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Why Writers Don’t “Deserve” to Make More than $5 to $10 an Article…

Something a little different for a change… This post originally appeared on Lori Vidmer’s Words on a Page Blog during “Writers Worth Week” in May of 2012. When I first sent it to Lori in response to her invitation to submit something for WWW, I thought it might be a bit…blunt, but she loved it, saying…

“That is one of the most honest, transparent, and spot-on posts imaginable! Fantastic! I agree 150 percent (if that’s even possible). I think you’re going to find a good bit of support for your point.”

And judging from the comments it elicited in its original appearance, it apparently did strike a positive chord with many readers.

Now, I know that most of my “regulars” here—commercial freelancers who routinely get healthy rates for their writing—don’t need this reminder, but I suspected you’d enjoy it nonetheless.

And for those regular readers who are still working the low-pay sites discussed here, I figured you’d appreciate the confirmation that you indeed have options when it comes to where you seek your writing gigs, and that there’s a whole other “well-fed writing” world out there.

Regardless of who and where you are, if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll spread the word by forwarding this link to anyone you feel would benefit from the message, tweeting it, Facebooking it—whatever and however you’re moved to share it. Enjoy!

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Question: Do you consider yourself to be a smart shopper? When buying something big or small—flat-screen TV or a loaf of bread—do you try to get the best price (i.e., watching the sales in the case of the TV or clipping a coupon for the bread)? If you’re like most people, of course you do, right? Okay, file that away for a moment…

Over the past few years, I’ve seen any number of articles and blog posts attacking people who posted ridiculously low-paying writing gigs on online job sites. Yet, as I read these pieces, and the ensuing comments, I’ve been a bit troubled—and perplexed—by the stance taken by some. No, these pathetically low-paying job listings aren’t a positive thing, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. The target of the anger and frustration (i.e., those listing these sorry offers) was the wrong one.

One commenter (Mike) hit the nail on the head when he said, “If you don’t like the terms, then don’t apply—simple. You see these ads over and over for one reason and one reason only—they work. I don’t like them either, but I simply ignore them. No amount of complaining is going to stop them.” But alas, his voice of reason has been all but buried under a mountain of righteous, if misplaced, indignation. How dare they? How can a writer make a living? Who do they think they are?

Frankly, it all smacks of victimhood. In blaming the job posters themselves, who are highly unlikely to change their tune any time soon (and we’ll get to why in a moment), you give up control of your financial future and put it in their hands. Imploring them to change their evil ways assumes writers play no part in this unfolding drama. Wrong.

Say you were looking for some folks to crank out some writing (whether for a content mill or even any one-off project someone needs to have written). And say you didn’t know what to offer said writers. What next? You’d go to some job sites and see, 1) what your fellow posters were offering, and 2) more importantly, what writers were accepting. And when you see listings offering $5 or 10 an article and a long scrolling list of writers responding with various and sundry versions of “Me! Pick Me! I’ll do it for that! I’ll do it for less!” well, you’ve got your answer.

If that same poster went to a bunch of sites, and found nothing but writers saying, in essence, “I won’t write your 500-word, keyword-rich article for anything less than $250,” again, he’d know the going rate. And in that case, think he’d dare post a job offering $5 or $10 for that same article? Not bloody likely. The cyber-hills would echo with laughter.

Of course, that $250 response is a fantasy; it’ll never happen on job sites like these. When supply (writers) outstrips demand (jobs), the reality of competition driving rates down to nothing is as predictable as the sunrise. Econ 101.

But, let’s use the argument many make: that this is even driving down rates respectable entities are willing to pay. Maybe, but here’s what’ll happen. All excited that now they can get the writing that used to cost them a LOT more done for peanuts, they hire some of these writers. And soon discover they can’t cut it. If you pay a bargain-basement writer, and then have to hire another writer to redo what they couldn’t do, it’s no bargain.

One comment read: “This vile writing segment gives professional writing a bad name.” Why should it give professional writing a bad name? Does McDonalds give the Four Seasons (or substitute any top-tier restaurant here) a bad name? Does the No-Tell Motel give Marriot a bad name?

Within many industries, there are different levels of practitioners, serving different client segments and for different rates. If it’s not your segment and not where you make your money, then what do you care what they do?

