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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Writers Worth: Publishers and Bad Business Models

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Jenn Mattern is one of the most successful freelancers I know. So when Jenn has something to say about freelancing, I listen. With a background in marketing and a long history of demanding impressive hourly rates, Jenn is a sought-after writer, SEO expert, and marketing go-to person.

Jenn is also a close friend. Some of our more enjoyable times together have been spent in her house, my feet propped up on the footstool in her office, as we alternate between working and chatting. What's impressed me for years about Jenn is her ability to organize and implement killer marketing and business plans and make it look easy. It probably has something to do with the charts she has nailed to her office wall. She juggles a lot, and the charts help her stay on track.

Jenn is also a writer who doesn't take less pay than she's worth. There's no need. As freelancing's original query-free writer, Jenn's clients come to her. Who wouldn't want to work that way?

Today, Jenn tackles a disturbing trend in publishing: the idea that writers should be "earning out" their fees by way of driving traffic to publishers' websites. Here's why Jenn thinks we freelance writers shouldn't fall for it:

Should a Publisher's Failed Business Model Influence Your Freelance Writing Rates?

by Jennifer Mattern

I stumbled across an online discussion among editors the other day, representing both print and online publications. They were discussing how much a publication should pay its freelance contributors. The insights overall were interesting. But one stood out.

Over and over again editors would bring up the issue of their publication's ad revenue. One particular commenter noted that most freelance submissions they receive never "earn out" their payments.

This idea of expecting freelancers to "earn out" their payments rubbed me the wrong way. No freelance submission has to earn out anything. And it's not a freelance writer's responsibility to directly influence a publication's earnings.

Whose responsibility is that? The publisher's.

Much of the value freelancers bring to the table comes from their ability to attract readers and build the trust and interest that keeps them coming back (just as staff writers do). It's up to the publication to convert that readership into a viable revenue model.

What You Can do if You're Asked to Write For Less

If a publication's revenue drops, their budget will likely drop with it. What can you do if your editor asks you to take a pay cut to accommodate this lower budget? You have two basic options:

  1. You can agree to the lower pay.
  2. You can replace that client with one that can afford you.

I wouldn't recommend the first option. I understand the appeal. It's the easy way out when you don't want to seek out other clients. You might have a great relationship with your editor (and the budget decision might not have been their call). You might even hope it's a temporary problem and you'll go back to your old rate eventually.

That isn't likely to happen. If a client's budget decreases, something should have to give. For example:

  • They might accept fewer freelance submissions.
  • They might request shorter articles from freelancers.
  • They might relax some of their requirements (longer deadlines, fewer required interview sources, etc.).
  • They might hire less experienced freelancers knowing that quality might suffer initially.
  • They might purchase fewer rights.

That's the reality of being in business. If you cave and accept that your work is less valuable because they suddenly have less money and you don't ask for equal compromise, you're the one who loses. Once a client sees that they can get the same exact thing for less pay, they have absolutely no incentive to raise those rates again.

This is one of those situations where it helps to remember this is business and you sometimes need to keep emotions out of it. By all means, don't burn bridges. But don't let yourself be pressured into staying with a client who can't afford you.

If you haven't been actively marketing your writing to other prospects, you might be more inclined to stay on at the lower rate on a very temporary basis. I don't recommend it, but only you know your current situation. If you opt to go this route, now is the perfect time to start marketing more actively so you can leave this client as soon as you're able to.

Remember, target markets mean more than niche or industry specialties. For a client to be a member of your target market, they must actually be able to afford you. If the clients you've been targeting can no longer do that, you might need to rethink the markets you're pursuing.

Other Ways Freelance Writing is Being Devalued

Being asked to write for less is just one example of the kinds of requests I've seen recently from prospects looking to cut corners. After all, it's easier to blame advertisers for their problems and try to push more responsibility onto their freelancers than it is to fix the underlying problems with their business models.

Here are a few other examples of newer demands I've seen from clients (with no additional pay to compensate for them):

  • Writers are expected to take, find, and/or license photographs for the articles they write.
  • Freelance writers, especially for online publications, are expected to promote all content they write via social media, usually through their personal accounts.
  • Contributors are expected to find editors to review their work in lieu of having a staff editor in charge of quality control.
  • Bloggers are expected to monitor and respond to comments on their articles (sometimes indefinitely).

Are any of these things inherently wrong? Probably not (although I'm personally against any employer or client telling you how to use your personal social media accounts). The problem is that these are all add-on services. Either your base rate should be higher for content requiring these things (such as in the case of monitoring blog comments) or an additional fee should be negotiated.

