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The Writing Life: How to Avoid Literary Peonage

Updated on May 26, 2014

Who Really Wants to Be a Starving Artist?

So This Is What You Got for Your English Major?

I saw a job posting on eLance today. Some clever soul apparently believes he's discovered a way to make a fortune in the publishing industry. He's going to start a popular newsy website and hire out the writing.................dirt cheap!

Here's the interesting bit of the want ad. I've taken the liberty to comment in ALL CAPS (and yes I AM screaming).

I'm ONLY looking for U.S.-based individual writers (No Teams).

THAT WAY MY WRITERS CAN'T TALK TO EACH OTHER AND FIGURE OUT THEY ARE only MAKING $3 AN HOUR


I need a writer who is a Native English speaker living within the United States for a long-term writing position. You should be very serious about writing and have no trouble meeting daily deadlines. I'm going to select a few writers to take on a trial set of articles that will be 4,000 words in total. If passed, you would expect to produce between 3,000 and 5,000 words on a daily basis while ensuring quality and uniqueness.

THIS IS SOMEONE WHO HAS NEVER ACTUALLY WRITTEN 5000 COHERENT WORDS IN A WEEK, MUCH LESS A DAY AND THINKS WRITING IS SOMETHING LIKE MAGIC WITH WANDS AND STUFF AND THAT 800 WORDS AN HOUR IS A COMFORTABLE WRITING PACE.

Subjects will vary but each topic will be relatively simple to research online. For instance, you'll be writing about Finance, Education, Law, Health, and Fitness. Our rate of pay is $1.25 for every 100 words.

SO YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO WRITE KNOWLEDGE INTENSIVE ARTICLES AT 1 1/4 CENT PER WORD. PULP WRITERS FOR VERY BAD MAGAZINES BACK IN THE 30s GOT 2ยข A WORD.

I am looking for writers who will be available Monday through Friday and who can write a minimum of 3,000 words on a daily basis (although 5,000 are preferred). You should be very dependable and I shouldn't have a problem reaching you throughout the day.


SO CHAIN YOURSELF TO THE DESK BABY BECAUSE YOUR UNDERPAID HINEY IS MINE FOR A MAXIMUM OF $312.50 A WEEK AND YOU GIVE ELANCE 9% OF THAT AND PAY YOUR OWN TAXES AND 14% TO SOCIAL SECURITY (SELF EMPLOYED PEOPLE PAY DOUBLE SOCIAL SECURITY).

What amazed me was that there were about five doofuses that signed up for the job. I noticed that most live in the third world.

What is it about writers that attracts creepy exploitative publishers like bears to a salmon run. I suppose it's the fact that so many writer's are such needy people. They work ungodly hours trying to get their work into print. They need to write so badly that they are willing to tolerate massive levels of financial and verbal abuse in order to become a published writer.

Sadly, while the Internet has opened up all sorts of new avenues for writers, far too many of those avenues lead to "opportunities" that are little more than jobs at waitress's wages without the tips. There are dozens of "content" publishers out there. I've worked for a few to see what they were all about. What I found were highly demanding editors who had little concept of what coherent writing looked like, who did not understand grammar, couldn't spell and who had the social skills of a rabid gerbil.

My first bit of advice to would-be writers is to avoid these publishers like the plague. I won't name them all here - they pay their writers so poorly they can afford to hire lawyers to sue you for slander. You know who they are.

Secondly, always figure up how much they are proposing to pay you, realistically how long it will take you to complete the assignment including rewrites and how long they plan to stall before they actually give you any money. Divide that time expenditure including how long it took you to find the job. Divide total payment you'll get by the number of hours you will prospect for and work on the assignment. Now look at the dollar per hour amount your just got and ask yourself if you'd work the counter at the Waffle House for that kind of money.

If the answer is no, put down your keyboard and walk away.

You actually can make a little money online. If you create a popular blog, you can do a little advertising with Google Adsense or through a site like Hubpages that helps get you noticed and shares the ad revenue with you. You may do some combination of several things. If your content is what content publishers call "evergreen", then you'll draw hits for years. It's important to note that religious and political content isn't evergreen. Once the immediate controversy is over, you're not likely to get any more hits. Try to build a solid body of work in your knowledge field. How-to's are especially lucrative because lots of people look up how to do things on the net. If you have several thousand how-to articles on the net, you can make a fairly steady stream of revenue from that. It may take years to build up to that volume, but if you're working your day job and you just have that burning desire to write, then make it something that will eventually pay you back. Create that body of work with mule-headed determination.

Another possible opportunity for the aspiring writer is self-publishing. For writers who may not appeal to a large audience, self-publishing can give you a nice income from a smaller total sales run. You keep all the profits with a self-published book because you have all the costs. Ebooks are cheap to do. They take some work, but it's not something you can't learn how to do.

A traditionally published book that sells 10,000 copies isn't going to earn you more than a thousand or two in royalties depending on the generosity of the publisher and the publisher will be consider it a failure. And it probably took you months to write the thing. On the other hand, if you self-publish an eBook or a publish-on-demand book and manage to get word out about your book to enough people, then selling 10,000 copies as an ebook can earn you $10,000. You only have to sell your Ebook for a couple of bucks even if you have to split the take with Barnes and Noble or Amazon. The book will sell for less than a publisher's title and if it's good, you'll probably sell your next book to your loyal readers too. The point is that you don't have to sell nearly as many books for the book to be a success. And your backlist is always yours and if you attract new readers, they likely will go back and read your older books. With a traditional publisher, your older works just disappear into the remainders bin, never to be seen again. The trick is you have to invest a little in marketing same as the publishers do. You may even want to buy advertising or do a little social media marketing. It's a tougher row to hoe, but the fate of your book is in your hands. Besides, publishers now are making writers do more of their own marketing anyway.

It calls for a certain fearlessness. If you're not willing to look really hard at what you write and to recognize when what your are writing is crap and fix it, you're only going to embarrass yourself.

And that's probably the hardest thing to do. Oh, sure your Mom thinks you are a brilliant writer and the other guy on the poetry website whose work you really hate, but you tell him you like it so that it doesn't hurt his feelings - he say's your poetry really moves him. If that's where you are, my advice is to find some tougher critics before you nail your flag to the mast and quit your day job.

But if you did actually learn something about writing while you were getting that English degree and you are truly certain that you are a good writer, give it a go. Just don't take less than you're worth. Don't let yourself be exploited by people like the goon in the ad above paying sub minimum wage and exploiting people who desperately crave approval.

Tell 'em what you're worth and don't take less. If you work for these clowns you only hurt yourself and all the rest of us who are out there making a living with our word processors and our wits.


I'm just sayin'

Tom King


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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Well done hub Tom. Clowns like this will attract other clowns who cannot write an English sentence. Russ

    • profile image

      Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman 5 years ago from Germany

      'You're just saying', well say it again and a million times over because you have hit the nail on the head. For some odd reason, writing is not taken seriously as a profession. The success of our whole lives are based on our ability to read, write and speak. You only have to take a look at the lifestyle of an illiterate person and how much this person is missing in life. If the ability to read and write were not important then it would not be necessary for women in certain countries to be denied education. The menfolk of these countries would see themselves as threatened if their womenfolk could read and write. A good writer must be educated and constantly study the life around him/her. If people want books, magazines, newspapers and every other source of written information the authors of this information must be paid for their work. Writing might be considered a 'calling,' but it is also a great deal of work. Very good hub, voting up.

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