Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Biggest Problem Non Fiction Writers Face Today

I don't normally post discussions about my 24 year career as a writer/reporter, but I am making an exception because there is a heinous problem for non fiction writers that has reached epidemic proportions during the past two years of economic crisis.

The problem is that there are web sites, email newsletters, and other print and digital venues that are scamming writers by offering them jobs or projects that pay a dollar an hour or less. Some are paying $10 per article, or $15, but those people are asking for research and rewriting for free, even as they want to pay this paltry amount for the high quality content they say they require.

As newspapers and magazines close or strip down their staff to the bone, journalists like myself are finding it nearly impossible to make a living doing what we love and were trained to do. Add to that the rise of these lowball publishers and outright scammers, like, (which pays per click, so most writers make a few dollars per article, at most) and what you are left with is writers having to change careers or work menial jobs just to get by, because they can't bring in enough money to pay bills or mortgage or car payments by working for pennies or a couple of dollars for hours of research and writing. At least most menial jobs pay minimum wage, which is over 8 dollars an hour here in Washington state.

Unfortunately, too many young "newbie" writers or gullible writers are willing to work for next to nothing so they can say they have online 'clips' for publishers to view. Really, though, most publishers who pay decently are not going to be trolling these scam web sites for writing talent, because they already have piles of resumes from qualified writers that they can delve into and know that they are getting quality writing for their money. "Exposure" on these sites doesn't really pay the bills or help the writer at all.

I recently read an article in the email newsletter Writer's Weekly from a woman who was determined to stand up to these "mill" sites that use up writers crazy enough to fall for their scam, and leave them burned out and impoverished. I responded to the author of the article that I am with her in boycotting these sites and demanding decent pay for writers hard work. My letter was published in this weeks Writer's Weekly in the "Letters to the Editor" section, at

Today I got an email from the Women in Digital Journalism site that pointed me to an article by Carol Tice, about the reasons why she refuses to write for chump change, too. I couldn't agree more with her reasoning.

Here's the URL to the article, and an excerpt:

7 Reasons Why I Won't Write A $15 Blog

1. I'd rather quit writing. If that's all I'm going to make, I'd rather go out on the lawn and play Frisbee with my kids. They'll only be young once. If I can't really pay the bills writing, I should pack it in and enjoy life.

2. I won't be part of the problem. I won't contribute to the current downward spiral in pay rates by accepting insulting pay. If I accept this kind of work, it reinforces the idea that high-quality content on specialized topics can be obtained from professional writers at one-tenth or less of what was, until recently, market rates. I refuse to be part of the problem.

3. Low paying work begets more low-paying work. Say I worked for this legal content sweatshop, and managed to convince one of their clients to work for me directly. Even if the connection helped me land other clients and I cut out the middleman, I'm doubtful the wages would be appropriate. Any client I got through my association with this low-payer would likely also want to pay me joke wages. Once customers have the impression you're cheap, it's hard to convince them that you're not.

4. I'd rather get a day job. At those rates, I could make more money as an assistant manager at a fast-food place, and work on that novel in my off hours. So if it comes to it, I'll do something else to pay the bills. My creativity will be fairly compensated, or I'll earn money another way. I type fast – I have made a living as a secretary in the past, and could again.

5. I want to take a stand. I believe we're at a turning point in the world of online content that requires taking a moral stand. Thousands of scam operators have flooded into the marketplace, hoping to get writers to write for peanuts and then either resell the work for much more, or sell ads against them and make much more, or sell their whole Web site to someone else and make a killing – all off our backs. What they're doing is morally wrong. So my basic sense of decency and justice demands that I resist exploitation. Accepting low-pay assignments may pay a few bills in the short term – emphasis on a few – but in the long term it will foster more exploitation. That's why, for the sake of our vocation's future, it's important to refuse.

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