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)