I was an unhappy camper from the start, when I realized my debut story, about the medicinal uses of the Thuja occidentalis plant, took three hours to research and write but earned me just $15. It was possibly wrong, since I spoke to no doctors, and my research consisted largely of sifting through a study sponsored by a German drug company that seemed to have cornered the world market in Thuja homeopathic remedies. It was also stunningly boring, the sort of writing that would sit comfortably on the side of a medicine bottle, which was exactly the point.
Soon, I began to search for topics that seemed easy and to stint on research. My triumph was a piece on Troy-Bilt lawnmower recalls, completed in about twenty minutes with probably no risk to the consuming public. That piece, like several others I wrote, was flagged for plagiarism by an automated detector whose workings I never understood. I never plagiarized—deliberately or inadvertently—but each time I got a “Flagged” notice I got heart palpitations.
The unpleasantness would be dispelled by the pony story, I hoped. Can a pony ride without a pony exist? It’s the rare metaphysical problem that can be resolved by just renting a pony, and my first draft relied on that strategy, drawing on material from the websites of several pony-rental firms. Several days passed and my draft was returned, with comments from an editor whose name and location I never learned. “I referred this draft to a DS editorial lead given your advice to rent ponies. The title specifies running a ride without a pony, and the editorial lead confirmed this.”
My next draft explored the possibilities of animatronic ponies, equine alternatives to ponies such as small horses, and yaks and dromedaries. From the editor: “Thank you for your efforts, but this article still lacks the authoritative views that would actually recommend hiring a yak (except in Mongolia), llama or a camel. The International Yak website notes all sorts of activities, and riding isn’t among them.”
At Demand, a story gets only two strikes before it is canned; I’d wasted another three hours. My Demand experience, which I conceived of partly as an experiment and partly as a way to make money, was earning me less than minimum wage (for my forty-plus hours, I earned $360) and revealing little about the particular kind of writing it required, except that I was bad at it. Also, I missed my old job.
I missed the middle-aged guys I used to sit next to, who took me fishing. I missed seeing my stories in print. I even missed my desk. My new one, since a string of heat waves rendered my apartment uninhabitable, was in the worst reading room of the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. When I looked up from my laptop to the shelves around me, which was often, I saw titles like Best Résumés and Letters for Ex-Offenders and Thriving After Divorce.
I asked Demand to put me in touch with one of its best writers. The company put me in touch with Hayley Harrison, a thirty-year-old woman from Pittsburgh. She’d quit her job at a bank last year to stay home with her son, who is six and has autism, and writing freelance for Demand let her work around his therapy appointments. She was making $60 an hour when she pushed herself, writing mainly about finance and travel, and had published around 7,000 pieces. I asked her what her secret was. For one thing, she said, don’t ignore the $3 articles; you can get into a good rhythm with them. But how can you do something so thankless? I wanted to ask. I said something less rude than that, but she got the point. “I will do my best on every single article, even if I realize it will take me longer,” she said. “I’ll even call on the phone.”
I read some of Harrison’s stories. They were not to my taste but they were clearly better than mine: concise, easy to understand, full of what one nameless Demand editor called “actionable verbs.” An army of Harrisons would make Demand—or any media company whose business model depends on producing an ever-increasing amount of serviceable if not sparkling content—a success.