Reality of the “Creative Class”: Outsourced and Outbid by Mediocrity
Led by cost-drivers and faulty notions of management, businesses abandoned the Creative Classes with hand-over-fist outsourcing. They discovered writers and designers from India and East Europe who worked at a fraction of cost. The product wasn't great, but it was "good enough." Years later, businesses wake up and realize that "good enough" mediocrity was never good enough.
An important lesson of the "age of outsourcing": businesses lose when they don't reward excellence.
The downturn in the writing market really hit the fan around 2005. "Before" was a marketplace where good writers hung onto good clients for 5 to 10 years. Experienced freelancers worth their weight easily found work that offered pretty decent fees. But that was then.
From about 2002, I had contract work with a software engineering firm writing tutorials and training manuals. The work was hardly glamorous, but it was steady. And back then, technical writing paid well. Then new management came in. First they let go the in-house writers. Then the contractors - one-by-one - saw their contracts expire. I was one of the last freelancers to be handed his hat out the door. It wasn't that the company didn't need technical writers. They had lots of work. New management wanted needed to shave off a few dollars to make the company more profitable. Attract new investors. So they exported our work to India.
When I first wrote this post back in 2010, I was looking retrospectively to that time for myself. I also noted that 2007 was about the time that all freelance writers felt the pinch set in. The Authors Guild conducted a survey in 2014 and reports that the median income for writers has dropped 24% since the first survey in 2009. Even full-time writers - on average - saw incomes drop from $25,000 in 2009 to $17,500 in 2014. Basically, we were working for below poverty line incomes. I knew things were bad, but not THIS bad.
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, learn your business, and produce good work. A cheap writer you find on Fiverr does not have the professional skills to craft the culturally insightful narratives 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. Moreover, talented freelancers, armed with established business networks and portfolios, still manage to eke out a living. Yet, I wouldn't want to be just starting out - 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 sharpened my awareness for quality as I pursue areas of improvement. I learn by asking questions and grow by 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?