Telling stories

Hey, Freelancer! You’re not worth as much as you think!

Posted by southwrite on October 18, 2009

Image by Flickr user ianqui.

Image by Flickr user ianqui.

Somewhere in Russia there’s a client who wants me to write a book for him. And, he’s willing to pay the princely (or should I say Czarist) sum of 500 greenbacks

Across America there are other eager clients waving article assignments – usually bunches of them – for about $2 each.

I didn’t succumb to the lure of any of these big spenders, but they can be easily found on websites that offer “freelance jobs.” Among the many other benefits of the Internet is that it’s provided a ready marketplace for the bottom feeders. These are the folks who want something for – if not quite nothing – close to it. The come-ons are for modern gigs offered at 19th century rates. 

Bye bye, job

It’s nothing new. Other industries have been rocked by the drive for outsourcing and offshoring. Auto and textile workers, along with computer programmers, had just realized a pretty nice middle class lifestyle when they found their jobs shipped to various low wage nations. While human capital is slow and often stuck at a particular location with fixed costs such as mortgages and car payments, financial capital can move at the speed of light seeking the lowest prices anywhere in the world.

Outsourcing led to many workers being downsized and then rehired as “independent contractors.” They got higher hourly rates, but had to provide their own desks and health insurance often translating into both lower and more uncertain incomes.

Now even those rates are threatened by an economic recession (that’s creating even more freelancers) and more sophisticated low wage countries that are eager to provide the same services at a lower rate., an on-line California newspaper, announced it was getting rid of its local reporters and replacing them with India based writers. The off-shore journalists would cover city council meetings via web cam.

Low everyday prices

A while back I ghosted a book for a client who asked me to help him with self publishing the work. He wanted to use an India-based graphic designer to do the layout. He was excited by the idea that the guy was willing to do the whole project for about 300 bucks. The lowest bid I got from state side designers was into the (low) thousands. It quickly became clear the offshore worker didn’t know how to do a few things – like creating an index – and so my client reluctantly agreed to go with the low bid American.

Looking back I see he was suffering from the Wal-Mart effect. It’s manifested in the belief that everything is a commodity making price the sole consideration. It was hard convincing him there was a difference between a hardworking Indian and an American with more advanced skills. Clients and customers under the sway of this kind of thinking tend to react with anger that someone is charging more for a service than another worker somewhere else in the world.  

In the end my client wanted a quality product, but there are growing numbers out there who simply want to see how low you can go. You can always drive costs down and in the process boost your own profits. It may not matter to you whether the people who are making your goods and providing your services are able to make a living. If they can’t do it then you can find eager workers somewhere else who don’t have such high overhead or lifestyle expectations.

The high cost of free work

Which brings us back to the bottom feeders I cited earlier. Writers are taking on those jobs at rates that many of us find unacceptable. Some are even doing work for free in exchange for that ineffable reward exposure. As Michelle Goodman notes at The Wealthy Freelancer, “No one ever bought groceries with exposure. The 20.9 million Americans working as consultants, freelancers, and small-business owners do not keep a roof overhead by getting paid in exposure, or “PIE,” as I call it.”

The problem is the advantages of taking these jobs is limited. Getting exposure on The Huffington Post may lead to bigger gigs, but its doubtful a two dollar article is going to advance the career of anyone with any experience.

So how do you keep your own rates from being driven down by the growing hordes of low payers? Here’s some ideas:

Be a real professional. Writing or graphic design is not a hobby, so treat yourself, your work and your clients like you mean business. Do excellent work and do it on time and on budget. Deliver those extras that endear you to hard pressed clients.

Market like you’re special. Figure out what’s unique, different about valuable about you and the services you offer. In a competitive world where others are offering the low priced and second rate, you have to rise above it. It may be a niche or expertise that can’t be found offshore or even across town. Develop it and make it work for you.

Leave the PIE on the table. Be choosy about your clients. Sometimes we get nervous about how we’re going to pay the bills and think maybe those jobs don’t look so bad. Filling up your schedule with low quality work is only going to drive away better clients.

Get Tough. And, finally, being successful in a competitive field is mental. If you want to earn the big bucks you have to decide you’re going to do whatever it takes. You’ll need to push yourself that extra mile, learn that new skill and do marketing even when you’re rather take a nap. Those who do won’t be worried about anyone no matter what country’s they’re in.

6 Responses to “Hey, Freelancer! You’re not worth as much as you think!”

  1. Bravo, Randy! What a great post! I feel the same way. And, you’re right, it’s only getting worse with the downward-spiraling economy. I just wrapped up my own blog post about whether freelance writers should ever offer special “discounts” or “coupons” or “sales”–or whether that would only devalue professional writing even more. I’ll never apologize for my rates, which are hardly commensurate with the guy in India, but I do wonder, sometimes, if people needs some kind of economic incentive (beyond the obvious ROI of effective copywriting) to make the sale? Anyway, thanks again for the post!

    –Rachel Rose

  2. Jacqui Chew said

    Great post. Read it in the nick of time. Won’t be taking that marketing assignment.

  3. southwrite said

    Thanks for the kind words! As for discounts and coupons: Would you expect a coupon from your doctor or attorney? Would that cheapen their services? I think that everyone offers some kind of discount at one time or another, but it depends on the client. If you want others to value your services then you have to value them as well.

  4. Preston said

    Great post Randy!

    If we are going to be self-employed, we must walk, talk, and think like one who is self-employed. We should build six month, 12 month, and two year goals. Avoid the vicious cycle of look for work, work, get paid for work, and then look for more work.

    With a 12 month or longer view and marketing tips you recommend, the freelancer can fill their plate with worthwhile projects. I’ve been attending the Copywriting Success Summit and the various presenters and panelists have offered outstanding tips, techniques, and advice.

    Thanks for the great post.

  5. Excellent post, Randy, and one that is especially timely in this economy. Writers and other creative professionals need to know that although the economy is in a downward spiral, there are still plenty of people willing and able to pay for good, quality work. Enough with what Zig Ziglar termed “stinkin’ thinkin'”. The only limit to your own abundance is you!

    • southwrite said

      Thanks for the kind words. Yes, everything and everyone seeks its own level. As writers we have to ensure that we provide the kind and quality of work that our customers are willing to pay for. In addition, we must have the confidence in ourselves and our work to ask for the compensation we want.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: