Are writers undervalued and underpaid?

Today’s post was provided by an individual who, for obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous.

Any writer who has been looking for a job recently knows that many employers – primarily those who want website content — don’t think very much of us. Are we really underpaid and undervalued or just paranoid?

Some employers want writers to work for free or, at most, pennies on the dollar while producing SEO content at a maddening pace. Other employers want a new generation of writers proficient in website design, video content and myriad other non-writing skills, and they still want to pay pennies on the dollar. It feels as if the gap between what employers are willing to pay and what we deserve is wide and ever widening.


A true story

In mid-September, I responded to an advertisement on Craigslist for a “Feature Writer for Multiple Content Sites.” This Internet marketing company was “looking for writers to create medium to long length feature articles in the following niches: Technology, Small Business, Finance, Statistics.”

My detector of all things that stink was activated when I came across this gem in the ad: “Basically you need to be able to … have the pulse of the market.” Since I didn’t expect this job to be lucrative, I figured I had nothing to lose in emailing to ask if they would prefer a writer who has her finger on the pulse of the market.

When I send out these snarky, modestly provocative “cover letters,” I always expect the person on the receiving end to take offense and trash my email, and wish that  I could hear the satisfying sound of my resume being tossed in a desktop garbage bin. For that reason, I’m always stunned when I get a response. This employer responded.

“More content samples?”

In my cover letter I included a link to my portfolio which contained more than a dozen individual writing clips and several more links to projects, blogs and packages that I’ve worked on. The COO responded:

September 9, 5:09 a.m.
“more content samples?”

I was slightly annoyed but not surprised. This was, after all, the genius looking for a writer who has the pulse of the market. I wrote back to explain how the online portfolio works (click on the tiles to see samples), provided another link to a less technology challenging online portfolio, and waited.

Next day, 7:27 a.m. 
My wife walked on in as I was reading one of your articles : P
anyway would you like to give it a try? What are your rates?”

Round and round we go

September 10, 9:17 a.m.
“I need more information about what you’re looking for. I can charge hourly – from $30 to $50 or so. I can charge by post: $.50 to $1.00 per word, or from $50 to $500 per post. It really depends on how time/research intensive it is. Whether you need interviews or if it is online research only.

9:18 a.m.
say interviews of professors and such?”

 My frustration was activated in full.

9:21 a.m.
“I feel like you’re not being very forthcoming — making me think that this is not an authentic job offer. In order to price the deliverable you advertised, I need to know the topic, word count, where you’re publishing.

A 400 word blog post runs $200; I can also charge $30 p/h.”

I did not expect to hear from this man again. I had intentionally spiked my going rate because I was aggravated and wanted to see what a little provocation would do. This is what it did.

 9:23 a.m.
“a 400 word blog post is $200???? No thanks.”

9:29 a.m.
“You can pay $5. You’ll get $5 writing. Good luck.”

9:30 a.m.
“I don’t pay 5, I don’t pay 200 either. god bless”

 9:40 a.m.
“Then perhaps you should tell applicants what you pay so you don’t have to go through this again. Then, only the people interested in working for that rate will apply.

Even for $20, you will get writers who have the pulse of the market. For writers who have their finger on the pulse of the market, you may have to pay a livable wage. Writing is a career. Not a hobby.”

I figured that that would shut him up, but in six short minutes … ding! Another email. I must have tipped the scales in favor of struggling writers everywhere.

9:46 a.m.
“If I want interviews with people in the criminal justice industry; Interviews that typically run 500-800 words, how much? This would be professors, heads of organizations etc.”

Lesson learned

I never did respond. With every step forward I tried to take, this schlub took two steps back. I doubt  that I would have ever convinced him to pay a living wage to a writer. I can picture him forwarding this correspondence to his bowling league, getting a real kick out of some outrageous writer’s gall at asking for so much money for such an easy assignment, work that anyone who can write a birthday card could manage, if only he had a spare six hours.

The other reason I didn’t respond is that I honestly don’t believe that this guy would know good writing if it jumped off the page and slapped him in the face. Copy populated with passive voice and awkward syntax would go unnoticed, so much so that I even entertained the idea that doing bad work for bad pay might be a legitimate option. Maybe this employer actually taught me a valuable lesson. Perhaps online marketers like this one aren’t really undervaluing writers. Perhaps the writing they want requires so little skill and talent that it really is worth $5 to $20 per page.

I have no doubt that this COO will find a writer with the pulse of the market. He’s going to pay his writers next to nothing and he’s going to get bland, awkward writing. I’m sure he’ll be very satisfied.