Hi. This is an old, unmaintained blog. You may find these sites more to your liking:

Carson Brackney: This is my primary site.

Ad Astra Traffic: Content production/article writing service.

Ad Astra Traffic Team: For those who'd like to get writing gigs with Ad Astra.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Freelance Writers Manifesto....my discussion with Patricia Skinner...Freelance writer pay rates considered (again)...

A few certainties. I will always eat one more piece of pumpkin pie than I should at Thanksgiving. The freelancer writer pay debate will never end.

Patricia Skinner and Allison Landa recently leaked word of The Freelance Writers Manifesto to the world via Craigslist. I found out about it from Anny Wayman's Golden Pencil. Still in its developmental phase, the Manifesto calls for freelance writers to demand a fair wage and is critical of those writers willing to work for "sweatshop" wages.

You can read the "beta version" of the Manifesto here.

After reading the page, I was tempted to launch into an extended post about my feelings on the topic. In large measure, I disagree with the arguments made at The Freelance Writers Manifesto. I didn't do that, though. Instead, I decided to contact the authors in hopes of striking up a dialog about the Manifesto and the issues upon which it touches. I emailed Patricia Skinner and she agreed to answer a few questions.

I'll warn you now, this is a long post. However, I do hope it's an interesting read. The "rate debate" often devolves into a fairly superficial discussion, and I'd like to think that conversations like the one I'm having with Patricia might be a little more productive than the usual approach to the topic.

Here's our exchange, with my follow-up comments... My questions and remarks are the bold ones.

1. The Manifesto argues that many content buyers undervalue writers. If that's the case, shouldn't the market correct for that error in judgment? It would seem that if buyers were truly offering too little, they wouldn't find people willing to do the work and would be forced to pay more. I guess you could say that I'm something of a believer in the ability of open markets to organically determine wage fairness based on supply and demand. What am I missing?

That’s precisely why we’re all here! Far too many writers are not even aware that by accepting an appalling rate of pay they’re doing other writers a disservice too, not to mention depriving themselves of a better standard of living! You’re absolutely right that change must come at market level: we see our job as informing everyone so they actually make their own decision not to accept low pay. Some writers are just paralyzed with fear that if they ask for more money they’ll lose the gig. In some cases this will be true, but generally, if you have a worthy level of skill, you’ll get a fair rate if you ask!

I think that's a valid answer, but I'm not sure that it speaks to the larger question of supply and demand. It is possible for suppliers to unilaterally increase prices, changing the face of the marketplace, but the underlying factors that dictate a buyer's willingness to spend aren't really influenced by them on a large-scale unless supplier participation is widespread. I personally doubt that writer participation would reach that level.

2. The Manifesto references a "fair wage" on several occasions. I'm curious. What represents a fair wage? Who determines what's fair for others and for me? What methodology would be used to calculate a fair wage and would that system account for variables like cost of living distinctions, topic area mastery, experience, skill level, the availability or unavailability of alternate earning options, etc? I have a feeling that one writer's sweatshop is another writer's penthouse. How would the quest for a fair wage account for these individual variables?

By its very nature, the writing field is vast and spans literally dozens of ‘niches.’ Some pay better than others. Many high-end copywriters, for example, are earning a seven-figure sum working only a few hours a day. Others are lucky if they can pay the rent and put food on the table, even though many of them work twelve hours a day or more. Does that sound fair? I believe if we raise awareness we can break the cycle so that every employer knows that he’s not going to get away with less than $25.00 per hour. I think that’s a fair starting point. Bear in mind that the freelance hourly rate needs to be higher than what you might consider if you were employed full time. There are no ‘benefits’ when you’re freelancing. You have to provide premises and equipment yourself, and there’s no sick pay either. So all these bases must be covered when calculating a fair hourly rate. Anything above that would depend on the individual circumstances. Some writers are better than others—we all have different niches and so on.

The problem here is that the $25/hr. figure is completely arbitrary and doesn't factor in the myriad of considerations influencing fairness. Cost of living differences alone make a universal figure like that meaningless. Differences in individual writer skill sets further crush the idea of an hourly fair wage. Many people, for instance, would love to categorize a rate of two cents per word as "slave wages." I can take that rate with the right topic and make it worth well over $25/hr. Besides, that $25/hr. may be the real equivalent of $100+/hr. for someone living in a place with a low cost of living, next to zero overhead, etc.

