From the President's Desk

How Low Is Too Low?

By Minda Zetlin | From the April 2013 Issue

There’s a fake ad that some of my musician friends enjoy passing around. “Looking for up-and-coming restaurant to cater my next party,” it goes. “No pay, but lots of great exposure!” The joke, of course, is that this mirrors the offer that restaurants so often make to them.

It’s a familiar dilemma for all creative people, especially writers, especially these days. Should we ever work for free? How much should we insist on being paid for our work? How low is too low?

Take the Huffington Post, a high-profile online publication that famously pays most contributors diddly-squat. Some ASJA members think this is unconscionable, given that HuffPo, now owned by AOL, can clearly afford to pay writers. Other ASJA members like blogging for the site as a way to build a platform for their books or projects. Both points of view will be represented at what should be a lively panel at this month’s ASJA conference.

But whether you think the Huffington Post is useful or evil or both, choosing to write without pay to get exposure or because you’re writing on a topic you care about for a publication you care about can be a good idea. (That’s how we get so many great articles for this very newsletter.)

On the other hand, writing for a publication that offers little exposure and not enough pay to live on can be a very bad idea. There are lots of writing jobs out there that fit this description and they scare me, because there are also lots of writers out there doing them, which doesn’t bode well for any of us.

Consider “content mills.” The term was coined to describe companies that supply articles in huge quantities, usually in pursuit of the higher search ranking that comes from frequently refreshing content on sites. They may pay as little as $25 per article, or even a lot less. A while ago I met a woman who was desperately trying to make money writing for a content mill at $7.50 per article. The reason she received $7.50 is that through her diligence and lack of typos or other errors, she had received four stars in their rating system; otherwise her pay would have been lower. She was trying to earn a living wage by writing an article every half hour, skipping all research and trying to avoid bathroom breaks. I suggested that if she attended the ASJA conference, she might find clients who would pay something closer to a living wage but, perhaps unsurprisingly, she couldn’t afford to.

How can someone survive on $7.50, or even $25, an article? No one can—here. But many of these content mills get much of their content from people in countries where the cost of living is a lot lower. A small California newspaper created a stir a few years ago when it hired people in India to watch webcasts of town board meetings and then write articles about them. I myself quit a client whose rates were cut after it began competing with an Indian content provider. It’s tempting to assume that if someone is in a Third World country, English is not that person’s first language, and he or she can’t be a good writer. As I learned from that experience, neither is necessarily true.

Writers are up against all these realities when we try to negotiate rates. But we also have to survive, and so does our profession as a whole, and we can’t do it writing for content mills. Just ask the writer I heard about recently who kept taking on low-paying assignments, thinking, “At least it’s something,”—then found she didn’t have enough money to cover her rent.

At the other end of the spectrum is the late Sarah Wernick, an indomitable ASJA member who wasn’t shy about telling other writers the path she’d taken to wealth. She’d decided she would only write for good money, and she turned down so many assignments that her husband finally asked, “If a rate falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound?” She stuck to her guns and eventually her stubbornness paid off. She wound up co-authoring bestselling books about women’s health that paid very well indeed.

Where do you draw the line between enough and not enough? That question has a different answer for everyone. Some advise following a formula: Figure out what you need to make per year and then divide that number by 50. (Fifty-two weeks, minus two weeks of vacation.) Take that weekly number and divide by 20. That’s your target hourly earnings because if you’re self-employed, you’ll spend about half your time on unpaid tasks such as soliciting work or dealing with clients. Only accept jobs that fit your target hourly earnings.

That’s a great formula, and one I probably ought to follow, but I have to admit the way I decide which assignments to accept is the same way I parallel park—I can only do it by feel. But every time I’ve turned down a job because the pay was too low, I went on to find something that paid better. The key was being free to go after other work, not stuck slaving at some low-paying assignment that made me dread the very sight of my office.

I’ve also discovered that turning down work that’s too low-paying feels really good. A year ago or so, a software company executive contacted me. The company had a popular blog about how to run a small business. Would I contribute some posts? He sent me the guidelines, which included payment of $70 per post. Not at that price, I told him. He agreed to a (much) higher price and I wrote a few posts for him.

Then he left the company and was replaced by another exec who wanted to stick to the guidelines—but wanted me to keep writing for them, too. Nope, I told him. Wouldn’t I reconsider, he asked?

“Most of our columnists are happy to get the exposure in our blog,” he informed me in an email.

“Most of my clients are happy to pay me what I’m actually worth.” I didn’t write this in my answering email, of course. I turned him down much more politely. But I thought it. And just thinking it made me smile.

Minda Zetlin

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Minda Zetlin is president of ASJA, a columnist for the Inc. magazine website and author of several books, including The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006), co-authored with her husband, Bill Pfleging. Connect with her on twitter at @MindaZetlin.

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