Monday, February 15, 2010

Can You Still Make Money Writing Online?

The shortest possible answer to that question is "no" or "not much," but a better, more accurate answers is, "Yes, but it's a lot of work and you have to constantly change your game, and even then you aren't likely to get rich fast."

I'm going into my third year now of writing online for pay, and for what it's worth, I do have some observations and thoughts about how things are evolving (or devolving). Take them or leave them as you will. They're just my personal opinions, not facts carved in stone:

1) In 2007 when I got my first five bucks from Helium, the prospect of writing for websites and getting paid too was heady stuff and fairly new. That first five bucks beat anything I'd ever made from my publications in literary journals (usually you get paid with copies and bragging rights for that), and I remembered, briefly, how nice it is to get money for doing something you love. Money is not everything, but it isn't nothing, either. Money can be nice. Enough money is very nice. Too much money is lovely. Most of us are happy if we can just scrabble together enough.

2) Since that first five bucks, the net has gotten a lot more crowded with people of all stripes who are trying to wring five bucks out of it, or fifty. I used to get great clients at the job boards (especially at Elance) and for over a year I made money there that was comparable to the salary I'd earn at almost any job I've ever had or am likely to get in the midwest--about $25 per hour if I kept my head down and didn't screw around too much. I made that money by constantly trolling for work, learning the 'red flags' that said 'this client is trouble', exceeding expectations, and handing the work in early so I could get my money and move on to the next thing. I worked fast, with focus.

I also rarely accepted work for which the money wasn't placed in escrow up front (with escrow, the client pays in advance, the payment is held by the job board, and the client releases the payment to you when the work is turned in). But over the past six months or so, as more and more out-of-work people crowd these boards hoping to pick up some much needed cash, the situation has reversed itself.

At this point, I'm finding that the writers at these job boards are often way more professional and respectable than the clients they have to court. You've got people who used to make real money in publishing and journalism trolling for penny-per-word work from people who can barely spell k-a-t and are basically, well, thieves.

These people often screw with you, even when the money is escrowed. They'll post ten articles needed and ask you to rewrite them so they get 30. They'll post per-job work and let you know afterward they want you to write 'x' number of words per five minutes. They'll ask you to write one thing and come back with, "I changed my mind, now do this and this and this." It's not the same as it was when I first started drumming up work there and people were still mostly decent, if you were careful about who you chose.

Many people like to blame India for driving down rates at the job boards. (India gets blamed for everything these days it seems.) But I think the bulk of the blame goes to a new model in which advertising dollars are no longer dependent in any way on quality content--a corporate model in which there is little protection for anyone trying to work, period, let alone work by freelancing, alone. It's kind of like the Wild West out there right now. When I left my day job, everyone was shifting from an hourly wage model to a sort of low-rent 'draw against commission' model, and the bennies were tanking too. I hope this trend won't last, but for now, it's kind of ugly all over.

3) So if you mean to wring money out of these barracudas, you have to always be changing your game. It's good to have half a dozen different venues and work a bit at all of them if you can. Yes, that's exhausting. No it won't make you rich. But I'm not addressing the question, "Can you get rich doing anything online?" I'm addressing the question, "Can you still make money writing online?" You can still make a little money writing online. Not much. You'll have to do lots and lots of work for it. You'll have to put up with lots and lots of abuse sometimes. You will for sure get stiffed more than once.

4) BUT...this too shall pass. Historically speaking, writers as a lot have not been notorious for being consistently overpaid. For every Stephen King raking in millions, there are always 5,000 or more  writers who are just as good but can't get a damned thing in print, never mind make any money off of it.

It has always been thus, and may always be so, but good venues come and go. You can ride this or that wave if you pay attention and are talented and lucky. In Dickens time, good writers could earn a meager living selling serial novels that were printed in tabloids a chapter at a time. In Vonnegut's time, good writers could sell short stories and even sort of pay the bills with what they made selling them. In Normal Mailer's time, writers with agents could write pieces for what was known in the trade as 'the slicks'---magazines that were printed on shiny paper, like Playboy--and they could make a decent living doing so. I personally know a writer who did that. It's much harder to do that now.

The thing to remember here is, all of those venues came and went.

When I was in college, writers paid the rent by writing for "True Confessions" and "True Story" for two cents per word. Now, writers attempt to pay the electric bill, or part of it, by writing for revenue sharing sites and selling their work outright to net-preneurs and PR folks who subcontract some of their work online to freelancers...for about (again) two cents a word. Sometimes "True Confessions" checks came late or not at all. Same with writing online. This will also change, and I think it will change fairly soon, too, because the net is getting pretty saturated at this point with both writers and net entrepreneurs. Every dog has his day. But he's still a dog.

So what can you do to if you are a writer?

Write. Writers write, it's what they do. A dog is a dog and a writer is a writer. It is what it is and what it always has been. Writers write the way walkers walk, plumbers plumb, dancers dance, and so forth. Write about what you care about and write well regardless of what you get. Do the best you can. Never, never take the changing monetary mess out there personally, because it will grind you up and spit you out and then step on you and laugh. Make what you money can, sure, but keep it separate from who you are.

When it comes right down to it, that's all any of us can do, whether we write or don't.


Frieda Babbley said...

Love this article, Uninvited Writer. I'm passing this on. This has been quite the hot topic lately, and what you say is sad but true. Thanks for writing about this.

Frieda Babbley said...

Okay, it would be nice if I could read, lol. Pam, I was going to post this on the eol forum for you. Well, I suppose you already read it seeing as you wrote it. Sorry bout that.

JewelandtheSun said...

Writing for yourself is the best move too. I am not overly impressed with those who blame India, and it is a very eurocentric mentality really. Here India was colonized by the British and people were encouraged to go to school and learn English to give up their "native ways," but years later their descendants are blamed for it. Not to mention how many American companies decide to save a few bucks by laying off American workers, and then hire Indians for a fraction of what they used to pay said American workers. I once saw a documentary about how corporations save millions each year hiring English teachers from the US that come to India to teach the new call certain representatives how to speak proper English. The colonial past, and the corporate present have created a phenomenon where more and more Indians are becoming fluent in the language, but then people blame Indians when they use these skill to try and make a living online. I find it all very sad.

pinkpackrat said...

Amen-- you tell it like it is and like Frieda, I'm bookmarking this and passing it on and I'll keep on writing because I want to and have to and will keep on reading for the same reasons:-)

UninvitedWriter said...

Just want to note that Pamela wrote this article :) It is great Pam, great post.

Pamela Grundy said...

Thanks everyone, and thanks UW for providing this forum for some of us to share our experiences and frustrations about the writing scene. Freelancing is hard, and times are especially tough right now, but things are changing SO fast it's also kind of exciting. :)

(Though not lucrative! lol!)

Bizilady said...

I feel your pain..
yeah,I'm a little turned off to this online bidding game.
I started out writing the penny a word gig but that can burn one out very fast. I may stick to revenue sharing for now and my blogs.
Keep up the good work and write on.

Lita Sorensen said...

Excellent, Pam. I've always admired how you use everything around you to come up with a cohesive piece of... art, basically.

Of course I agree with the premise, :).

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