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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Writers Worth: That A-Ha Moment

What's on the iPod: White as Snow by U2

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Sheri Harris is a lurker. I know this because every now and then I get an email from Sheri with either a comment or some relevant tidbit that would be perfect for this blog. A few of the posts you've read here over the years were inspired by questions or comments from Sheri. She makes great suggestions and has intelligent questions.

A few weeks back, Sheri sent a link to an article about rising rates for freelancers. She commented on how CNN, a national source, was lending credit to our call for writers to demand fair rates. Sheri probably thought I'd write a blog post about it.

Instead, I turned the tables. Sheri is someone with some great ideas and a keen eye. No way I wasn't asking her to write a guest post! Sheri, thank you. I appreciate your contribution, your words, and your voice. Thanks for being a stalwart cheerleader, behind the scenes, for a writer's worth. And you're no longer behind the scenes. :-)

Writers Worth: That A-Ha Moment

by Sheri Harris

When I saw this CNN Money article a couple of weeks back reporting on rising freelance rates, it was perfect timing for Lori’s Writer’s Worth Month. The fact that a national news source like CNN is now acknowledging the hard lessons learned by those who hired on the cheap will hopefully encourage more writers to remain firm on their rates.

What struck me was how different the narrative is today from the slew of stories appearing around 2008-2010. That was one of the toughest times I’ve seen for writers in the 20+ years I’ve freelanced:

- Many articles were advising U.S. freelancers to adjust their expectations and compete in the “new global economy”…matching the abysmally-low rates overseas contractors were offering.

- Excited housewives and students were often quoted in these stories, exclaiming how easy and fun it was to earn $20 or $50 in extra spending cash, writing articles in their pajamas. Apparently, this was the new freelance “dream”.

- At the same time, some industry folks started questioning whether copywriting as a stand-alone profession was headed for obsolescence. I saw a lot more staff employment ads tagging on writing as an afterthought: “seeking admin assistant/writer”; “production designer/writer” and my favorite: “web coder/copywriter”.

What a difference a few years – and a few million failed outcomes – can make.
Clients are discovering they vastly underestimated the difficulty of professional writing: it’s not exactly a skill most coders, assistants or even professional marketing managers can pull off well. They also learned that time wasted reworking bad copy and customers lost to unprofessional messaging is not worth the dollars saved.

The next time someone pressures you to do work at low rates or for free, remember that good writing is a specialized skill that drives readership and revenue. It also helps to remember that many of these same clients earn decent paychecks or business profits, in exchange for their own valuable skills, knowledge and time. This allows them to pay their bills; buy insurance; support families; fund 401ks; enjoy movies and dining out; and take occasional vacations. Why would they expect their fellow professionals, (that would be us), to share our expertise and time at rates that won’t allow any of that?

What if your client is struggling too?
It may sound uncaring, but if they can’t afford professional writing, you need to move on. If you want to help because you support their cause, that’s admirable. Just make sure you limit your time and find additional clients who can afford you. The more stable and successful your own business, the better a position you’ll be in to generously give back to others.

What plumbers (and electricians and painters) know that many writers don’t…
This is my favorite example: independent plumbers in my area charge around $85-100/hour. Can you imagine the reaction if I asked them to install my toilet for $20/hour instead? Or suggested they fix my leaking sink for free, (so I can evaluate their skills) before I give them the paying gig to install my toilet? No plumber in their right mind would do it.

It should sound equally silly when you’re offered the same “deal”.
If clients value good writing, they’ll pay professional rates. If they don’t value it, are they really your target customers? Constant discounting and freebies are not sustainable ways to build a business or earn a decent living in the long run.

Was there an “aha” moment or a nightmare job that finally convinced you to turn down low-ball rates for good?

Sheri Harris supports corporate and agency clients with senior-level messaging strategy and copywriting services for business-to-business, business-to-consumer and business-to-government target audiences.


Jennifer Mattern said...

Great post Sheri. :)

I know quite a few of us who frequent Lori's blog were speaking out against content mills and clients with absurd expectations throughout those years. While it took them forever, it's nice to see larger outlets finally joining the chorus.

It's just a shame that, at the same time, we have large publications and other media outlets starting to ask writers to work for them for free or revenue share. Clearly they haven't all learned yet. Let's hope it doesn't take another 4-6 years for them to wake up. :)

Cathy Miller said...

Good to see you here, Sherri. Thanks for sharing the article and your insight.

I started freelancing during those tough years. I never said I was strategic when I made the leap from corporate to freelance. ;-)

I had never heard of content mills. I was appalled at what I found. Fortunately, my corporate experience proved a person did not have to accept that arrangement.

I love the plumber/electrician example. The bottom line, it's up to us to respect ourselves and the skills we possess. Great post, Sherri.

Cathy Miller said...

My apologies, SHERI. I misspelled your name. I'll blame it on old eyes and too little caffeine. ;-)

Lori Widmer said...

