I’m on vacation this week. I wrote this back in 2009, when I was answering a lot of online job ads and struggling to keep my income up as the economy tanked.
It created controversy in some quarters, and became a rallying cry for others. I’m sad to see how relevant this topic remains…think it’s time for an encore.
A while back, I had a disturbing phone call with a prospective writing client.
I had responded to several online ads for writing gigs in the legal field, as I am a former legal secretary. 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 post 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 Post
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 encourage this trend.
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 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 accomplished professional writers to take a moral stand. Thousands of scam operators have flooded into the marketplace, hoping to get writers to write for peanuts and then monetize that content, or sell their whole Web site to someone else and make a killing – all off our backs. What they’re doing is morally wrong. I want to resist this trend. 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 me to refuse this work.
6. I have good-paying clients. 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. Maybe there are fewer good-paying markets, 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 willing to deliver sophisticated, quality content for pennies is going to shrink dramatically as many find new jobs. The number of quickie-post assignments for writers who speak English as a second language is shrinking rapidly, thanks to the Google update. I’m expecting rates will naturally be driven back up as it becomes harder to find qualified writing help. The fact that Demand Studios now offers 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, so their compensation will have to rise.
I believe this is a momentary market glitch in our industry that’s flourished 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, many content-mill writers will probably get day jobs again, and rates will rise.
If you’re with me that sweatshop wages are wrong, make a commitment to yourself not take any assignment that pays less than $50.
Why $50? That’s what I got paid per article when I first got into freelance writing in the early 1990s. Rates shouldn’t be lower now, accounting for inflation. So I think that’s a good cutoff.
I’d love to see writers organize around this issue. Who knows? Maybe Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong site or Amazon.com (have you seen their mill, Amazon Mechanical Turk?) would improve their pay rather than face public embarrassment over their rates.
But in any case, not taking super-low paying gigs leaves you more time for marketing your writing and finding fair wages.
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