretty dresses. I come back, take off my ballet flats, turn on my Macbook, and see if my freelance clients have sent me any revision requests. I have enough clothes now that I don’t have to wear the shirt my content mill sent me, just like I don’t really need to keep writing for the mill. Someone else could take over my spot as fourth top earner.

But you’re a writer too, or a reader of writers, and you know where this story is going. I wouldn’t have mentioned the obstructed view seats, or the room with the flickering fluorescent bulb and the envelopes, or the fact that I only sold an $800 ticket package once, when the man practically interrupted me to buy it.

I don’t know how not to be the mill writer. The things I am good at—churning out content, dialing numbers, sitting alone folding paper for hours on end—I am still good at, though I have outgrown them.

I’m also good at getting new freelance writing clients, but bad at selling the highest-priced package. When I worked for the telemarketing company, that was okay; I was still the top seller, month after month, because those $25 and $49 sales added up. That was how I learned how to sell: by convincing people that they could afford the lowest price.

Right now my writing career hangs on this insistence. I can’t be the mill writer anymore. Not even the fourth best mill writer ever. I don’t want a content mill to send me a shirt, to thank me for all of my hard but low-paid work. I have to figure out how to sell myself at the highest price, to people who say “okay, why not” as if it were perfectly natural to pay that much.

My entire work history caught up with me in the mail this week. The package came with a note: we know who you are, even though you think you are not this person.

I mean, you know it didn’t really come with that note. I made that part up. The only message that came with my content mill shirt was thank you.