February 02, 2009

The Value of Words

I have made my living using words for a quarter of a century. It hasn't been a bad living. At times it's been a very lucrative living. And it's not like I ever had any other choice. I was published at 11, and after that my trajectory was set.

I remember not quite believing the first time I hit a six-figure salary at a big agency willing to pay me that much money to write. They paid it to me because I was a special kind of writer -- the kind of writer that can jump from client to client, project to project, technology to technology, instantly, and be up to speed within hours, honing in on the key key key KEEEEYY pieces of a client's story that my ear tells me will resonate with the market.

Being able to write well is something you learn because you spend all day, every day, for years and years, doing it, not because you were born with some special gift. Sure, some people are gifted, but most writers work hard to become good. They read; they write. Every day.

That's where new media comes in. Suddenly, everyone is a writer. No, really. Everyone IS a writer. People are writing all the time. All day. Every day. Posting and thinking and posting.

Because I started writing websites in 1996 and blogging in 2001, this plethora of great online writing thrills me. It's incredible to read so many people with so much to say saying it so well. Who's been a louder cheerleader for blogging than me?

But, like the indie recording revolution before us, this swarm of great amateur writers, combined with a new means of distribution (the Internet), leaves us pros in a lurch.

Now, mix this evolution of great writers into our current dismal economy, and those of us who once made a living 'writing' are hurting the same way we would have if we had been building carburetors for GM for the last 30 years.

This is not a story you'll hear on twitter. The tweets of the social media elite get faster and more furious -- a kind of machine-gun denial stream of who's meeting where attending which conference lunching with whom waiting for what meeting to start with which big name company or influencer.


These. People. Are. Lying. To. You. And. Themselves.

Let's talk numbers for a minute.

Of course, writing isn't a product that you can always package in a precise word-for-dollar way--especially when strategic thinking is involved. But, I've played around with the numbers during my career to see if there is a formula of effort expended to pay, and there usually is.

The old OLD pay for writers when I started out 25 years ago was $1 a word. During the dot-com era, I was averaging $3 a word. At other times, the average compensation has fallen in the middle. For web content, I've made anywhere from $250 a page to $2,000 a page.

These last two weeks I've been checking out a few sources for writing work, and what I found was more depressing than I even imagined.

Responding to a dozen craigslist postings and 5 elance.com postings yielded four relevant replies.

The first, a woman who uses elance to outsource writing work to folks in India. I was, she explained, overqualified for the kind of work (and pay) she was offering. I did the math. It was pennies a word. She said I was overqualified. I have to think she's right.

The next was a social media blogging gig, two posts per day minimum, with pay of $200/month, preceded by a testing period where hundreds of interested applicants would compete to get this primo gig. To the company's credit, they offered $100 for the testing period.

Next I tried another online micro-job site that posts small jobs requiring a tiny bit (and nothing more) of human intelligence. Sample writing work there? 1000+ word product guides. Pay: $5.00. In 1986 I would have made about $1,000 for that job. In 1999 I would have made $3,000 for that job. Today, some one will do it -- maybe not well, but they'll do it and search optimize it -- for five bucks.

The third was a company owned by a major social media player looking for people to post articles using certain tags. A phone call revealed some interesting things: 1) Hundreds of people applied. 2.) many of them were high level pros 3.) the gig doesn't pay, at least at first. My contact for the job was surprised that so many name folks and pros responded to the job posting. Now, some people would have used that opportunity to say, YES, but I'm the BEST. I said: "That's because NOBODY'S WORKING--ok?"

Eight years ago I started my own business. I've had slow patches here and there. This is not a slow patch. This is a collision of the worst economy of our lifetime and the de-professionalization of my craft.

And it's heartbreaking.

The rise of the commons isn't always easy on the common man. How to balance the beauty and benefits of an open, free culture with food on the table? It's not an unfamiliar dilemma in our family - my husband spent 40 years in the music business.