So, let me address a writer outraged by the folks placing these listings. I realize there are more issues than just price, but that seems to be the biggie, so I’ll focus on that. So, you believe you deserve to be paid more than $5-10 an article, right? Okay, fine. Question: Why do you think that? As I see it, and correct me if I’m wrong, there are only two possible answers to this question and only one with real-world validity:

1) Writers deserve to be paid a fair wage, and $5 – $10 isn’t a fair wage.

2) I deserve to be paid more because my skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article.

#1? Sorry to say, but no writer deserves to be paid any more than the going market rate for a particular skill set, and that rate is determined by a back-and-forth process between buyers and sellers over time. Pretty much like anything else that’s bought and sold on the open market—anywhere, anytime, any place, since the beginning of time.

And the key here is “a particular skill set.” Which leads to #2: that your skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article. Well, in the case of those running content mills or any other low-paying writing operation, they only need a certain level of writing – and no better. And guess what? Thousands upon thousands of writers have the skills to write at that modest level.

Translation? That level of writing has been “commoditized.” Think gasoline. Or milk. Or sirloin steak. There’s so much supply, and so little difference between brands, so assuming it’s not some special variety (organic milk, grass-fed beef, etc.) prices will all be roughly equivalent. Same with this level of writing.

That being the case, if those job-listers have literally hundreds of writers lining up to bid on their projects at those crummy rates, then why on earth would they need to pay any more than that? They don’t. And they won’t.

And please don’t say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” That sounds really nice, and warm and fuzzy and all, but you don’t really believe that. Not if you indeed agreed earlier that you were a smart shopper. With rare exceptions, you won’t pay any more for something you want than you have to, and will often take time to ferret out a lower price on a particular item. Why should you expect different behavior from these job-listers?

Here’s a serviceable analogy: McDonalds, again. Okay, so McDonald’s pays burger-flippers, say, eight bucks an hour. And given the relatively low complexity of that task, there are tons of folks out there who can do an admirable job at it. Now, clearly hypothetically, let’s say a world-class chef strolls into McD’s one day and says, “I’d a like a job flipping burgers, but given my formidable culinary skills, I deserve to make $80 an hour, not eight.”

To which, the hiring manager at McD’s is likely to reply: “Well, Chef Pascal or Luigi, I’m sure your skills are amazing, but the fact is, I only need $8 an hour, burger-flipping skills. I’m happy to have you—geez, times must be tough, huh?—and I’m really sorry about this, but I can only pay you eight an hour.”

Same thing here. Content mill operators don’t need anything more than $5-10/article-writing skills. So, if you think you’re a world-class chef of writing, or at least a mid-talent short-order cook of writing, then stop applying at the McD’s of writing outlets, and instead go where the work pays far better, so your skills will, deservedly, be rewarded commensurately (like the commercial writing field, for starters).

And as many have accurately pointed out in countless posts in our industry, those higher paying writing gigs are almost never advertised or posted online. You have to dig them out, which is why they pay far better. And those freelance writers making the highest wages out there are usually those with a special skill or niche. In another words, there are far fewer writers out there with comparable skills. Just like our world-class chef.

If you decide not to bother seeking out better work (and it’s tough to retool your business, no question), thanks to inertia, uncertainty about next steps, or, let’s say it, laziness, that’s perfectly okay. But then stop complaining that these evil job-listers won’t recognize and appropriately reward your stellar wordsmithing skills—skills which, like that McD’s hiring manager, they’re happy to have—heck, why not?—but don’t need, and hence, will be unwilling to pay for.

Oh, and as for other crazy conditions some of these listers ask for (e.g., free samples, on on-call 24/7, etc.), can you blame them? Given that writers, in droves, have already established their willingness—heck, eagerness—to be abused financially, it’s only natural to assume they’ll happily prostrate themselves again and again.

No, that’s not exactly enlightened behavior on their part, but they’re simply reacting to the prevailing reality. In other words, in this scenario—no one abuses you. You allow yourself to be abused. And frankly, the sooner you realize and internalize that, the sooner you’ll be making the money you feel you truly “deserve” to make.

Yes, I know there’s been some “rate fallout” in better-paying segments of writing, but I hear daily from writers having great years, some their best ever, and getting rates well above $100 an hour (and even more getting $75+). Bottom line, if you want to believe the whole industry is in the toilet, that’s your right, but it’s not the truth.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

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