Sunday, January 02, 2011

State of the Industry

I have been a freelance writer for 25 years; that is the length of time I've been filing income tax returns with enough money earned from writing to make it count. While most of my work has been with local publications, I think it is fair to say I have an idea or two about the freelance writing business.

It's never been this bad for me, and I am planning major changes in order to force an improvement as 2011 begins its march toward January 2012. However, I think freelancing for some people is working out very well, and if you are one of those folks who have adapted to this new environment, I salute you, and hope to be joining you in that adaptation in the upcoming year.

So what's going on with the work I do?

1) There are more people freelancing than ever before. Competition is fierce, and unfortunately quality has gone the way of rotary dial telephones. All that matters now is who will spit out sentences that sort of make sense for the least amount of money. Is this the result of the dumbing down of the population, or the culmination of capitalism? I think it is a little of both.

Some of these people will vanish when (if?) the job market improves. The people who are writing for $10 an article for newspapers at the moment will eventually go away. But they will have left their legacy of lower quality work for less money, and that is what many editors and publishers will expect.

Other freelancers, such as myself, are here to stay, including some of the new ones who might like it. I will always be a writer (which is not necessarily the same thing as a freelancer). And even if I end up back in the ranks of the employed at some point, I do not think I will ever stop freelancing. But I would certainly prefer that the decision to have lesser income from my work be of my own choosing and not because the economy is so pathetic.

2) Too many folks are doing it for free. One of the things that has really hurt freelancers is the person who will do it for nothing. Right now I am experiencing this in that one of my former clients has someone writing a couple of articles a month for nothing. Why do they do this? I don't know. They like the byline, maybe, or they want something to do, or they like the experience, or just the thought of doing it. I have on occasion donated my time to a non-profit and it's a feel-good kind of thing, but I can't understand why anyone would work for nothing for a for-profit newspaper or other publication.

The Internet has added to this. Bosses think, "Why pay for something when you can swipe stuff from sources online, whether it  is some half-written article, a photo, or whatever?" Free is free and nobody except the readers (and they apparently care very little) worry about quality.

A lot of companies, non-profits, etc., now expect people to give them writing and photographs for free. I refuse to do this. My time is worth something, and if someone doesn't value my time enough to pay me, they certainly don't value me. Why would I want to do anything with someone who does not value me?

Additionally, the Internet now gives foreign people who barely speak English the option to bid $2 on a piece  - and they will get it. The person they are writing for does not care if it is legible. I mean, come on, have you read a manual or warranty page for a product lately? Who knew grammar could actually be killed like that?

Writing for $2 is about like writing for free.

3) Freelancing is not free. Generally speaking, freelancing is not something you can do for nothing. At the least, it requires a computer. But you can rack up costs for things like a camera, a tape recorder, carrying cases, mileage on your vehicle, scanners, printers, and software, depending on what you're doing. Additionally, there are costs for Internet service, self-employment taxes, health care costs, etc. Add training to that for something special such as web design and you'll soon figure out what a Schedule C is on the tax form and be grateful that you can deduct some of that, because the money earned is not free and you'll have to write a check not only to Uncle Sam but also to your state government if you manage to be successful. This is another reason why I don't understand why someone would want to spend their own money to provide copy for a for-profit company. There are always costs of some kind involved, if only time.

4) Content mills are taking over. These businesses expect someone to write an article for $2 - $15 and and be grateful for the work. The articles, if one can call them such, are formulaic and written specifically for "keywords" and for website optimization. These articles are not about offering information; they're about getting the click (that is, getting the click on the accompanying advertisement so the pennies will roll in). If one is able to write these pieces quickly, making a decent sum of money may be possible, provided the writer is able to put dignity aside and go with the flow. I confess I am not a fan of content mills, though I hesitate to say I would never write for one. Never say never.

So these are some of the problems I am facing with freelance writing at the moment. I think it will change again within the next five years; what I don't know is if it will be better or worse. Would I advise someone else to do it? It depends on the person, but at this juncture I would not advise anyone to quit their day job. I would have said differently pre-2000.

Fortunately, I know where my shortcomings are. I don't network enough, introvert that I am, and I am not aggressive in my marketing of my talents. This, and other things, is something I must work on in upcoming months.

At least I have a goal.

Want to read more about the state of freelancing?

This article talks about freelance business journalism. It calls writers in this area "grossly underpaid" at an average of $25,000 annually.

This article, written earlier in 2010, talks about the rise of freelancers (estimates from 10 million to 13 million or more are not uncommon).

This article talks about what it's like to be a freelance photographer (30 percent of the time taking pictures and the rest trying to market or land a job - sounds about right).

This article talks about content mills.


  1. "These articles are not about offering information; they're about getting the click"...that's a problem not only for freelance writers but for the readers as well. We live in times that require us to have better information not just more. Good luck to you. Good luck to us all!

  2. Writers these days can't even get history right. Did you see this?

  3. Di, this is what happens when quality doesn't matter anymore. I think it terrible.

  4. Sounds like freelancing is like everything else these days - companies are not willing to pay for quality work, they want to go the cheapest route.

  5. I'm always surprised at how much time writing takes compared to how little pay it brings.

  6. One of our local publications uses writing from people who do it for free. I think these people like the byline. They feel like celebrities. I entertain myself with how bad the writing is every week. But it's getting old. The newspaper wonders why it's losing subscriptions. It's not just politics. The writing is terrible. In Kurt's and my business, when things are tough, we compete by giving a better product and better service and WE take the hit. We'll be around when this all blows over.


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