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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Even more on freelance wage issues...A response to SixFigureWriters.com...You might be surprised where we agree...

Yesterday, I found a post by Jenn at SixFigureWriters.com that dealt with my position on The Freelance Writers Manifesto. Warning: It's long.

This post is long, too. Sorry, but these are not the simplest of things to discuss and it can lead to some longer-than usual discussions. I should probably write 100 word executive summaries of these babies to comport with standard blog reader attention spans, huh? Anyway, if you hire writers or if you are a writer, it makes sense to understand the rate debate and the arguments both sides are making. So, I hope you'll read (or at least scan) through some of this.

Let me start off by saying that I think Jenn's responses to my arguments about "The Manifesto" are considerate and fairly presented. I hope my reaction is, too. I'm not interested in picking a fight with anyone. I'm more interested in discussing the nature of the online writing marketplace(s) and the concept of fairness with respect to payouts.

She also echoed some of my sentiments about the flaws of a minimum-wage based approach. Just as I don't want to be mischaracterized in my position, I don't want others to think she was an all-out supporter of "The Manifesto" perspective. This isn't a completely yes/no kind of thing.

Jenn's comments are in bold. Mine aren't.

I have to admit, what turned me off the most in Carson’s blog was his first post / interview on the freelance writers’ manifesto. When I read an interview, I expect a question, and an answer, with additional comments reserved for the closing of the interview. I don’t want to read additional follow-up by the interviewer, with additional attacks or comments, when the interviewee isn’t able to respond... I’m not attacking Carson personally. I’m sure he didn’t intentionally do that at the time. But I did mean to address a few of those points made...

I can understand that. Three quick responses. First, even if one deplores the structure I used to frame my arguments that shouldn't detract too much from their substance. Second, Patricia is certainly welcome to respond to my arguments at any time. The comment feature is available to her and I'd even welcome reprinting any comments she might have as a separate post. Third, it certainly wasn't my intention to make any "sneak attacks" here and hope that people understand that.

...[Y]ou’d be hard-pressed to convince me that most writers earning $.02 per word (as an example) are truly happy with those rates. If they say they are, it’s often because they haven’t experienced better. Give them a few assignments at $.20 / word and then see if they’re still interested in maintaining the low-rate workflow, where they have to write ten times as much (sacrificing personal time, family time, time for their own writing or other projects, etc.). I’d wager that most would finally recognize the problem...

This assumes that "all writing is created equal." One can't assume that the time, research, etc. poured into a great feature article is on par with the commitment made to creating a 300 word article on "sock monkey patterns" with a KD of 3%. One also can't assume that those who enjoy making bank by ripping out "straight content" are necessarily interested in vying for a Pulitzer.

That job that pays ten X as much also tends to require ten X the effort, or a close approximation thereof.

Now, if one is arguing that all writing should be worth more than two, three or whatever number of cents, that's a different story. That argument, in my estimation, represents something of a denial of market forces. The reason people offer those rates for certain content jobs isn't just because they can, it's because they must in order to experience their desired return on investment. If one believes that having writers take a hard line on those lower paying gigs will result in an overall price increase, they may not be considering the very strong likelihood that buyers will turn to other solutions if the anticipated ROI doesn't also increase.

Again, it's a question of "Type 1" writing being something different than "Type 2" writing. I think that Jenn's other comments illustrate her own understand of marketplace diversity, so I doubt she'd disagree. I think our disagreement may stem from the fact that many of those involved in this ongoing discussion don't carefully differentiate between writing types when discussing reasonable rates. I know I'm guilty of that sometimes myself.

I don’t think the problem is with the lousy writers who really can’t pull their weight. Unfortunately the fact of the matter is that we’ve got a lot of strong professionals (even English teachers, those with doctorates, etc. - whose samples I’ve seen are beyond well-written), who are taking these low rates because they simply don’t know any better. If a group movement helps them (even if perhaps the concept could use some tweaking), then any writer serious about their work would simply be a fool to not care about the “greater good” if it would benefit them as well.