Jenn, you've spelled out exactly the problem working writers are now seeing -- those who understand that talent deserves fair pay and those who won't think beyond their own need to win some content war. I'll continue to work for people who value what I can give them, but who's to say in a few years the cheap mentality won't permeate the atmosphere?

Cathy, me too. I was shocked at the rates some writers were accepting -- or worse, bidding -- just to say they're writers. It couldn't have been for cash at those rates.

Eileen said...

There was no one AHA moment for me, but rather a gradual realization the first couple years I was freelancing ... that the clients with the lowest budgets were also the highest maintenance. With very limited budgets, they try to get the absolute most for every dollar they spend. Not only that, but those with lower budgets typically need to be educated on the value of a professional writer. They figure if we're too expensive, Mabel at the front desk, who got a degree in English literature in 1979, can do the job just as well.

Lori Widmer said...

So very true, Eileen. I've had that same experience -- the less they pay, the more they expect.

They probably don't value Mabel much, either. ;)

Susan Lennon said...

I had an "aha" moment when I saw an old quote along the lines of "if you think it's expensive to hire a professional, just wait til you hire an amateur."

I recently used it with a Fortune 100 company that was haggling with me on the price of a white paper.

My competition came in at half of my quote. However, this person had zero experience with the complex topics at hand.

I landed the gig, and delivered a first draft that SVP said was "really great." Later I learned that they'd haggled because they always had problems with writers turning in projects that were off the mark and that they had to rewrite.

That's when I put that line to work :)

They are now one of my anchors.

But I was willing to walk away from the job rather than cut my price in half.

Great post, Lori and Sheri.

Jake Poinier said...

Nice piece, Sheri, and thanks for calling attention to the CNN article.

I never had an option/temptation to lowball, because I was the sole wage earner in our household, with a stay-at-home wife and two kids under 5 when I started out freelancing. I'd been in editing and publishing long enough to know the rates that I needed to survive.

So, for me it was generally easy to say "no," although in the lean times I took some assignments that were crappy, simply to get SOME money coming in. The worst was a piece for a local sports rag that paid something like 15 cents a word, and the editor was a complete tyrant. I told her to GTH after the second round of revisions.

Your point about the struggling client is an important one. When you take a lifesaving course, the first thing you learn is "if someone starts to drown you, get the heck away from them." Same thing applies to clients, and you can't feel bad about it.

Jake Poinier said...

Forgot to add, to Jenn's point about Demand Studios. I took a look at their 5-year stock chart the other day, and it's a doozy:;range=5y

It took a while, but the market finally recognized them for the garbage they are. I just wish I'd been smart enough to short the heck out of their stock.

Gabriella said...

So much good stuff here, starting with the plumber's example. Perfect!

Also great is the Demand 5-year stock chart. I've read that publishers are starting to wake up to Demand's drawbacks. Goodie for we professionals!

It's so simple: You get what you pay for. Great post, Sheri.

Ashley said...

Well said, Sheri. Love your insights.

One more reason clients should be wary of writers who accept the $20 jobs: Those writers are lazy. They either don't want to put forth the effort to market themselves and find better gigs or they don't know how to do it, in which case they're too lazy to educate themselves and learn how. If those writers are lazy when it comes to their own business (or hobby, in many cases) why would the client think the writer would put time and talent into the gig?

My a-ha moment was when I did my research and found writers who were making $100/hr or more. So I learned it was possible to make livable rates. Then I went on to learn how :)

Sheri said...

Thanks, Jennifer: I remember reading all those was a breath of fresh air at the time.

Cathy: no worries on the misspelled name...there are 10 diff ways to spell it. How often does anyone strategically plan their freelance debut? It's usually a final straw sort of situation: "can't take the commute, politics, boss, or all the above one second more" moment.

Eileen: low budget clients almost always = high volume stress...isn't that the truth?

Susan: I may steal that's really good :)

Jake: I sometimes wonder: if every freelance writer was faced with the responsibility of being the sole family breadwinner, would we all be much further along in rate levels as a profession? So many do this part time or for extra cash, which may not carry the same motivation to demand liveable wages.

Thank you everyone for your comments.

Paula said...

Now that Lori's lured you out of lurkerdom, I sure hope to see you commenting here more often, Sheri.

I've probably mentioned this before, but about 15 years ago a trade publication I'd contributed regularly to for a couple years was bought out. I'd been earning 50-cents per word under the old management. The new editor wanted to assign me a 600-word piece (with 12 sources, if I recall), and oh, the rate was down to 10-cents a word.

Money was tight at the time, but I didn't hesitate to say no. I told her she wanted too many sources for such a short article, making it too much work for a mere $60. She countered by claiming it was "easy" work. I wished her good luck with it, because I sure wasn't going to do it. Even at five times the price I would have refused to cram 12 sources into 600 words.

Sharon Hurley Hall said...

"good writing is a specialized skill that drives readership and revenue" - well said, Sheri. You make some great points here that all writers can use to illustrate their worth to clients.

Sheri said...

Paula: Funny how the lower some clients try to negotiate you down, the "easier" the work magically becomes, according to them.

Thank you for your comment, Sharon.

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