Friday, November 20, 2009

7 reasons to reject lowball freelance work

How low will you go in accepting an assignment? In 7 Reasons Why I Won't Write A $15 Blog, blogger Carol Tice describes being lowballed by an agency and enumerates the principles that led her to say "no." Of the seven reasons, #5 "I want to take a stand," leads her to create a petition for writers who won't take less than $50 for an assignment.

It is an interesting tactic. If nothing else, Tice elicited emotion--she drove lots of comments by posting on LinkedIn, and the topic also sparked a separate discussion over at Freelancer Writerville II (free registration required) when I posted the link there. A while back, I posted a video of Harlan Ellison ranting about people who work for free, screwing up things for everyone else, so, yeah, I am empathic to the concept that people should stand up for their right to be paid a fair wage.

While I wish her the best of luck, I see a couple of challenges in formalizing such a cause:
  1. Although there is a Freelancers Union, we're inherently un-unionizable in any significant way. I cherish my independence, and I believe that the vast majority of freelancers feel similarly. I'm skeptical that a petition will carry much weight in the marketplace, and I'm confident enough in my own abilities to know that I'm my own best advocate.
  2. At the risk of retreating into a sports metaphor, writing is analogous to professional baseball--some are superstars and some barely make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority toil away in AAA, AA, or A for smaller bucks...and a lot of others play just for fun. A player with marginal talent who wants to make a six-figure income ain't gonna get it. One with scads of talent who is underpaid needs to do a better job of negotiating.
  3. I simply don't view this as a moral issue. As much as I disdain the content mills out there, I don't believe they're doing anything but meeting a need for low-cost, low-quality content. Nobody is forced to work for them, so using the word "sweatshop" is a bit precious. They're purchasing the editorial equivalent of cheesy clipart. Good luck with that.
Discussions about pay never fail to strike a nerve. Freelancing isn't unique in that respect, though it is very personal as far as what is acceptable. As Rodney Dangerfield once said, "Look out for #1...but don't step in #2."

Update: A great pricing anecdote via photographer Tim Gruber, Picasso and Pricing Your Work:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”


  1. The $50 limit in the petition seems arbitrary. If I can write a blog post in 10 minutes, can I really expect to deserve $50 for that, aka $300 an hour?

  2. I dunno....lots of consultants out there asking - and getting - $300 an hour. Ditto for public speakers. BESIDES - they're paying for my time AND my expertise. It's because of my skill, experience and overall background knowledge that it might take "only 10 minutes" for that blog post. It probably also takes "only 10 minutes" for any number of medical or dental procedures or tests, but so far, I don't think the fees are prorated for time spent.

  3. @John, I agree that the $50 appears to be plucked from thin air.

    I also agree with @writing in arizona's point about paying for hard-won expertise. The "10-minute procedure" analogy is a good one.

    As with so many pricing issues, I think it comes down to how you frame the issue. You're probably going to struggle selling "$300/hr for blogging." I'd rather position it something like "6 posts for $300," knowing that it was going to take an hour. Personally, that's why I shy away from working at an hourly rate and prefer to quote a project or give an estimated range.

  4. In only looking at the short term / immediate price per assignment, one negates what a possible long term return may be. For example, if Warren Buffet came and asked you to write a blog article with him or for him and did not want to pay...certainly I would think the "value" of having Warren Buffet as a potential contact as well as showing him how good you are far outweighs $50 or even $500.

    Similarly, I take the position that one should not pay unless they 'perform'. So in the case of 'writing', there are times when writing has a purpose or objective. Many times this objective is "concrete" (examples: SEO writing, page views, page stay, number of times shared, etc). If someone is truly gifted in their talent, why not charge a low fee up front (like $25) and then get paid if they obtain the objective (*if it's measurable) of the article.

  5. I always marvel at the question of how much we should value "writing"--as if all writing is in one category. It's like asking how much a client should pay to have a movie made.

    We all know there is a plethora of crap on the Internet written by so-called writers--even by those who charge hefty rates. We also know there is some great writing on the Internet, which yields long-term value. But I doubt the great writing was originally a $3 article. Value is value. Great writing takes time and effort. People who spit out a blog in 20 minutes are not producing great writing. They are producing content.