Patricia acknowledges that there a good writers, bad writers, fast writers and slow writers. She recognizes that not all projects can command the same rate. Nonetheless, there seems to be a willingness to extend a "floor rate" to everyone as if those variables don't exist. That just doesn't make sense to me. Oh, and why $25/hr? Why not $29.78? Why not $51.09? Why not $9.14? The $25 figure is just plucked out of thin air based upon an opinion of need and an opinion of value--neither of which are necessarily based on the true nature of the marketplace.

3. The Manifesto seems to argue that writers should "hold the line" on pricing in order to serve the greater good--helping the writing industry as a whole. Why should writers who are comfortable and happy working for less feel obligated to prop up my income by increasing their minimum rates? I don't believe healthy competition between writers (on the basis of talent or price) is incompatible with being collegial or helpful in other respects. Why should anyone put his or her income at risk by raising rates to comport with a "fair wage" standard for the sake of serving the "writing community?"

There’s no obligation here. I’m definitely not twisting anyone’s arm. But I hope that the promise of a better standard of living would encourage writers to join the ‘movement!’

That's fair. No one is arm-twisting. My question, however, is why a writer who is happy working at rates others may not like should jeopardize his or her workflow for the "greater good?" Let's face it, without significant participation levels, price upturns are going to allow lower-charging producers to snag business away from those who arbitrarily increase their prices.

4. It seems to me that organizing all of the thousands of very individualistic people from all around the globe who consider themselves freelance writers to rally around a "fair wage" is going to be like herding feral cats. What makes you think it's feasible to develop a sufficient groundswell of support for the Manifesto's objectives to make a difference?

I don’t know. I’m not one to be intimidated just because something’s going to be difficult. Also, I tend to work on instinct a lot. Let’s hope it hasn’t failed me on this occasion. I think we have a fighting chance of achieving our objectives.

I think it's great that someone like Patricia will back a project in which she believes even if it will be a challenge. I commend that attitude. However, the inability to have a strong basis to believe the idea will be met with nearly-universal support is extremely meaningful in terms of the plans efficacy. If you advocate an across-the-board hike of the floor price, you need to be relatively certain that people will play along with it. If they don't, the writers who do participate are doing little more than martyr work, at best. They go up, other stay the same, the ones who don't go up are more attractive to buyers and snag the business.

To be frank, I don't think there is a good chance of sufficient participation. Why? Well, because there are people who, because of the nature of the global economy and the aforementioned host of individualized variables, won't feel the need to participate. Additionally, if you pop the floor price up to $25/hr, those who might be capable of doing the job but who are currently dissuaded by rates perceived as being too low will be motivated to jump into the game for $25-x.

5. Absent nearly universal participation by those who write professionally, wouldn't embracing the Manifesto's approach to wages actually serve to harm individual writers' careers? When I saw the Manifesto, one of my very first thoughts was that it created a real branding opportunity for someone like me who may be willing to work on some projects at rates lower than many other writers. If the Manifesto receives widespread support, I can market myself as "the webmaster's friend"--the writer who is more worried about clients' bottom lines than about being part of the "we want more" crowd. Backing the Manifesto, it would seem, is an invitation for guys like me to take business away from participating writers. What's your opinion about the risk of making writers who don't support the Manifesto's aims more attractive to prospective buyers?

Well, be careful before you take that road, because I’m planning to use the ‘quality’ concept to tout better wages. I hope that higher rates will reflect better quality, but it is a fact (known to copywriters) that if you put a higher price tag on something, most people assume it is of better quality! (See Yanik Silver’s description of his own work-mode)

In my particular niche, anyone offering to work for less than my rates usually proves that he doesn’t know how to do what I do. I’ve actually had a few clients come back to me after they originally went to someone who was charging less. Simply, they didn’t get the results they were after. One client chose me out of over 400 applicants because, when he asked a series of questions, only I knew what he was talking about. So, if someone wasn’t really looking for quality, then yes someone charging less might get the gig. But for a hirer who knows exactly what he wants, only the right candidate will do. As I said, I’m not really focusing on the writers who have established a career for themselves. And for the reasons I’ve just outlined, I’m definitely not scared that if I charge what I think I’m worth, that someone else is going to come along and undercut me. And neither should other writers. Won’t happen!

It does happen. It happens every day. I make a relatively healthy living because of it, and so do others. Creating perceived value with higher price tags does work, but so does packaging a service with a lower price tag and proof of quality. I don't think this question really gets to the heart of what's wrong with the Manifesto, though.

The issue is really one of who sets value. In my estimation, writers can influence prices to some extent. Good marketing can create demand. Proof of higher ROI can justify additional expenditures, etc. However, in the bigger scheme of things, the raw supply and demand situation will have a far bigger impact on pricing. Charging what you "think" you are worth is a great place to start, but the market will eventually determine what your work is worth.

