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The truth about cheap rates for writers

Updated on July 12, 2013

Writers trying to make a living will be all too well aware of the peanuts they are paid for a lot of hard work. There's a reason behind this, and it’s as banal as you could ever wish to see. As usual, the office boys and girls are being "clever" and winning brownie points in the process.

It's a very simple methodology:

  • Start with a budget figure.
  • Try to get all your product as cheaply as possible.
  • Go to your management meeting and tell everybody how brilliant you are.

It's an interesting set of priorities. Without content, there is no product. Without materials worth reading, there is no product. The various forms of publishing equate to a many-multibillion dollar industry. Without content, there is no industry. Everybody, it seems, makes money but writers.

This simply isn't good enough. Writers have bills too, some of us like to live inside buildings, and food doesn't buy itself. The bottom line can be 16 hour days, working for people who make 10 times as much as you do simply for looking at spreadsheets.

Consider the various options available for writers online:

Elance: Elance is one of the better sites, but it is by definition very much in the bandwidth of low-pitch budgets. I've done some work for Elance, but there is no doubt that there are better rates available elsewhere. The bidding approach tends to reduce rates as writers compete, further reducing returns. Another bidding site, the rates are abysmal and the site's been sending me spam ever since I simply looked at it. Advertisers for writers appear to be illiterate themselves, not much of a recommendation. Craigslist is one of the primary sources of writing jobs online, and it does have a few things going for it in terms of ease of use and global exposure. That said, the rates are still lousy, and there appears to be the same El Cheapo approach to hiring writers.

The Guardian: The Guardian does pay for materials, and seems to be pretty friendly to writers at least in terms of payment, although their rates are well short of magazine rates.

Publishers: Ironically, many publishers aren't too bad. Particularly the magazine publishers, who at least have the decency to offer decent rates. The problem is that these higher-return outlets are naturally saturated with submissions all the time, meaning that actually getting published and paid is far more difficult.

The economics of writing and publishing

There's a lesson to be learned here. Apparently some publishers can afford to pay decent rates, and it's only the middlemen preventing writers from earning a living. This situation has to change. It's not in the interests of the publishers, particularly web publishers, to be considered not worth writing for. That's the net effect of the cheapskate approach. Publishing is a very competitive business, and publishing garbage is a surefire way to the scrapheap.

For writers, the economics are simple – You write for the people who pay the most. You prefer not to be insulted while writing, you get enough of that anyway with illiterate editors, and you prefer your bank account to be comprised of whole numbers.

The various surges of interest in new paid writing sites are good indicators of the realities of the situation. There is no such thing as a writer loyalty when you're being paid patronizing amounts of money. Publishers who fall for the cheapskate process will naturally lose all their good writers who will either leave in disgust or simply move on when they find a better paying deal.

This is actually a cultural thing, too. Business is business, production is production. Business is supposed to be looking at the business, not interfering with production and certainly not interfering with product quality à la Hollywood. It's quite typical for business people to know absolutely nothing about their products, and the quality of the products naturally goes downhill as the priority shifts from quality to mere business bureaucracy, office politics and money shuffling.

Publishers, particularly web publishers, would be well advised to use a choke chain on their business people. The situation at the moment is appalling, and there is no sign that publishers have woken up to this rort. Okay the cheapskates “save” money buying garbage, but where does that money go? Does it go into the business, or does it go into somebody's pocket? One of the primary rules of business is "trust nobody", and maybe it's time publishers learned that lesson.


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