Instead, what I've seen with some clients is that they want to tack extra services onto existing contracts, and they don't think they should have to pay any more for them. That's not okay.

Remember, you're a business owner. You offer something of value. And you deserve to be compensated fairly for that value you provide. It's up to you to decide what "fair compensation" means to you. It's not up to failed business decisions of prospects or even existing clients. Let them get their own acts together. There are plenty of fish in the professional sea, and you can always find new ones who value what you bring to their teams. The key is continuing to seek them out instead of getting too comfortable with your current client base.

Jennifer Mattern the professional blogger and freelance writer behind All Indie Writers -- a comprehensive resource for all writers interested in building a more successful writing career. If you want to land better clients you can sign up now at Jenn's latest site, The Bad Marketing Blog, where she will help you see through BS marketing advice and give you the tools you need to reach your business goals through better marketing. You can connect with Jenn on Twitter @AllIndieWriters.


Jennifer Mattern said...

Thanks for letting me contribute for Writer's Worth month Lori. :)

While I didn't cover this angle in the post, it's just as important for freelancers working with businesses rather than publications to be aware of bad business decisions on a client's part. Their budgets equally can take a hit if they don't effectively monetize your content or use it to its full advantage. And that isn't your problem. If they expect you to do something more than writing, make sure you're charging enough to account for those extras.

Lori Widmer said...

Thank YOU for the contribution, Jenn. Your wisdom is always welcome here. :)

Good point. I've written things for clients that were never used. In just a few instances did they think that meant they didn't owe me. Not so -- I provide content. I don't account for changing of minds or lack of action.

Cathy Miller said...

Excellent examples, Jenn. I use my Statement of Work (contract or Agreement) to spell out what is and is NOT covered in the fee.

One of the items always excluded in mine is marketing/social media promoting. It's a choice I make as I'd rather spend my time marketing my services. And I totally agree with you that I don't like the idea of a client dictating the use of my personal social media accounts.

Lori Widmer said...

It's an odd trend, isn't it, Cathy? I'm of the opinion that social media accounts are easy to set up -- if they want to promote, they do so on their account, not mine.

Jenn, I agree with you that "earning out" one's submission isn't the job of the freelancer. It feels as though the editors are pushing way to much responsibility for what they should be doing onto the freelancer. Next thing you know they'll be attempting to sue us if they don't hit their revenue targets -- it's as absurd an idea as expecting us to drive ad revenue for them.

Dava Stewart said...

Great post. I've seen several of those things myself, particularly the image one. I detest dealing with images, probably because I'm not very good at it, so that one jumps out at me.

Whenever a client asks me to promote their stuff on social media, I always offer that as a service: I'll set up the accounts and either show you how to run them OR we can negotiate a monthly fee. I will post to platforms A and B a certain number of times per week for x number of dollars.

Last year, I interviewed for a couple of "real" jobs, and in every one the hiring managers were most interested in my social media skills. In fact, a couple of times, it seemed as if my writing abilities were secondary, even though I was responding to ads for writers! Knowing how to build and engage a community is a valuable skill worthy of compensation.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Dava -- I always find the image requirements frustrating because so many writers don't even know how to find ones that can legally be used. It's in a client's best interest to do this themselves, as they're taking a risk letting a third party pick them, especially if there's no extra compensation or cover licensing costs.

I do this for one client. But either I use his stock photo accounts and he pays for the images, or I create them using a tool like Canva. At one point I handled images for one of his other writers (she was awful, so I have no idea why he kept her on so long -- in addition to poorly written content, the majority of her images were being used illegally; I had to audit the old posts and then remove and replace them). It's very rare for me to do this for new clients, even with extra pay. But for guest posts I occasionally create an intro image. Sorry Lori! It totally slipped my mind on this one.

Cathy -- I have a strict policy about that. No client can require that I promote anything through my social media accounts. If they want to pay extra to have me manage their accounts, that's fine. But my professional or personal network is not an appropriate place for clients to be marketing. We'll actually have a post on this when I finally have the marketing blog finished and ready for launch. An old PR colleague has a similar pet peeve, so I'll likely bring her in to chat about it. Like Dava mentioned, this happens with employees too these day. The marketing post will deal with both situations.

Lori -- Fortunately many business clients understand that at least. There are no 25% kill fees or other such nonsense. If they contract the work and that work is completed, they pay for it, period.

I had this happen for a white paper several years ago. The client wanted to branch into new verticals. They hired me to draft a white paper targeting one of the new markets. They were very happy with it. But they never released it. Shortly after approving the copy, they decided to take the business in a different direction. They didn't even try to weasel out of paying in full.