Drumroll please... I agree. Well, at least in a sense. I do think there are those capable of tapping higher paying markets who have the skills and interest to do a great job who miss out because they don't understand the real diversity of the marketplace. I also think that an effort that opens those possibilities to them is just dandy.

That's where the agreement starts to taper off, though. My bone of contention is with the method--not that principle. The idea of demanding a base rate for all writers to accomplish that goal is like using a sledgehammer to swat flies. It's the wrong tool for the job. Open eyes and expand horizons! Show people all of the alternatives and opportunities available! That's great. Why do we need to advocate base pay standards or to bemoan being underpaid for our work in order to do that, especially in light of the weaknesses inherent to that strategy?

My point was that many writers included, are not going to back some minimum wage solution in order to let other writers know they could make more if they tapped the right markets. That's especially true when they don't feel they are somehow oppressed as a freelancer.

The whole “global economy” or “global market” issue is one of my biggest pet peeves in the writing community. Why? Because it’s a ridiculous myth that some writers (and certain client groups) like to mention as a sort of excuse as to why quality writers aren’t paid decent wages. I’ve already written at length about my feelings on the existence or non-existence of a “global market” for freelance writers, so I’ll just leave it at that for the time being.

I've read Jenn's assessment of the "global market" argument and I think she makes some great observations. I also think that her argument actually serves as evidence of why a minimum rate strategy doesn't make a great deal of sense.

There is no single global marketplace. The writing market consists of countless niches and countless types of writing. It also involves players from small towns in Mississippi where you can buy a decent house for $50K and those in Manhattan who are dumping several thousand per month to rent less than 1K square feet. It involves webmasters who are working from high volume, low percentage return Adsense sites and those who are selling high ticket items. It consists of affiliate marketers trying to move Clickbank products and those who are emulating a traditional ad-supported magazine format. It's 300 word articles about "New Haven, Connecticut Dentists" and multi-page investigative journalism features. Jenn is right, there is no single global marketplace.

There is, however, global competition and in some of the lower paying portions of the market, that fact can't be overlooked. A $25 minimum may sound like chicken feed to you or me. For a Bulgarian with a solid command of English or an Indian with a lower cost of living than a guy like me in suburbia, it might be a freaking fortune. And that competition is very real in certain market segments and the resulting pressure will inevitably push prices down.

That is NOT an argument for every writer to shut up and to accept what's offered. It's NOT an argument not to try to get every penny you can for your quality work. It's a reason why the minimum wage position falls flat.

The idea of singular global market is mythological. The idea of a diverse global marketplace in which customers have different needs and in which some producers can meet those needs at much lower prices, however, is very real.

It’s another topic I went into at the link in the previous question, so I won’t delve too much into it here. The simple fact is that a writer does have the ability to determine their own worth to a very large extent, because they have the ability to choose which actual writing market they’re going to enter. If they can’t cut it, they’ll learn and improve, or they’ll find another market. They definitely need to be prepared to make adjustments and improvements (as anyone does over time), but simply saying it’s in the hands of the market is beyond foolish for anyone interested in truly being a professional writer and making a solid career of it.


My argument is not that there aren't higher paying markets or that people shouldn't get what they deserve. My argument is that everyone and every type of writing isn't reasonably or logically entitled to a certain minimum payout.

I'm not being foolish and saying "it's all in the hands of the market." That's a wholly inaccurate assessment of my position. My point is that banding together as some sort of writer's collective in hopes of jacking up minimum payouts across the board is doomed because some projects simply aren't worth $25 per hour to the buyer, no matter how much we might want them to be.

Again, that doesn't mean anyone should shut up and take what their offered like a lackey. I turn down jobs regularly because I don't think the effort required to produce the materials matches up with the payout. It does mean that I don't think the Manifesto base pay rate plan will solve the problem.

(In response to my calculations arguing that even low-rate jobs can produce a decent wage equivalent) First of all, the vast majority of writers aren’t spending 8 hours a day actually writing. There’s a huge difference between hours worked and “billable hours”, and crunching the numbers incorrectly is ridiculously common among writers, and giving an example where that’s being done isn’t fair to your own arguement. On top of that, he isn’t accounting for the simple fact that most writers taking those rates seem to fall into the “general Web content writer” group, meaning they don’t often just sit down and write. They have to spend time researching.

