Think you could make a living as a freelance writer? Think again.
According to a recent article in the LA Times, Freelance Writings Unfortunate New Model, the proliferation of free (and almost free) content available is driving down the market value of good quality writing.
Trails.com will pay $15 for articles about the outdoors. Livestrong.com wants 500-word pieces on health for $30, or less. In this mix, the 16 cents a word offered by Green Business Quarterly ends up sounding almost bounteous, amounting to more than $100 per submission.
Just out of curiosity, I looked at elance.com and guru.com to see whether this was a universal trend. It is. Look at some of these examples:
- I am looking for 25 inspiring health articles for web content on my smoothie site. Each article should be between 500-600 words in length and keywords will be supplied for use in each article. Budget: Less than $500. Time to deliver after bid is accepted: 1 week. There are 19 bids for that project.
- Looking for someone to write 10-20 articles per month on a variety of topics. Looking to build a long term relationship. Articles must have a minimum of 5 paragraphs with 5 paragraphs being ideal. Budget: Less than $500
- We are looking for native English speakers and professional writers to write for us 400 to 500 words business articles for up to $5 per one article (including posting the articles to: [obscured] Or [obscured] ). We need around 25 articles per month about business plans, business investors, business entrepreneurs and start up companies news topics.
Wow, $5 for 500 words. I suspect that Dickens was paid better than that. For $5/article, I’d rather write content for my own blog and hope to attract advertising dollars.
Another article, this time in Wired Magazine, also discusses the phenomenon of mass production. The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable and Profitable as Hell Media Model talks about the approach of Demand Media to content — which is to publish 4,000 articles and videos PER day!
The company’s ambitions are so enormous as to be almost surreal: to predict any question anyone might ask and generate an answer that will show up at the top of Google’s search results. To get there, Demand is using an army of Muñoz- Donosos to feverishly crank out articles and videos. They shoot slapdash instructional videos with titles like “How To Draw a Greek Helmet” and “Dog Whistle Training Techniques.” They write guides about lunch meat safety and nonprofit administration. They pump out an endless stream of bulleted lists and tutorials about the most esoteric of subjects.
Demand Media uses an algorithm to fine tune it’s content strategy. The result may not be memorable, but it is geared toward SEO.
The algorithm is fed inputs from three sources: Search terms (popular terms from more than 100 sources comprising 2 billion searches a day), The ad market (a snapshot of which keywords are sought after and how much they are fetching), and The competition (what’s online already and where a term ranks in search results).
Approved headlines get fed into a password-protected section of Demand’s Web site called Demand Studios, where any Demand freelancer can see what jobs are available. It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40. Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline.
I had breakfast with an editor of a trade publication earlier this week and he confirmed the trend. His budget for hiring freelancers has been cut to the bone. He depends on articles that are written (or submitted) by his readers. Most of them still employ PR professionals to write the articles for them, but even then he tells me that standards are slipping as they seek to pay less for their content, too.
I see two problems in the current model of paying less for content: First, the pricing scheme devalues writing as a professional skill. The low fees are attracting aspiring writers who are trying to build their portfolios or pick up some extra cash. Professional writers and editors, many of whom have been in this business for decades, are appalled by this development.
The second problem is that the quality of the writing and the quality of the content is spiraling downward as fast as the fees. Just look at http://www.ehow.com. Here is a site where the writers are paid according to how well their articles are rated and how much the site pulls in through Google Adsense. The problem is, most of the articles I’ve read give bad or inaccurate advice!
So, what are writers to do? I believe there are still niche areas where the quality of content is valued. Mostly these are technical topics where the people paying for the content are committed to accuracy and recognize and value the benefits that good writing can deliver. I also believe that the best companies still understand that good writing is something that is worth paying for. Let’s only hope that they spread the word!