Again, this is a publication issue more often than not. And it comes down to not taking responsibility for bad business decisions. If you make the business decision to contract someone to create something, you have a responsibility to pay for it.

Ashley said...

Speaking of bad business models, a writer's business won't hold up for long if that writer allows clients to dictate rates. I talked to a potential client just this morning who I would have loved to work for, except the rate their budget would allow was abysmal. There would have been a LOT of work coming my way (great), but I wouldn't be able to pay the bills at the rate they offered (bad). Just like the clients I write for, I am responsible for finding a way to monetize my business!

Anne Wayman said...

Jenn, hadn't thought of it, but it would be helpful if more freelance writers understood some of the various business models they may be asked to work with.

Re print magazines - sure they need ad revenue to survive, but as you point out that's not my job as a writer. Sure my article plays into their desire for profits by hopefully attracting enough readers - but again, as you say, not my problem.

Ditto with blogs.

Other types of writing, like copy and whitepapers don't get the push to account for ad dollars because it's not possible to track directly.

And yes, it's always up to us to say yes or no.

Gabriella said...

Good stuff.

I promote my articles on my personal Facebook page only when I think my friends might be interested in something I've written on--and I think that's rare. I don't think they'll give a lick about most stuff I write about. (I don't use Twitter; just don't see the value.)

What's your thought on Google+? I just had a client (who's also a personal friend) ask if I'll create a Google+ account because it'll link back to their site.

I read some background on Google+, and the consensus is that it's not very valuable to individuals, but it's very valuable to Google, which wants to develop a more robust database of personal demographics to sell to advertisers.

Since I guard my privacy as much as I can while still being connected, that turns me off.

I told the client I'd look into it but haven't gotten back to her beyond that.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Anne -- If anything, copywriters can be pushed harder because clients expect direct sales from many of those projects. But in the end, copy can only convert the eyes a client can bring to it. Some forget this and place all the blame on a copywriter if they don't meet their sales targets. Fortunately many do though. After all, it would be stupid to spend thousands of dollars on a white paper, sales page, etc. without a solid plan to get it in front of your target market.

Ashley -- Exactly. Freelance writers are business owners. They should set their rates. Not clients. Unfortunately many print markets operate under severely outdated business models, and they set rates up front that new writers simply have to accept or reject. Or at least that's what many do. And that's unfortunate. If your credentials or history with a publication set you apart from other writers, negotiate!. That, or set the rate you want, and pursue only clients who offer pay in that range, even if it means taking the ego hit of losing some otherwise-promising bylines. A big part of being in business is knowing when to walk away.

Jennifer Mattern said...


I don't use Facebook. Coming from a background in PR and social media consulting (before we even used that term), I've watched Facebook's questionable behavior over the years. And I simply don't trust them. Twitter on the other hand has been a significant traffic source for me, and it's eased some of my sites' reliance on search engines for access to new readers. As with any social network, it's all in what you do with it and who you connect to.

Personally, I only share something on my accounts if I feel it's relevant. But I never do if asked, even if it would otherwise be relevant. It sets a terrible precedent. It has to be my idea to share it, and even then it's always best to disclose the client relationship. Sadly many people forget that.

With Google Plus, that's not really the consensus at all. A lot of general users don't really understand it yet or they don't think much interaction happens there. But that's not at all true. It's usually a case of people not knowing how to use it effectively.

If you're already using Facebook, your information is already being sold to advertisers. That's their business model -- monetizing your personal information. And if you're already there with their long history of shady privacy policy changes, there's really not much harm in using Google Plus. Chances are very good you already use at least one Google product anyway. G+ ties into those accounts.

But I suspect your client isn't asking you to sign up for a link back exactly. They probably use Google Authorship. That's to both of your benefit, and I encourage you to research it before deciding. Simply put, your face can show up in Google search results next to your bylined articles (but Google doesn't guarantee it will -- they're more likely to show it if you become an established authority in a niche).

This can increase clickthrough rates in search results which drives more search traffic to clients. At the same time, it allows your freelance articles to contribute to your own authority status according to Google's algorithms, which in turn could make results on your other articles (including on your own website or blot) also show your headshot. And there is a lot of speculation that Google is slowly moving to an author rank model where your authority status as an author will play a more significant role in your overall search engine rankings.

Sharon Hurley Hall said...

Excellent, as always, Jenn. It's important to value those additional services so your clients will, too. And you have to watch out for scope creep. It may not be a big deal when a client asks you to find an image as a one-off, but if you're suddenly tasked with finding multiple images indefinitely, you're the one that's losing out.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Website or blog... not blot. Oops. :)

Jennifer Mattern said...

Exactly Sharon! :)

Gabriella said...