Well, my example also worked with a 20 wpm assumption, which was chosen to compensate for the research time involved, etc. That's really beside the point, though. I know this much. If you give me a general interest topic, ask for a handful of 500 word articles, and give me two cents per word, I can make it worth far more than $25 per hour, research included. I've done it and I might do it again if I have a few holes in my schedule and I'm in the mood.

Maybe others can't do that. That really isn't my problem, is it? Like Jenn said, "If they can’t cut it, they’ll learn and improve, or they’ll find another market."

Let's keep going with this one, though...

...[W]ith the average billable hours (out of a typical 40 hour work week) for independent professionals often guaged at 22-23 hours per week (the rest is administrative time, marketing, finding clients, etc.), that already cuts you down to 4 hours of actual writing per week. Figure with that group of writers heavily focusing on research, it’s even more realistic that only half of that would be spent actually writing - putting that yearly rate down to $7500. Even in a situation where writers completely neglect administrative work, and actually work on client projects for 8 hours per day, they’d still have to spend about half of that time researching and discussing the projects with their clients. Even then, you only have $15,000 / year ($20,000 on the generous side), and not even including the added self-employment tax, any business expenses (overhead might be low, but it’s not non-existent), covering their own health insurance if they have it, etc. When you account for all of the realities, it really does start to look like slave wages, especially with the sheer number of work hours involved to make it happen. I’m not saying the arguement couldn’t be made… I’m just saying I think that was the wrong way to make it.

A couple of observations.

First, if you can't stand the heat in that market segment, get out of its kitchen immediately, folks. No one said content writing for lower per word rates was feasible or profitable for everyone. Like Jenn and others, I encourage those with a talent for writing who don't feel they can make it work for them at lower rates to seek better paying markets. If you aren't making what you need, go do something else.

Second, those who are willing to work at the lower pay rates and who do a good job will find themselves inundated with work requests, allowing them to cut administrative time down considerably, if they so desire.

Third, my breakdown may have been overly optimistic compared to the actual results experienced by others, but I find Jenn's breakdown exceedingly pessimistic based on my own personal experiences and results. Your truth may be closer to hers or to mine. That's going to depend upon your skill set and objectives. What's good for one goose may really piss off other ganders. Regardless, just because some can't make more than McDonalds money penning content doesn't mean that everyone should run away from the gigs. Some CAN and DO make it pay.

Fourth, I am not advocating lower paying gigs for everyone. I am not arguing that writers should accept table scraps happily. I just don't see how Manifesto-style minimum rate arguments do much of anything to resolve the situation. I don't want people to confuse my beliefs in choice and markets with some kind of writer hatred complex. I'm not a masochist.

(On the question of whether those working in lower paying market segments will end up in an undesirable rut) That’s entirely different than a writer who ONLY takes extremely low-paying gigs. In that case, there is most definitely a “rut”...If you’re lucky enough to have been one of them, or were already in other markets and making a simple choice to take lower work from time to time, that’s fine and your option. But trying to deny that a “rut” exists based on individual experiences is nothing more than that: denial, in my opinion.

I'm not really too interested in the "rut" arguments. I understand Jenn's concern that people might trap themselves into a cycle of working exclusively in market segments that don't provide optimal income opportunity. I also know that kind of thing isn't inevitable, even though it does happen to some people.

All I know is that the Manifesto solution won't fix that any better than making a concerted effort to let budding writers know that they can focus their efforts on a variety of market segments. We don't need minimum wages based on a misunderstanding of underlying market forces and a failure to recognize Jenn's observations about a very diverse marketplace to encourage people to get out of a rut.

So, everybody, go yell it from the mountaintops! There are plenty of places that will pay more per word that straight content gigs you can find on RAC or E-Lance. If those markets don't represent an opportunity for YOU to earn what YOU want to make, dig in and look elsewhere. I hope you find what you're looking for! Sincerely. In the meantime, consider the possibility that embracing a set minimum rate for all writers (regardless of project type or writer skill level) might not be the best way to help yourself.