Freelance Writers Feel The Crash of the “Creative Class”
In our cost-driven, sped up world we've crashed into the culture of good enough. But is it good enough? What do we lose when we don't reward excellence?
The downturn in the writing market has been rolling along for quite some time. When I first wrote this post back in 2010, I was looking retrospectively from 2007 when freelance writers were starting to really feel the pinch. The Authors Guild took a survey in 2014 and reports that the median income for writers has dropped 24% since the first survey in 2009. I thought things were bad until I discovered that even full-time writers - on average - have seen their incomes drop from $25,000 in 2009 to $17,500 in 2014.
Sad to report, that the downturn has become a long-term crash - a new reality has transformed the outlook for nearly all freelance creative work.
Writers Feel the Pinch
You can see the effect in classified ads for freelance writing gigs on Craigslist, Fiverr, and Upwork (formerly eLance). The prevailing rates have been driven down to $15 for 500-word articles; some offer $30, but these have become fewer and fewer as time goes on. There used to be some publications that paid 15c a word (about $100 per article) but they're really the rare ones nowadays. There are a few good freelance writing gigs, but you need a good network of colleagues and friends to get them.
Then there are what I call the "writing adventure" offers - ads, spam emails, and the like that come from pump house marketers that offer one grand opportunity or another for writers to expand their talent, showcase their work, and influence audiences. In my opinion, they're all just using people's desire to break into a difficult field to get what they need: cheap content to sell product. Based on my research, and others, these offers are consistent in only one thing: complaints from writers. If they offer pay, checks rarely come. If they offer contacts with clients, no one ever calls.
When I started my career, there was the common conception that writing was a profession, a skilled craft that was honored by society. The work came with a living wage for even young writers just starting out. Two things happened: downward cost drivers and the need for speed, which have conspired to quicken the flight from quality. When I started out, I could get $1.00 a word. A new writer today is very lucky to find a paltry 13c per word. And all in the space of the last 10 years. That's one of the reasons I left the field as a pure freelance writer. It was disappointing and dispiriting.
As it turns out, writers have a lot in common with photographers. graphic designers, illustrators, architects, musicians - practically anyone involved in the creative commercial arts. The main culprit: after the Great Recession, ridiculously low-cost foreign competition via the Internet.
Welcome to the Global Market
The Los Angeles Times published this story by James Rainey. In the article, Rainey observes that the Internet is indeed driving the world together, but in so doing it has obliterated the economic underpinnings that "once allowed the creative class to make a living." Then Rainey comes back in a later story where he talks with Jaron Lanier, computer programmer, UC Berkeley scholar, and onetime champion of the Internet "freebie culture," who laments:
The dominant tech culture says everyone should just give away their content and their expertise... Then they are supposed to make money later through personal appearances, or selling T-shirts or whatever. That doesn't really help the photographer or the graphic artist who is trying to make a living right now.
Rainey's concludes that the underlying rise "good enough" within all aspects of our society may be the worst aspect of this trend.
The chief executive of one of America's biggest newspaper chains told me a couple of years ago he feared readers would accept this "culture of good enough" as much as anything, not noticing the difference between blog slop and thoroughly vetted news and analysis.
Sad, but maybe true. However, the "culture of good enough" could actually be another cultural driver that has repercussions for a lot more than freelancers trying to make a living in the creative arts.
This is what quality management guru Subir Chowdhury has to say about the "culture."
I believe that today, this moment in our history, we have reached a time when we must acknowledge that we are driven by a culture where “good enough” is at the core of our troubles. We have taken the low road to what we know is right. We have lost the moral high ground to what is expedient, easy, and makes us a fast buck... Meanwhile, we wonder why we feel our quality of life is slipping down, why our expectations have fallen, and we feel less satisfied.
The cheap copywriter or designer in India will never replace an in-country professional who can walk up to your office and learn your business. A cheap writer you find on Fiverr does not have the professional skills to craft the language you need for blogs, collateral materials, articles, white papers - anything of substance, to be perfectly frank. I can name entrepreneurs who have taken that route and wound up replacing almost everything. Maybe "good enough" is fine for the concept business short on funding. But entrepreneurs who are serious about their success don't cut corners on their communications. If they do, they should expect less than satisfying results.
Not all fields are affected the same way and talented freelancers, armed with established business networks and portfolios, are still managing to eke out a living, but I wouldn't want to be just starting out just now - not in THIS market.
About the time I bailed on freelance journalism, I rediscovered specialization in marketing communications. This reopened a few niches for me - market research (primary, secondary), content creation, technical writing, and PR focused social media (which is a real specialty) - stuff that was unique to my core talents. The key to specialization is having or gaining skillsets that will support services - and in that arena, I've been blessed by a broad background of projects. Thanks to my long association with people like Mr Chowdhury, I've also learned how to sharpen my awareness for quality - looking for areas of improvement, asking questions, and acting fearlessly for change. The transition wasn't always smooth, but I've achieved an excellent balance and a stable of clients.
But that's me. I worry about the upcoming talent and what will hold them to a field that SHOULD be vibrant, active, and vital. I wonder what will it take to restore the creative arts to their former glory?