Last spring I turned down a writing job that would have paid $450. The piece would have been long but not particularly hard to do, as I’d covered the topic before. In fact, I did a pretty good outline in several back-and-forth e-mails with the editor.
(Note to self: Don’t do that again. Ask what the job pays before you do anything else – and especially before you spend half an hour of your day e-mailing back and forth.)
Some of you are probably thinking, “Is she nuts? She turned down an easy $450?”
But that’s not really what I turned down.
I turned down a guy who wanted me to produce the article right away, and for less than one-fourth my current rate. There would have been additional time spent dealing with edits and probably a fact-checker, too. At that time I was still writing for MSN Money and also working on a couple of women’s magazine pieces.
The old me would have jumped at the chance, and stayed up late to finish it, and chatted cheerfully with the checker. I would have waited the usual “payment 30 days after publication” time frame, which often means “at the end of the month that the article comes out they will start to process your payment.”
(Since this was a quarterly magazine, the payment would likely have been processed at the end of the quarter.)
I’m not willing to do that any longer, because I’m in a different place in my writing career. All you other writers out there shouldn’t be selling yourselves short either. Even if you’re just beginning you should be mighty, mighty careful about writing for little or, worse, for nothing.
Why buy a cow….
Back in 2011 Google’s “Panda” algorithm shut down a lot of “content farms,” i.e., companies that sometimes paid about a dollar an article. But plenty of places still pay $25 or $50 per post.
That is, if they pay at all. Several times a week I get queries from people who want to write for me for free. I know that those articles would probably be fairly slapdash and larded with affiliate links. But sometimes other personal finance bloggers – especially the beginners – offer to write something for nothing, for the “exposure.”
You know what? People die of exposure.
Sarah Gilbert of Get Rich Slowly wrote about why she sometimes works for free. What I inferred is that she’s in a slightly better place than a lot of writers and can afford to do work that jibes with her personal values. She’s also apparently making connections that could pay off in terms of networking for eventual paying gigs.
Those and her other reasons are good ones – in theory. The problem with theory is that it’s, well, theoretical. Suppose the connections don’t pay off? Suppose she (or you, or I) continues to burn the midnight oil for free?
Understand: If a nonprofit whose mission I truly admired asked me to write something for its website I might do it – but only after I checked to see what its head honchos were earning. Why should the higher-ups get decent salaries while volunteers do it for love?
And I can think of some reasons to write for free:
- You truly believe it will lead to paying work.
- You’re trading posts with other bloggers (both of you get fresh viewpoints that way).
- You’re repaying favors. I owe a couple of free posts myself. (Will, J. Money: Be patient, guys. I haven’t forgotten.)
- You’re really, really anxious to get your name/your site out there and you have a day job/enough work to keep the lights on.
But remember what our moms said about free milk and the cow? I think I speak for all of us here when I say, “Moo.”
Consenting to be underpaid
Big companies don’t get to be big companies by giving money away. I shudder to think how long I wrote for one site at the initial rate quoted. Plenty of people would have been happy to write for that company and at that pay grade. But one day I suddenly thought, “What am I doing, writing for so little?”
I wrote a carefully crafted letter explaining why I was worth more and could not do any more assignments at the current rate. The editor agreed with all my points, then made a counteroffer: an additional 4 cents per word. (See “big companies,” above.)
Ultimately we came to terms – less money than I usually get, but worth it because any time I publish there I get a nice spike in readership on my own website. Yet I’m still kicking my own ass that I wrote that long for that little, that indeed I felt I was “lucky” to get the assignments.
What I should have been thinking is that they were lucky to get me. For years I’ve been struggling with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I believe a lot of women undervalue their abilities – and, hence, their work – in this way.
Not that it’s limited to women. A guy friend who had the chance to edit a very specialized textbook told me he planned to ask for $25 an hour. My response: “Ask for $100.”
No way! he said. They’ll show me the door!
“Ask for $75, then.” He demurred, saying he might ask for $50 but that it still sounded high.
“Trust me: Ask for $75. They can always beat you back down to $50.”
So he asked for $75 an hour and they instantly said, “Sold!” What they were probably thinking was, “Yahoo! We thought we’d have to pay $150!”
Knowing our worth
My friend should have asked for $125, because he might have been able to get $100. But he didn’t have a clear idea of his own worth.
Plenty of us don’t, especially as regards writing for the Internet. Anxious new (and not-so-new) writers, desperate for traffic, will write for free. Freelancers, especially those without day jobs, will write for a few bucks. When I warned a fellow writer that Site X would pay no more than 16 cents a word if she didn’t stand up for herself, her response was “I’d be thrilled to get 16 cents.” Apparently it’s 16 cents more than what she’s getting right now.
The result? Far too often, Internet writing is as shallow as a saucer of water. When the paycheck is only $25, who can devote even an hour to research? If you’ve got two articles to finish before the school bus shows, can you afford to focus very long on readability or advice that goes beyond superficial platitudes?
One freelance ad actually contained the phrase, “Ideally, content should make sense.” The job was to string together a bunch of SEO-friendly phrases into an “article” for one of those sites that exists simply to draw traffic (and, hence, ad revenue). The site owner didn’t much care about the writing, only the result. No doubt someone took the job — but what do you want to bet that the payment was less than $25? Less than $15? Less than $5?
Low salaries (or no salaries) lead to poor quality. Everyone loses.
Now that Microsoft has shown all its writers the door, am I sorry I didn’t take that $450 gig? Not really. As noted, the paycheck would have caused considerable stress that I could ill-afford, given that I was already up to my hairline in deadline. At the time it was smarter not to add to the workload. (See “Strategic pizza” for more on this.)
If the job came up tomorrow, would I accept it? That depends.
First I’d propose higher payment, for the reasons outlined above. If the editor wouldn’t budge, I might take it — but only if he would give me at least until early November to turn in the work. That’s because I’m trying to take some time off before attending (and speaking at) the Financial Blogger Conference in mid-October; after that I want a little time to decompress and mull over any connections/plans I make at FinCon.
Here’s what I won’t do: Add to the problem of low wages, which in turn leads to low-quality writing and stressed-out workers. I can’t be part of that.
Maybe I’ll live to regret this stance, especially if the industry continues to morph into a mostly-free-content model. Maybe one day soon I’ll be stumping for $50 blog-post gigs. I hope not.
Websites are comfortable publishing junk because they figure the readers don’t care. Maybe the readers really don’t. Maybe they don’t know the difference between decent writing and crappy content, or maybe they feel that since they’re not paying for it they shouldn’t expect quality.
I once heard an Internet savant named Wil Reynolds discuss how to build a profitable site without “polluting the web,” i.e., doing shoddy work. He talked about considering the Internet a long-term asset and making sure that our work adds value to that asset. Too many companies view it as, well, a cash cow — and they’re not willing to pay for the milk.