Thanks for the info, Jenn. I'll have to look more into Google+.

And I have a love-hate with Facebook. I wholly distrust them, which is why I resisted joining for ages. Yet I now enjoy connecting with old friends and with other pages that reflect my interests. So far, I've ended on the side of keeping my FB account. But that could change.

Jennifer Mattern said...

All we can do is figure out which tools work best for us and them our all. :)

Paula said...

The funny thing is, if you're proud of your work for a client you probably want to share it on social media. If they need to require writers to do that, chances are it's probably not something you'd want to share.

Several months ago I had an editor I'd worked with before try to assign me a "man on the street" piece that required the writer to photograph the sources when interviewing them. She even added how simple is was: just snap a pic with your smart phone!

I told her A) I don't have a smart phone and my digital camera is so old and slow I can only photograph inanimate objects, and even then I need a mini tripod so they aren't blurry. B) Even if I had a smart phone or better camera, I am the world's worst photographer so my photos would not be print worthy. And C) I'm paid to write articles, not take photos. If you want photos you'll have to take them yourself or pay someone to take them.

I've got to say I've never heard of a client asking a writer to find an outside editor to review their work. That's ridiculous.

Lori Widmer said...

Excellent point, Paula. If they're requiring you to share, maybe they're not paying enough to attract better writers? Could be they are digging themselves into a pit.

Eileen said...

I will say that for one client, I don't provide images, but I do suggest them. I write really long landing pages and images help support the copy. The client has an account at I go on that website, find images I think would work well in the copy, and give the client the image number. It doesn't take me much time at all, I enjoy it, and the client really appreciates it. It's an easy way to add value to my services for that one client. But it's an exception, and you can bet if it were more involved than that, I wouldn't be offering that service.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Paula -- That's crazy. Whenever anyone proceeds to tell me how "easy" my job should be, I consider it a sign that it's time to run. If it were so easy, they'd do it themselves.

And you'r right on about sharing. If it's worth sharing AND it's relevant to your network, you'll likely share it on your own anyway. But clients have no business trying to force the issue. That's what their own social media accounts are for. Haven't bothered to build a significant social following yet? That's their problem. Maybe they should hire you to help them fix that. :)

As for the "solicit your own editor" issue, one day earlier and I would have thought this was a sick April Fool's joke (still kind of hoping it is):

Eileen -- It's never a bad thing to go a bit beyond client expectations. The problem is when they then change their expectations, increasingly wanting more without paying more for it. Hopefully it will never come to that with your client. In the end we can always work these requests into our rates if they become common enough (and if we want to take them on).

Lori Widmer said...

Jenn, I read that story -- thanks for the link. WOW. I agree most with the commenters, many of whom suggest that troubles began when copy editors were fired. When I was on staff at the magazine, the entire proofreading department was let go. Suddenly, we had no backup. We proofed everything twice, three times before publishing, but mistakes still got in because we were busy doing everything else. Proofing was important, but it wasn't our primary focus.

I agree with so many of the comments that say there should be a zero-tolerance policy for idiot managers who expect spouses and family members to be proofreading.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Amen to that Lori!

Ashley said...

Just read that link, Jenn, and shared it with my hubby whose co-worker asked me about the possibility of copy editing their publication. I quoted them, and they said it was high, which is ironically funny, because apparently they spend THOUSANDS of dollars on photography. My bid apparently came in higher than another person they asked, but the copy editing I outlined (I told them exactly what I'd be checking) seemed more "through" according to the email I got from the mag editor. Yes, that's right - "through." They must need me more than they think ;)

Lori Widmer said...

Ashley, don't you love it when they prove your point? LOL

Jake Poinier said...

I'm late to the party here, but I will shout a big "Amen!" Awesome stuff, Jenn.

Here's one that recently got under my skin: I've been a regular contributor to a magazine that's right at the margin of my pay rate, but it's generally easy to write and fun topics, so I just grind 'em out.

For the last issue, they weren't able to find a photo to accompany one of the 3 article topics, and asked me to write a replacement section. I responded, basically, "Sure, for another $XXX." And they had the cojones to claim that it was a "revision," which I agreed to in the contract. Didn't matter that it was their problem, not mine, that they couldn't get a photo, and that the original copy had been approved.

Yeah, I don't work for them anymore.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Ashley -- That came from their editor? Priceless. When clients are oblivious, there isn't always much we can do.

Jake -- Good for you for leaving them behind! It can be tough to ditch those easier, sure-thing clients. But when it's necessary, it's necessary. Out of curiosity, did you end up making the changes before walking away from them, or did you leave them to figure out their image mess?

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