Of course, those of us who have been around the block and bring MORE than writing to the content table have an advantage. And quality (maybe) still counts. I've branded and messaged and helped build some of the largest and strongest brands in the world. I also have a decade in PR under my belt, and am a pretty well known marketer.

But at the core of it all, I have always made my living with words. And today words are a commodity that can be outsourced and automated. As a commodity, I'm not sure how low the value of words will go.

But if the old adage a penny for your thoughts still holds true, and a thought is probably at least 10 words, then I think we've pretty much hit bottom.

(cross-posted to jeneane.net)


Jonathan said...

I feel your pain, but I don't know that I completely agree - the pennies a word dreck you're talking about isn't writing. It's just WORDS.

Everyone of those "writing" jobs you mention are writing for search engine consumption, not for PEOPLE.

The rise of amateur writers are people writing about the things they know and love. I can do a passable job of writing about youth soccer or software development, but I could no more take a client brief and write something compelling than I can replace a mitral valve.

Anyone with two hands and a spellchecker can write fake product reviews and google bait. There's a reason google has had to add the search wiki functionality.

The problem is that traditional media advertising has collapsed just like software development collapsed after the dot bomb. Advertising money IS being spent, but these days you might be more likely to find a gig writing copy for a second life corporate site, brainstorming messages for a facebook game or scriptwriting for a series of viral videos than anything that looks like traditional copywriting. You can do that stuff - not many can.

Jeneane Sessum said...

Hey J! I get your point, but that's where my complaint (as it were) intersects with our current economic catastrophe: I've done all of those things for the biggest of the big (IBM, Kodak, etc.) and the smallest of the small (web 2.0 startups--pick a card any card...). Problem is: There Isn't Work. SO when there isn't any work of the strategic nature, you turn all the rocks over. I've turned a lot of rocks over in my day. These days, all I'm finding under them are cheap words.

Anonymous said...

less is more.

charge more for less words.

change your name to less.

elision is precision.

impactful, huh?

Zo said...

...so beautifully written. and it is heartbreaking ...

Karoli said...

Get out of my HEAD! As I was talking to myself on FriendFeed early, early this morning, I was arriving at similar, and equally frustrating conclusions.

Jeneane Sessum said...

I think the "I am SWAMPED" experiment is the one to try. Start tweeting how BUSY and OVERWORKED you are - SLAMMED even. You poor thing. Can't POSSIBLY take on any more work. Let me know if it works. ;-)

Jonathan said...

not doing the same thing that you're doing, I can't really compare. Back in 2001 there were pretty much NO jobs for tech project managers. Sure software development crashed, but I'd had no problems finding jobs BEFORE the dotcom explosion.

The problem wasn't so much that there weren't jobs, but that for every decent job there were 300 unqualified applicants drowning out the handful that were qualified.

I don't know where all those people went, but they AREN'T working as project managers any more. Maybe something similar is happening with writing?

jonhusband said...

Thanks for this, Jeneane. So much in there I have thought about time and again.

I am not sure words are words any more .. they are (or were) formed with characters, and it's becoming more about how many characters you use, no ?

I am still not sure how you use Twitter to delve into a subject, other than as a mechanism to take some kind of idea or thought to (possibly) another level.

Jonathan said...

hmph. I've decided that twitter is little more than a time suck. Anything that I really need to know about shows up in my RSS feeds only a couple hours later.

If I was a working journalist, I might use it - and I might use it to watch a breaking news story like mumbai, but the signal to noise ratio is just far too high for me any more. I haven't checked it in weeks.

fpaynter said...

Well, you know where I've been the last few months. Sometimes it's downright embarrassing to research a post, hand craft it to remove all traces of irony and sarcasm and those other things I'm so good at, and then submit it. It probably helps that I like my editor.

I've just started out in the business, so pennies a word is probably fair. I'm weaning myself from the habits I picked up over the years writing passive voice corporate speak. Someday I'll be writing English like it was my first language.

We knew this down-turn was coming when the work began to be aggregated by online publishers as "content" and the print media began to die back.

How I long for the good old days!