6. Speaking of buyers... You are an SEO copywriter and an Internet marketing consultant. That means you understand the razor thin margin at which many online endeavors operate. You also understand the concept of return on investment. If content prices go up, what makes you believe that won't cause an evaporation of available work. A relatively modest content production increase can be the difference between a financially successful operation and a complete dog. When the prices go up without a commesurate increase in the value of the end product, it would seem likely that buyers will either shelve projects they may have otherwise pursued or will spend the money previously earmarked for content on alternatives. A parallel... If SEO costs go through the roof, PPC advertising becomes more attractive for site owners. So, if people follow the Manifesto's lead and increase content prices without a market-based rationale, aren't we likely to see a similar shift on the part of prospective buyers?

You know, if an online business is operating on THAT THIN a line, then they’d be better off doing something else! In my experience, the most successful online businesses have plenty of money to pay a decent wage. And if they’re getting good writing, they’re usually more than happy to pay for it. No, I don’t see the work evaporating. For every online business that goes down the tubes, there are several making fantastic profits. Again, let me say it, if an online business is not making a profit, then the owner should either take the time to educate himself about online marketing (hey, hire an SEO consultant!) or go and find another line of work.

Let me flip that back... If the difference between going rates and the Manifesto rate is so slight that it won't really influence purchasing decisions, why is it necessary in the first place? The only reason for the Manifesto would be if rates were way out of whack relative to their real value. That, in fact, is part of the Manifesto's opening salvo.

To argue that rates are the equivalent to what is paid to sweatshop workers and that we need to bump up to a floor rate of $25/hr while simultaneously arguing that price increase won't have an impact on the buying businesses is disingenuous at best.

Clearly, if the price difference between the Manifesto base and the current "sweatshop" situation is meaningful enough to warrant attention, we need to recognize that the price hop will cut into the buyer's margin significantly. We know that kind of change could kill certain business models and decrease the "fantastic profits" that currently fuel the content industry.

If you don't think a substantial price hike will alter the profitability of online businesses relying upon outside writers, you're wrong. If it used to cost $1 and now it costs $2, your expenses go up and your margin goes down. I can't predict with any degree of accuracy how much of the market would start looking at alternatives like user-generated content, PPC advertising, etc. to replace a current content focus subsequent to a rate increase, but I do know that it would be foolhardy to expect everything else to stay the same if freelance prices went up.

Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It might even be a good thing. It is, however, something people should recognize and consider before hopping on a rate increase bandwagon. It would contribute to drying up the shallow end of the job pool, as opposed to jerking all of those lower-paying gigs up into more expensive territory--if it could get to sufficient participation levels in the first place.

7. Obviously, we don't see eye to eye on the idea of the Manifesto. The one thing that really got under my skin, however, was the argument that writers who are willing to work for rates you or others might consider unfair are doing a disservice to the rest of us. I see it as healthy competition. Should a writer with a cost of living 1/3 of my own who wants to keep a full schedule and lacks other available employment options in his or her community feel guilty that they are ready, willing and able to make a living without charging rates similar to mine? Why shouldn't they be pleased with their ability to isolate and exploit a competitive advantage instead?

Oh, come on now! Is this even sane reasoning? Can anyone seriously want to slave away for a whole day on an article that’s only going to bring in $5.00? (Yes, I have seen examples of this!) I personally don’t know anyone who wouldn’t take more money for their work if they were offered. What so many writers don’t realize is that you have to go ahead and ASK for that extra money. Squeaky wheel gets the oil ya know!

Very true. No one has to sell himself or herself short. However, no one really needs someone else to tell him or her where the "short mark" is by trying to create a universal movement to standardized base rates, either. I also think "working all day for five bucks" thing is a red herring. I would never touch a job for a half-cent per word. However, if I worked eight hours at a rate of only twenty words per minute on a project at that rate I would make $48. That is miserable for the amount of work done. However, it is still more than nine times the $5 figure. At a penny per word, that comes out to $96, which if you do that for a year is around $30K. Obviously, I am not recommending anyone aspire to being happy as a full timer for $30K. However, it is more than a little unfair to use $5/day horror stories as a rationale for $25/hr. universal base rate.

I also see a disconnect between this idea and the earlier question about how rate increases would effect buyers. Patricia argues that if a business can't be profitable at the Manifesto rate they should find something else to do. At the same time, there doesn't seem to be any consideration that if a writer can't make a living at the going rate, he or she should find something else to do. Shouldn't it cut both ways?

