Wednesday, January 2, 2008

WAHM's and Low Pay

Being a mom is probably the lowest paying job of all, which puts an odd sort of perspective on the following... Recently, one of the major freelance writing job blogs sounded off about WAHM's taking low paying writing gigs. You can read her rant at Freelance Writing Jobs about how the tendency of WAHM's to take $3 writing jobs make people think of them as a source of cheap labor--and take advantage of them in the process. Her solution is the WAHM's should stop taking low paying writing jobs; that this will force article buyers to pay more.

Well, color me as respectfully disagreeing. WAHM's didn't start the race to the bottom and they aren't going to stop it even if they do quit taking low paying scut work. No, they won't be seen as a source of "cheap labor," but they will not turn back the tide any more than King Canute. The problem is twofold--and it's a problems lots of industries have, not just writing:

  1. The Internet has created a frictionless marketplace. When sellers cannot find buyers and buyers cannot find sellers, a market has "friction." But when sellers and buyers can come together almost effortlessly, then a market is said to be frictionless.
    With the advent of the Internet, the market for writers has become increasingly frictionless. Snailmail is slow. Email is almost instantaneous. Sending payment cross country used to be slow and iffy. Paypal is fast and safe. And so on. With the advent of Elance and Craigslist, and the increasing acceptance of telecommuting, the market for writers is nearly frictionless. And it's only going to get more so. Not less.

  2. The combination of the Internet and Elance (and the like) has made a small buyer's market into a BIG buyer's market by including millions of English-speaking/writing people from all over, most notably second and third world countries with much, MUCH lower wages and prices than in the US/Canada/Australia/UK. The willingness of thousands--if not millions--of people to work for what would be a starvation wage in the west is what has driven prices into the floor--not what a few hundred thousand WAHM's will or will not write for. This is happening all over. Work that my brother contract programmer used to get paid $75/hr for now only pays $35/hr... because international competition has driven the price down. Things are tough all over, but there are opportunities everywhere.

Now, before you accuse me of being racist or xenophobic, I think people from where ever--second and third world countries included--have a right to make a living regardless of their color, nationality or shoe size. But I won't pretend that a huge influx of people willing to write for peanuts didn't drive prices down from the already low $10 each to $2 and $3 each. Economics isn't politically correct. Low paying work isn't going away. There will always be someone desperate enough to do it.

So whether WAHM's take low paying work is not going to affect the market significantly. There are just too many people whose hours are worth $5.25--or worse, $0.50/day--who figure that they can write four an hour with their PJ's on and that's a heck of alot more than they can make on their feet cashiering at Wal-mart. There's nothing shameful about doing honest work when it suits your purpose.

Back in the dark ages, when I considered $50 a good fee, $250 seemed like the moon, and we were going bankrupt supporting a house we couldn't sell, I wrote a handful of articles for Write for Cash (aka WFC). At the time, there was a big stink on the writer's list I frequented because of the low fees: $10-$20 per article. But I was desperate and the couple hundred dollars I wrote for WFC (which are still on the web today) bought two weeks worth of groceries and put something in my kid's Christmas stocking. It suited my purpose. I never spent more than a half hour on the article. I never wrote more than the minimum number of words. As long as my hourly wage came through to $15 or $20/hr, I counted myself lucky... That was as much as I made per hour as a programmer and I didn't have to dress up and commute 70 miles one way to do it. And I used those clips to move on, move up, and get better gigs.

So, having been there, I'll share a few rules of thumb:

  1. Figure if something is worth your time based on a target hourly rate, not based on what a particular piece pays. Set your hourly rate, at the very least, as twice what you could make at a part time job. In the beginning (or unless you have special skills), that means anywhere from $10-$16/hr. If you can do three small pieces and hour for $4 each and make $12, and that's better than you could do at the part time jobs you qualify for, it's worth your time. After ten clips (or a couple of months), raise your target rate by $10/hr. Keep raising it at least $10/hr every six months until you get to $50-$75/hr. That's a veteran wage and a decent living.

  2. Spend the least time possible while doing a workmanlike job. Don't spend four days researching an article that's only going to pay $15. If your target hourly rate is $15/hr, then you have exactly one hour to research and write that article. Go over and you're reducing your take. This is not to say you should do shoddy work and cut corners. Do good work, but keep in mind that time is money.

  3. Never, never, never, never, NEVER write an article for low pay that you could pitch and sell elsewhere for more money. Always start at the top with an article idea and work your way down. You won't know if you can sell an article for $25 (or $250 or wow, $2500) unless you first pitch it to one of those better paying markets. If you come down all rejections and you still want to write it, then go ahead and write it for peanuts (or GASP for free). But start at the top.

  4. Do NOT fall into the trap of thinking that because you are busting your arse for peanuts that peanuts is all you deserve. Every freelance writer starts out at the bottom: querying new markets, taking spec assignments, forging relationships with editors. Low paying work is a stepping stone. You don't need more than 10 low-paying clips to move into the next tier ($25-$50/article)--not to say it will be easy, but you should definitely begin your move around your 10th clip. And here's the secret... the editors you're querying don't know how much you were paid. They don't know you got paid peanuts. They see a clip: "Hmm, well written. Got published. Probably met her deadline. Yeah, lets give her a try." A clip, even a low paying one, is a sample of your writing and a demonstration of your professionalism. Not a pro? Fake it 'til you make it, girl!

And so, that is my answer... spent far too much time on this for far too little money. Broke rule #1 and #2. But at least I wrote something.

Happy New Year!


James Chartrand - Web Content Writer Tips said...

Good tips and a very good post.

Writers also have to consider what their net profit is (what's left in their pocket) after expenses. Take your hourly rate and reduce it for each dollar it costs to earn you money. We blogged about setting your rates recently, because we realized many people didn't know that what they make isn't necessarily what they're left with when it's all said and done.

One note to make is that web content writing and print or magazine-style content pays very different rates. Very few web content writers - even veterans - will score your suggested rate of $75 per hour.

Serenity Now! said...


You are so smart. ;0)


Dejah said...

James, perhaps you and I have a different definition of "web copy." I know more than a few people--none veteran or elite--who get paid upwards of $50-$75/hr for writing copy for web sites. Check out The Well Fed Writer for resources. Also, journalistic articles for the web can pay quite well--kind of where magazines meet web copy. I regularly make $50/hr and recently raised my expectations (though granted, I am a "veteran" writer). So while $75/hr might take some doing, I do think that $50/hr is quite attainable. The point though was that beginners should take a serious look at their rates every six months until they get to those "veteran" rates. It takes about 2 years to build a viable freelance career, raising target rates is part of it... and meeting those target rates involves looking for increasingly better paying jobs.

AGK said...

Whether you remember it or not, I have been with you on this train (of thought) for a long time...

Towel Hog said...

This was a good reminder to constantly keep pushing yourself forward.