Recently, I had a disturbing week looking for freelance writing gigs. I concentrate on applying for jobs where one of my areas of specialized knowledge is required, because I know there’s lots of lowball pricing for general topics. Surely, they can’t get a student, Third-World resident, or wannabe writer to write about arcane legal areas or variable annuities, so rates there should still be a living wage – or so I thought.
One week, I applied for several legal writing gigs. Two of them got back to me. One paid $20-$40 per 400-600-word article. The other, an agency which claims it has more than 200 law-firm clients, paid $15-$30 a blog. This second guy had called on the phone and was clearly serious about hiring, unlike the many flaky email nibbles I get off resumes I send.
After I informed him that I did not work for remotely those rates and hung up…I thought about it a lot. I wish I had kept him on the phone so I could have asked this recruiter some questions.
Questions like, “Are you serious?” and “Is that even legal?” and “Do you actually find qualified people willing to write legal content at those rates?” and “Don’t you feel ashamed to be offering what will work out to less than the minimum hourly wage (more than $8 here in Washington State) for a very specific writing skill that requires years of experience?”
He let me know his current team was “pretty maxed out” – yeah, I’ll bet. More likely that was code for “It’s really hard to find anyone who can do this work competently at these rates.” To which I say, good.
I thought a lot about this call because for a tiny moment, just an instant really, I considered taking this gig. Legal is easy for me…OK, I’d have to work a LOT of hours to make it into anything like a living…if each blog took an hour, it would take me all day and night to earn something like my normal hourly rate…but this firm has a lot of clients I could connect with. Maybe I should take this and hope to build the account into some better-paying work .
Then I snapped out of it, and wrote this:
7 Reasons Why I Won’t Write A $15 Blog
1. I’d rather quit writing. If that’s all I’m going to make, I’d rather go out on the lawn and play Frisbee with my kids. They’ll only be young once. If I can’t really pay the bills writing, I should pack it in and enjoy life.
2. I won’t be part of the problem. I won’t contribute to the current downward spiral in pay rates by accepting insulting pay. If I accept this kind of work, it reinforces the idea that high-quality content on specialized topics can be obtained from professional writers at one-tenth or less of what was, until recently, market rates. I refuse to be part of the problem.
3. Low paying work begets more low-paying work. Say I worked for this legal content sweatshop, and managed to convince one of their clients to work for me directly. Even if the connection helped me land other clients and I cut out the middleman, I’m doubtful the wages would be appropriate. Any client I got through my association with this low-payer would likely also want to pay me joke wages. Once customers have the impression you’re cheap, it’s hard to convince them that you’re not.
4. I’d rather get a day job. At those rates, I could make more money as an assistant manager at a fast-food place, and work on that novel in my off hours. So if it comes to it, I’ll do something else to pay the bills. My creativity will be fairly compensated, or I’ll earn money another way. I type fast – I have made a living as a secretary in the past, and could again.
5. I want to take a stand. I believe we’re at a turning point in the world of online content that requires taking a moral stand. Thousands of scam operators have flooded into the marketplace, hoping to get writers to write for peanuts and then either resell the work for much more, or sell ads against them and make much more, or sell their whole Web site to someone else and make a killing – all off our backs. What they’re doing is morally wrong. So my basic sense of decency and justice demands that I resist exploitation. Accepting low-pay assignments may pay a few bills in the short term – emphasis on a few – but in the long term it will foster more exploitation. That’s why, for the sake of our vocation’s future, it’s important to refuse.
6. I have good-paying clients. I’ve been afraid to say this out loud for fear of jinxing it – but I still have some very good-paying work. Contrary to what you may have heard, there are still magazines and corporate accounts out there that understand that writers who freelance need to make an appropriate wage, or they’ll soon leave the vocation and be unavailable to create the content clients need to keep growing. Maybe there are fewer of them, but I know they still exist. That knowledge makes it easier to turn down slave-wage gigs.
7. Market forces will raise rates in time. As the economy improves, I believe the pool of good freelancers who can deliver sophisticated, quality content is going to shrink dramatically as many find new jobs. Then rates will naturally be driven back up as it becomes harder to find qualified writing help. I know writers who are already getting jobs in other fields. The fact that Demand Studios recently announced a plan to offer some of its writers health care is a sign that we’ve hit the saturation point. These sweatshops are struggling to attract the talent they need, and that their compensation is going to start to improve.
While professionals from other fields who want to write articles to market their services will always be around, and won’t care how little such articles pay… there aren’t enough pro writers who’ll take these rates to go around. So rates are going to rise.
I believe this is not a new normal – this is a momentary market glitch in our industry that’s taken root due to the downturn. Meanwhile, people are not going to stop reading quality publications, and companies will still need to communicate clearly with their customers in the future. The economy will recover, most content-mill writers will probably get jobs and leave, and rates will rise.
The only way to stop the exploitation is for professional writers to say “no” to insultingly low rates. I’m willing to be the first writer to publicly stand up and do that. Will you join me? If so, sign thepetition on my Web site and pledge never to work for less than $50 an assignment. The first step in bringing more power to writers is to organize.
Why $50? That’s what I got paid per article when I first started out in 1999. Rates shouldn’t be lower now, accounting for inflation. So I think that’s a good cutoff.
Who knows? Maybe Lance Armstrong or Amazon.com (have you seen their mill, Amazon Mechanical Turk?) would improve their pay rather than face public embarrassment over their rates.
If we pull together, we could create that public pressure. Maybe the number of clients for these mills could be decreased if we raised public awareness of the situation. That would grow the pool of better-paying markets for freelancers to approach on their own and lessen the profiteering mill owners are currently able to do off writers’ labor.
Want to quit the content mills and learn how to make a good living writing? I mentor a maximum of three writers a month and teach them how to earn more. Also hoping to complete my e-book shortly on this topic, Make a Living Writing — if you’re interested in a copy, email me and I’ll put you on the list to get a notice when it comes out.