Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

Freelance writers: the new slave trade? November 11, 2009

If you’ve ever published anything–or have tried to break into the freelance writing industry over the last couple of years–you are all too painfully aware that it ain’t what it used to be.

Major newspapers have closed up shop or slashed distribution. Magazines which once held significant volumes of subscribers have been decimated. True, all that paper and pollution from transportation and distribution is just plain eco-unfriendly, especially when you can get so much info–faster! now!–online. Yet, when new and surviving outlets opened their online operations, shouldn’t they have continued paying writers the same fee for completed manuscripts and assignments? They didn’t. In fact, writing assignments and freelance gigs have hit an all-time low. Where $0.50 per word used to be somewhat low-end pay, I would recklessly guesstimate that more than 80% of the assignments I see listed on aggregate freelance hiring sites pay only a penny per word… or less!

Writer Dawn Josephson, aka The Master Writing Coach, has been a successful writer, ghostwriter, editor, and professional speaker since 1998. She has written over 2500 published magazine articles and 20 books for herself and her clients–and like the rest of us, she would like to keep our profession alive.

In Josephson’s recent article in the ezine, Writer’s Weekly, she writes, “I am so tired of perusing freelance job boards and sites only to see listings that insult me and should insult every other professional writer out there. Just the other day I was on what is supposed to be a reputable site for freelance opportunities, only to see someone advertising that they’re seeking a freelancer to write their monthly newsletter. This is an ongoing assignment and they’d like 3-4 articles per newsletter, with each article being 4-5 paragraphs. And of course, they want “an experienced writer with a proven track record for results.” The pay? $7 per newsletter. No, that’s not a typo. I didn’t mean to say “per article,” although that too would be insulting. And I didn’t forget a number or two. $7! Let’s quickly do the math. If the average paragraph is 100 words, and one article has five paragraphs, that’s a 500 word article. Multiply that by four (the number of articles requested), and you’re talking 2,000 words. Now for the really fun part — $7 divided by 2,000 words is $0.0035 per word. That’s right, less than half a cent per word! But I think what amazed me more was the fact that the posting had replies!!!”

Therein lies the problem. Out of work writers are lining up to commit their time and talent for much, much, muuuuccch less than minimum wage. (Are we suckers for our art? Sigh; When one is truly a writer, oh how she must write. But that’s another story.) For those of us who are making our living as freelance writers, each and every time a writer works on or near pro bono, it brings down the opportunity for decent pay for everyone.

Josephson continues, exasperated: “Come on people! Wake up! What’s next…does the writer pay the company for the privilege of writing for them?” She admits, “Yes, when I was first launching my career I wrote free articles for some trade magazines in order to get a few clips. I even do some pro bono work on occasion for organizations I want to help and support. I give free writing advice to my friends and family and sometimes to strangers at networking events. I know that you have to give in order to get…what goes around comes around…good karma…I get it. But it seems too many companies are crossing the line. And as a business owner who uses newsletters to build my brand and attract new clients, I know how valuable well crafted newsletters are to companies. That 2,000 word newsletter the company only wants to pay $7 for, if well written by an experienced writer with a proven track record for results, could easily generate hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of new business for the company. So to only pay someone $7 for this extremely valuable and potentially profitable marketing piece is insane.” And, in my opinion, unfair.

My friend and colleague  Hilda Brucker echos Josephson’s outcry. She has bolstered my own weakening backbone by insisting I ask to be paid what my time is worth. (Thanks, Hilda.) I am pleased to donate content to non-profit organizations I support, but all too often I’ve let my own writing go for a song in exchange for the “hope” that down the road freelance pay will improve. Why should it when we’re all working for less than one might earn panhandling on a street corner? (Depending on where you live, reports claim panhandling earnings of anywhere from $15 to $200 per day. Hmm. If you set up shop on a corner with a wifi hotspot (outside Starbucks?), you might be able to write the next NY Times best seller, without starving in the process.)

Here is Dawn Josephson’s advice: “If you do decide to write for free to gain clips, the work you produce should not be an income generator for the other person. The free piece should be informational and reader-focused, and should prominently showcase your abilities, not that of the company using the work. The only way we’ll end this blatant abuse of the writing profession is if we unite and stop working for slave wages.

“Ignore those posts that want “experienced writers” to write for free or insulting pay. We need to remind those companies that you get what you pay for, and that experienced people don’t work for nothing. If you want some clips or need some experience in a certain topic or industry, then write for your church bulletin, your industry or company newsletter, or some other publication that will give a boost to your reputation – something you can show others that has your name on it. But stop bidding on assignments that, in the end, only benefit the company paying beans and that leave you tired, overworked, and underpaid.”


10 Responses to “Freelance writers: the new slave trade?”

  1. […] here to read the rest:  Freelance writers: the new slave trade? Money, […]

  2. Bob Medak Says:

    This is one reason I have few assignments. I will not give my work away or accept working for almost free.

    Until writers value their writing, no one else will.

  3. Hear, hear! Write on, Rebecca!

    I add to this beef friends and acquaintances who always call me up for a free edit of their stuff, or worse, want me to do a whole draft for them since they admit they can’t write.

    Yet they expect me to do it for nothing since “it comes so easy” to me.

    I wouldn’t dream of asking my doctor, lawyer or plumber friends for freebies. Why are we writers any different?

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by RebeccaLacko: Freelance writers: the new slave trade? (tip of hat to @hildabrucker)…

  5. Star Says:

    I feel like I am beating a dead horse with a broken record railing about these dopey exploiters–Demand, Ste 101, Hub Pages, Helium, Examiner–cloud computing, citizen journalists–any thing to fill the bottomless maw with SOMETHING–and writers saying meekly, “It’s better than nothing.” It’s not better than nothing–it IS nothing. If some is making money off what you do–then you should be, too! Period. If it weren’t for YOU, there would be no money. In almost 30 yrs as a full-time freelancer and sole support of my family–I am wondering if this is even viable as a business now that the vultures have closed in.

  6. Deb Lamb Says:

    Amen on that sister! I wish I had a dime for every one of those types of ads I have seen that are looking for “experienced writers” and only want to pay them peanuts.

    My sentiments exactly too Bob, that is one reason I don’t have too many assignments right now as well. I refuse to work for peanuts! Ugh!!

    This is SO frustrating and all writers need to band together and refuse to lower our standards. You are SO right, you get what you pay for.

    Thanks for posting this article and I’m sure there are many more out there that would agree with you too!

    Deb 🙂

  7. MikeZot Says:

    Amens all over the place, X 10! In my 9th month of LayOffVille (after 30 years @ newspaper), I almost caved in this afternoon and was going to “apply” to one of the cybermills — but I just couldn’t. Then I remembered rent, lights, phone need to be paid, food needs buying… but I still didn’t. Then this! Gonna print it out and stealthily leave it for my wife to spot, so she’ll know I’m just being too proud, pompous — just kidding. She’s the only person who’s been hearing me. Also forwarding this to the 128 other newsroom LayOffVille residents… Thanx again!

  8. JimJobs Says:


    This is so true, but others just won’t get it!


  9. Julie Barnes Says:

    Hi Rebecca!

    Great post! When I see those listings I get so annoyed. They are very disrespecting to writers. I wonder how they would react if someone offered them a laughable rate. I’m pretty sure they would be appalled.


  10. Zelle Gatoc Says:

    I’m a freelance writer from Asia and I can’t help but agree with you. A dollar converted to peso may mean so much but sadly there are those who trade their services for less than a dollar.

    Thanks for posting this article. You’ve given me a good subject to write about. Hope you can take a look at the other side of the story:

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