The problem is that professional freelancers who make their living in print media mistakenly assume several things:
- That you can write the same things online that you did offline. You can't - or at least, it's much harder to make money from newspaper and magazine-style pieces. Writing for readers' casual entertainment is not what Web writing is all about, unless you're a mega-blogger. Being a mega-blogger is great work if you can get it. Otherwise, writing for the Web means providing content for which your readers search instead of stories for their browsing amusement. Confused? Try this example. I love to write about how to write. When I started this blog, I focused on teaching writing techniques, because I like that stuff and because I thought that's what I thought people wanted to read. But they don't, really - or not many do, anyway. What most writers searching on the Web want to know is how to earn a living writing in a world that's changing super-fast. And since I like talking about that, too, here you go.
- That fair pay means pay equivalent to the print market. Nope - that's like comparing apples and oranges. An electron neither costs nor weighs as much as paper and is hardly distributed the same way. And besides, the pay isn't based on the service of writing hit-based entertaining copy. It comes from money stemming from a "long tail" online commerce model - a new model of business exclusive to the Internet. For more information on the long tail, see Chris Anderson's The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.
- That if it doesn't pay a flat fee, it's a scam. Nope. Only if it delivers false promises is it a scam. If it uses a business model that disappoints or exploits its writers, it's that, but not a scam. The Web is full of weird and wild payment and business models, many of them legit in my book. Check out ChaCha.com for a business model I find bizarre and brilliant. Check out any of the zillion revenue share websites, each of them slightly different from each other.
- That money is always made in a straightforward process. No way. Though write-for-hire work is pretty straightforward, money made online by writing revenue share articles is a wonky, irregular thing that emerges from vaguely worded Terms of Service that are nothing like a standard writer's contract. As I've said before, Internet City is still a raw, young thing.
- That quality writing means quality pay. Nuh-uh. Writing good quality content improves your chances of being paid well in the long-term. Writing bad quality content increases your chances of only gaining in the very short term. But "good writing" is no guarantee. There are plenty of brilliant writers online who are not bringing in a brilliant income, or even a dimly hazy income. Although good Web writing really is necessary to suceed over the long term, pay is based on many factors besides good writing.
- That seniority and offline writing credits matter. Sorry. Print credits, while admirable, matter very little to a writer's online writing success. You can start with no credits to your name by publishing on your own and building up your own credits. This is good news for young writers starting out. But for older, more established writers...unless you're a superstar, having writing credits in traditional media gives you only a slight edge over others. And, um, on behalf of Generation X and the Millenials...woohoo! After fighting so long to break into a saturated market where obtaining writing credits was like pulling an ogre's teeth, I'm so very grateful we younger upstarts now have half a chance to compete.
Freelance writers published in print need to learn to think differently about writing to succeed online. The same rules simply don't apply. It's not about what's fair; it's about what is. To start earning money, I had to let go of a lot of assumptions and learn a new writing paradigm, then be willing to put it into action.
I was never a freelancer in print. Rather, I'm a fiction writer. I had near-sales for years before I had a single story published by a traditional-style electronic publisher. And then I began to explore the world of nonfiction freelance writing on the Web and learned that my ideas about publishing were "old model."
The new model of publishing is not only new, it's trending. Writing for print is going away. Writing for an online market is growing and will continue to do so for a long time.
Writing Online Pays Very Well...or Very Badly.
It's hard to find writing work online that pays the equivalent of print or better. It exists. It's just hard to find. I no longer seek it. It's as highly competitive as the print market is and requires writing credits I don't have and (ugh) pitching.
I hate pitching. I hate researching markets, taking the time to write cover letters and follow requested manuscript format, and waiting three to six months on a query, only to find that only agented writers are now being considered. I hate going to writers' conferences and schmoozing with editors. I can take rejections, but I don't have the stamina for that kind of head-beating.
What I really want is to write at home so I can take care of my kid and get paid. I get to do that by choosing among the lower paying markets, though it means putting my fiction writing on hold for a while.
Lower Paying Writing Work is Readily Available...and That's a Good Thing
It's not as hard to find legitimate writing work online as it is to find it offline. Although it pays less well, it pays reliably, and the future looks bright. And to be honest, despite the low pay, I've had better experiences at oDesk, Demand Studios and Textbroker than I ever had dealing with print editors.
For example, a rewrite request at Demand Studios is a bit of a fuss. I must tack on another hour to revise the piece.
But it's nothing like going to a writer's conference, pitching the book to an editor at a major publishing house, sending the cover letter and manuscript, getting called by the editor, being told the manuscript proposal is great but can I cut 100 pages from the book and then resubmit, doing so, acquiring an agent, waiting several months before the editor decides to pass, attending a writer's conference again, pitching the manuscript to another editor, and months later getting a rejection because the market isn't quite ready for that book. For the time I spent dealing with editors and an agent and waiting, I had zero monetary gain and even some loss in postage and conference expenses.
In two hours I can write a Demand Studios article that might not pay very well, but will put more cash in my pocket than my e-book fiction royalties did in a year. I can write many of these a month, if I need to, and it adds up.
Or I can put up a profile at oDesk, apply to a few jobs, get nowhere and focus on other things, then get contacted through oDesk by a client who wants a critiquer for a ghostwriting project, and over the course of several months work for the client, earning not a lot of money, but not a negligible amount either. I came out ahead here, too, for far less fuss.
Or I can write articles for revenue share for HubPages and earn kinda-sorta residual income. (Kinda-sorta because the articles do require maintenance and updating.)
Because it is so easy to find, you may think the work should pay very well. If writers are in demand, we should be paid in kind, yes? Well, yes. And I believe we will be - soon. The problem is that the world of online commerce is changing so fast, nobody knows the value of anything anymore, including writing. We set the price by showing what we're willing to work for.
Web Writing Involves Different Payment Models
Web writing isn't paid according to traditional payment models. In traditional models, your pay covers, among other things:
- your large time investment in finding work
- your time and monetary investment in conducting research.
Web Writing Involves Writing in Volume
It's not just quality, but quantity that's important, at least when it comes to earning by revenue share or doing write-for-hire work for a client (who, if not someone putting together an eBook, is often someone who themselves wants to earn by revenue share). You can't live off of four well-researched stories a year, or even ten - or at least, if you can, I'd love to know about it! You'll need to write a lot of articles - hundreds. Thousands, maybe. If out of the need for cash, credits or writing experience you do a lot of write-for-hire work at places like Demand Studios or Textbroker, you can then branch off with what you've learned to write for yourself. You earn less at first, but in the long run you may earn more.
Professional Freelance Writers Have an Advantage Over Newer Writers
Although print writing credits don't mean much in the online world, professional freelancers who've written in print and sold their work regularly have a couple of huge advantages when it comes to writing online:
- Professional freelance writers write well. The Web is fiercely competitive, and good writing stands out among the schlock.
- Professional freelancers are realistic. They're not writing purists when it comes to their topics. They treat writing as a business and know that writing nonfiction professionally is less about "answering the muse" than it is about writing for a paying market. As a freelancer, you write what the market wants to read. The Web is exactly the same. New writers are often told they should be "sensitive" and "artistic" and write for the sake of personal expression - which is fine, but rarely profitable. Freelancers know it ain't gonna happen that way.