8. The Manifesto argues that those who work for less will "get stuck" in low-paying gigs indefinitely. Content Done Better (my operation) bobs and weaves through a variety of writing projects. Some of the copywriting work pays extremely well. Some of the straight content work I do probably falls under the "fair wage bar" you and other Manifesto advocates might set. I know other writers who approach the business from a similar model. Why should anyone fear the "low end rut" when others are out there making a living and aren't stuck?

I personally don’t fear it. You know how I started earning the money I get now? I was working freelance, but full time, for a company in California. Part of my work involved talking on the phone to copywriting clients. One of them happened to tell me how much this company was charging her for what I was doing. I was floored because they were paying me less than 1 percent of that amount. I resolved there and then to dump them, which I did. Other writers queried my sanity. After all, they were sending me a check every two weeks!

After a week, I got my first gig doing SEO copywriting. I’d taken the time to educate myself so that the hirer was suitably impressed (he is rare in that he understands the SEO process himself). I worked for him for months, and he gave me so much work I had to hire other writers to work with me. He accepted the rate I quoted him without quibbling. Next client, I put the price up a bit. Now, I could get by only working a couple of hours a day, but in fact I work much more than that because I’m trying to launch another business. What I’m trying to say is that you can set the limits yourself. If you accept the status quo, then you WILL get stuck in a low-paying job. I agree with you though, that there are people out there who don’t have the courage to go for a bigger and better slice of the pie. Perhaps low pay is right for them. The market can handle a few stragglers who are happy to work for less than they’d get stocking shelves. What it can’t stand is if the majority of writers accept less than the minimum wage.

I think the answer misses the point. It isn't accurate to argue that taking jobs on the lower end of the overall pay scale will doom one to life in a rut. That was my point and I don't see any evidence to the contrary. I am also yet to see any evidence that a majority of writers accept less than the minimum wage.

9. Let's end at the beginning of the Manifesto. It states, "Everywhere you look on the Internet, you see jobs advertised for freelance writers. To the onlooker it would seem that anyone who knows how to write is in clover!" Clearly, there are a lot of people looking for writers. I think we'd both agree, however, that the word "writer" covers a lot of territory. One buyer may need a hard-hitting and well-researched piece of journalism. Another may need an expertly-written direct sales letter. Some buyers need straight SEO content and want it at particularized keyword densities. Some need quality while others are far more interested in quantity. The "writer" a major publication needs to take over a regular column is a lot differen than the "writer" some made-for-Adsense site operator needs to re-work PLR content. Considering the huge differences between projects and buyer expectations, how is it possible to determine what constitutes a fair wage?

Undoubtedly, I’d agree with you here. Many of the people who put themselves on the market as writers are not, in fact, even remotely qualified to call themselves that. At a minimum, a writer needs to be competent at spelling and grammar, and at least be able to write so that readers can understand what they’re trying to convey. I think at some level, there is a class of employer and a class of ‘writer’ that deserve each other! I hope we don’t get any of them joining FW Manifesto… And as I’ve already said, of course there is no ‘one size fits all’ wage for writers. All I’m saying is that as writers, we should be aware that if we set the lowest acceptable point at an unnaturally low level, then we are accepting a lot less than we could probably get. We need to be smart about it.

I think the point remains intact. The variation in writer quality, project type, etc. renders the idea of an across-the-board base wage implausible.
Look, I can appreciate the idea of getting what one deserves based upon the overall nature of the marketplace and I would never encourage anyone to settle for less that what they are worth. However, I don't think it's helpful to approach that by upping prices on a group basis (especially when overall participation is such a problem).

Writers don't need a Manifesto to get better prices. They need to work better, smarter and more efficiently. They need to do a better job of marketing. They need to understand how to explain why spending more generates a greater return on investment (when it does).

Saying "I'm worth more!" doesn't make you worth more. It may be taking a stand, but it's on an unsteady foundation.
I admire Patricia Skinner for trying to help the writing community. I really do. I think there is a lot of truth in her arguments, too. However, the idea of creating a groundswell of support for "fair pricing" when (a) that means so many different things to so many different people and (b) when there's no evidence to suggest that fair wage comports with overall market forces just doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

In my opinion, backing something like the Manifesto is unlikely to accomplish much more than to feed the marketing efforts of those writers who don't participate.

You want more money? Go and get it. Don't demand it out of fairness. Earn it based on what you can accomplish for your clients.

If the Freelance Writers Manifesto transitioned into being a trade organization dedicated to explaining, in real terms, the true value of content and gave buyers quality information about locating and utilizing providers capable of producing "the good stuff," I would support the effort wholeheartedly. Making the argument for higher rates in terms of "fairness" and advocating a base rate that isn't based on much more than writer desires, however, just doesn't make sense to me.