I’ve just finished watching the famous Harlan Ellison rant about writing for free again, after about a 3 year break. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ve embedded it below. It was first uploaded in 2007 and if he was angry then, he must be angrier now, because the only thing that’s changed is that there are more writers out there who are willing to write for nothing or next to nothing. I should know, because I was one of them. In a sense I still am, since I happily blog here and on my other blogs for free, just to get stuff off my chest.
That video obviously struck a nerve, because 5 years later, it is still getting comments. One recent comment says:
I have been a writer and freelance journalist for 17 years now and I dont work that much now because the economy screwed things up for even experienced freelancers like me and the internet is paying jack shit to writers for content for sites.
I cant comprehend the logic of writers getting paid $20-40 maybe $50 for articles 500-750 words when I have made $100-1,000 on such articles.
While I’d love to get paid $1000 for 500-750 words, it’s not going to happen. I think what this understandably embittered freelance writer doesn’t understand is that there is no return for the client on that kind of investment in writing unless the work is by a big name like Harlan Ellison. The world of freelance writing has changed and we writers have to change with it.
A recent discussion on Linkedin asked, “How much do you get paid for writing?” The majority of respondents sidestepped the issue by saying, “not enough.” Those few who answered had complaints like the one above. Only one respondent said that he demanded and got $500 for 500 word blogs and kept the reprint rights. I believe him because he had nothing to gain from lying, but I wish he had explained how he managed to regularly make so much. I asked him if he was a “name” writer in his niche, but he didn’t exactly answer. He did say that he wrote for a trucking industry magazine and used to be a trucking industry executive. When he told me that, the penny dropped: he could command such a high payment because he dominated his niche.
My own most successful niche is in home improvements and cabinetmaking. That’s because I used to be a cabinet maker. I don’t get $500 per post (more like $30-$50. $200 tops for feature articles – never blogs), but I do get regular assignments and am awarded assignments in preference to other experienced freelance bloggers.
I’ve been casually freelancing for most of my adult life. In the nineties, I got on a roll and started submitting articles to print publications fairly regularly. I got lucky, sold most of my submissions and even was asked to write more. I was paid anywhere from $250 to $1200 for those articles, plus extra for photographs. Fortunately, I didn’t make freelance writing my career back then, because I, too, would probably be very embittered now.
Somewhere in the middle of Harlan Ellison’s rant, he says:
And the problem is, there’s so god damn many writers who have no idea that they’re sposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing! Gllg, Gllug! They’re gonna look at me! I’m gonna be noticed! Hhh-hhh! Hhh-hhh!
I agree with him there, but it’s not just unknowns who do that. I recently saw an article in the Huffington Post that had all the earmarks of a free guest post. Curious, I googled “Huffington Post free” and discovered that, yes, this massively popular publication takes advantage of big name writers who are seeking publicity for their latest book. I don’t know what came of it, but in April 2011, the Washington Post reported: Freelancer to file class-action suit against HuffPost and AOL over compensation.
There’s no real moral to this story other than to say that if you’re new to freelance writing, start with realistic expectations, but do start with some expectations. If you offer to write for free or for less than you’re worth, you’ll get plenty of work, but you’ll soon be looking for another job. The bigger the company you approach for work, the more you should ask for. If someone says, “I won’t pay you, but you’ll get great exposure,” don’t take the bait. They are supposed to be your dinner, not the other way around.