Southwrite

Telling stories

Posts Tagged ‘Freelancers Union’

It’s Time for Writers to Say No to Nothing

Posted by southwrite on August 23, 2014

Money HandI don’t know how I avoided it. After all, I’ve been doing freelance writing since the late 1990s, so I’ve been through quite a few booms and busts in the business. Yet, here was the offer. It was delivered third hand through a friend and went something like this, “we would consider your writing for us, but the first article has to be for free. You know so we can determine if our styles match.”

Over the years I’ve written articles for a number of magazines, ghosted three books, and worked for numerous corporate clients. None of them ever said, ‘we want it for free – you know, to try you out.’

Writing, like any business relationship, carries a certain amount of risk for both the author and the publisher. I may not deliver exactly what you want. You may not hold up your end of the agreement or even pay me. Wanting it for free isn’t really about this risk, it’s about cutting expenses and boosting profits. These days, many very profitable publishers pay their writers and reporters next to nothing or nothing at all. (The most notable examples in this category are the Huffington Post and VICE.)

They have no problem finding takers for their nothing. Of course, it’s usually couched in the sweet melody of prestige. You’ll get noticed and the work you do will translate into big (paying) jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately that rarely happens. Writers who publish their work on sites like the Huffington Post find that the strong wind of notice tends to be a mild breeze or a dead calm. There are too many other toilers and too much material to get noticed. Meanwhile, the site makes huge profits for owners with little left over for those who actually produce the material that brings eyes to the site in the first place. Arianna Huffington sold the Huffington Post for a cool $315 million. VICE publisher Shane Smith is likely to go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion making its owner a billionaire. Most other web ventures and magazines don’t make anywhere near that level of profit, but to one extent or another they’ve adopted the same business model.

In one sense this is pure capitalism at work. In the modern marketplace it’s not about the product you offer, but the leverage you have over workers or customers. In publishing, the business model is often based on scamming the producers into giving away their work. Why pay real money that could pay real bills? Instead offer some intangible and mythical alternative based more on hope than actual experience.

Writers are especially vulnerable to this ploy. We create and we have an overwhelming desire to share our creations with others. We want people to read our work as much and sometimes more than we want to be paid. Many novices come to the profession with low self-esteem about their abilities and a fear that nobody will publish them.

This is a mistake and one that has consequences for all writers. The more of us who fall for the writing for nothing scam, the harder it becomes for everyone else to make a living. The profession, in which once many professionals of varying abilities could make a living, has been transformed into a hand to mouth existence in which only the biggest names with the deepest platforms can really make money.

Make no mistake about it, writing is a business in which you have to make money – or you need to do something else. Writing is labor that deserves to be compensated at an appropriate rate.

The long history of labor and management relations has been marked by conflict and even violence over wages and working conditions. As independent contractors, freelance writers aren’t represented by unions (although there are a few like The Freelancer’s Union that claim to be), but we are more like employed workers than we care to admit. We have all the responsibilities of self-employed business people, but are still servants to those who publish our work. As the smallest of companies in this Free Agent Nation, we have little or no leverage when it comes to negotiating with magazines or corporations.

So, how do we deal with this issue – with those who want our work without paying for it? The first step is by realizing that you are a business – no matter how small – and that you must run it like a business. You’re writing to make money and turn a profit. You won’t produce either if you succumb to the enticement of providing something for nothing. I realized that fact when I heard the offer I mentioned above. That’s why I said no and did so without reservation.

It’s time we all said no to nothing.

 

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Posted in Working, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How Many Jobs Does it Take to be a Freelancer?

Posted by southwrite on July 24, 2014

Hire MeIt’s pretty clear now that the old way of working that our parents knew so well doesn’t work anymore. This won’t come as a surprise to freelancers like me who have forsaken the 9 to 5 for independent employment and our own particular brand of entrepreneurship.

This is the Free Agent Nation of Me, Inc. As many see it, the movement toward independent self-employment is reinventing “work” and the meaning of success.

Freelancers Union founder and executive director Sara Horowitz writes “Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding — it’s practical and efficient. Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.”

Having greater control over your own time and doing the work you love is what brought many of us to freelancing.

While most people still work for (mostly small) businesses, the number of freelancers has risen dramatically to about 42 million. While many have willingly chosen this life, quite a few are self-employed because their corporate job was downsized or outsourced. (They had to create their own business to be hired.) Of course, many of the people filling the cubes in offices are considered “contractors.” This legal fiction enables a company to employ someone without the expense of benefits or even a W-2.

A great many younger workers – the Millennials and their cousins – have embraced self-employment. Having watched their parents get downsized, they know there’s no more lifetime employment. That evaporated along with pension plans and retirement parties with gold watches.

While the idea of a Freelance Nation sounds very appealing, you have to ask how much of this is being driven by passion and how much is simply desperation?

Yes, freelancers have definitely redefined the traditional job, but that definition is not always as romantic and in control as our advocates would have you believe. Consider this: 87% of freelancers have more than one gig a month, and 35% have more than four gigs. Instead of concentrating on just one job, they’re cobbling together multiple jobs and employment – which could mean a part-time job at Starbucks when they’re not at a table working on an assignment. The number of gigs they work on a regular basis is a reflection of declining rates and the inability to make a living by sticking strictly to their own particular niche.

Is this the future of freelancing? You can download the entire report here and decide for yourself.

I became a full time freelance writer in 2002. At the time, I was working for a small college at the time that was in the process of imploding. A large number of faculty and staff had already been laid off in the chaos of the school losing its accreditation. I hung on as the atmosphere grew more toxic and my envy for those recently departed colleagues grew.

When I finally left it was more with relief than sadness. The next day I got up at the same time, got dressed and ready, but instead of driving to the office I walked a few steps to the spare bedroom that had become my home office and went to work on a stack of assignments. I’ve never had the desire to work for a full time employer since then.

I’m also realistic about the nature of freelancing in the modern global economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say you’re competing not just with the freelancer next door, but those around the country and around the world. If what you’re producing can be done by others more cheaply, then clients will seek them, find them and forget about you.

As freelancers we face the same challenges and the same prospects of having your market “disrupted” by wily competitors as any corporation – but without the advantages and resources. That knowledge doesn’t make me want to return to the office, but it casts a sobering perspective over this career I’ve chosen.

What to do? Maybe those multiple jobs and streams of income really is the future.

Posted in Life, Uncategorized, Working | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »