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Online writing – global sweatshop or goldmine?

By Paul Wallis     Feb 11, 2012 in Internet
Sydney - The rise of online freelance writing has created a very strange dichotomy. On the one hand there are huge numbers of extremely low paid jobs. On the other hand, writing rates at the top scale are rising exponentially.
I'm a professional freelance writer. Naturally, I'm pretty interested in anything to do with writing rates. I do a combination of batch writing and hourly writing fees, depending on the client's needs. So I was naturally very interested to see that the Australian Society of Authors’ quoted rates:
Freelance writing
These rates are based on the 2010 National Freelance Rates approved by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and apply to all genres except poetry. They apply to prose (such as articles or short fiction for magazines, journals or newspapers) which is commissioned on a freelance or casual basis and previously unpublished. See the MEAA website for more information.
• Per day = $878
• Per half day = $585 (2/3 day rate)
• Per hour = $219
• 1000 words or less = $892
• Per word thereafter = $0.89
See also Wilson da Silva’s Short Guide to Freelance Journalism paper.
"Per day equals $878?" That was certainly news to me, and I've been writing for over a decade professionally. Or to put it another way – Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?
Compare this with this article from Word Nerds.com, dated 2009:
Business writing is a profession. Many years of study and hands-on experience are required to become a proficient business writer. If Mr Business Writer charges around $95 per hour for his services, he’s charging much less than other professionals, such as solicitors and accountants, charge for their services.
That is a fair comment. Many employers seem to forget that they are actually paying for experience, knowledge and skills. Very high quality writing is also a very high-value product, and frankly, you don't get diamonds for beans. if you want quality, you should expect to be paying for it.
So far, you've been looking at the Western version of writing rates. By the time you get to India and the Philippines and their rates, you are looking at real sweatshop conditions. The pay scale is unbelievably bad, of itself, let alone in comparison with Western writing rates. If you've ever been offered pay in rupees, you'll know what I mean.The big boom in online writing jobs has also created a working underclass of writers. I've seen some of their work, and some of them try very hard to produce good material, but overall many of the jobs they're given are real "churn" work.
It's fairly easy to argue that quality dictates rates, but that is not usually the case. On Elance, there's a pretty broad spread of writing rates which indicates a pretty obvious preferences on the part of people trying to find freelance writers. "Cheap" is usually the preferred option. A browse through the employers will also show that the overall rate of acceptance and actual payouts varies considerably.
This is important, because Elance is actually one of the best online writing job sites in the world. It has been for years. I occasionally work on Elance and have to say I don't really have any complaints about the site. That said, many of the jobs have rates so low I wouldn't touch them with anybody else's bargepole, let alone my own.
One of the most common arguments made in favour of higher rates for writers is quality. In fairness, the quality of writing varies from excellent to positively horrifying across the Internet. I have quite literally seen deliberate plagiarism in first attempts from brand-new writers. These guys didn't even know that it was very likely that an editor would do Copyscape check or as I did, a complete manual search of specific text.
My comment to the publisher at the time was "This guy wants to give us a lawsuit with every article". This was technical writing, and the writer had deliberately ripped off an Oxford Press publication. Need I say that's what happens when you pay bottom dollar. The writers don't feel themselves under any obligation to produce high-quality materials and are quite prepared to take the risk of losing a low-paying job simply because it's so easy to get other low-paying jobs.
(I am not about to agree with the assertion that Indian and foreign writers are somehow worse writers. Quite the opposite – I've seen many native English speakers who get writing jobs on the basis of being native English speakers and the grammar, spelling and content is nothing less than appalling. That other famous catchall, "tertiary qualifications required" is also a hoot, meaning the fact that writers have qualifications is more important than the fact that they couldn't write a shopping list.)
Another thing that needs to be realised is that low quality copy invariably leads to total failure in terms of the purpose of that copy. People on the internet cannot be forced to read anything,quite regardless of "surefire" sales pitches and other rubbish. If they don't like what they see, they simply won't read it and the entire exercise is a complete waste of time.
All of which lead to one hideous but quite unavoidable fact – Yet again, employers and businesses put themselves in the firing line every time they skimp on payments. This is a pattern which has repeated itself in other industries, but in terms of the gigantic global online writing industry, this is a particularly stupid, counter-productive approach to doing business.
There is another issue, and it's a particularly ironic problem. The very high rates quoted for top end writers may be perfectly justifiable, in some cases. In other cases, they're simply bad business. Imagine charging a start-up company those fantastic rates. Talk about killing the client. The other, quite understandable, result is that naturally people will be in no hurry to pay rates like that. This money comes out of business bottom lines, and employers are in no hurry to part with it.
Freelance writers are in business for themselves. That said, they should recognize the business needs of their clients. I give discount rates to good clients and get more work as a direct result. Creating points of sales resistance is not good business for freelance writers.
There is absolutely no doubt that there is a very strong sweatshop element in freelance writing. These writing farms are getting the quality they deserve for their shoddy payouts. Most people escape or go back to comparatively high paying jobs like fast food or janitor jobs, where at least they'll make enough to eat.
The "goldmine" approach is also likely to come unstuck. There is a huge demand for writers, but there's not necessarily that much capital around, particularly among the large numbers of new online businesses which are generating so much of the work. The moral of the story is "charge reasonable rates and you'll get ongoing and repeat business".
More about Freelance writing, freelance writing rates, sweatshop writing jobs, Online writing jobs, Australian Society of authors
 
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