Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saving freelancing, one writer at a time

In the spirit of the aphorism "It's better to light a candle than curse the darkness," one freelancer is helping another break away from so-called content mills in order to make a living from writing.

You may recall that early in the year, the Los Angeles Times wrote about the sorry state of freelance pay. In part, the article blamed the recession for cutting the budgets at newspapers and magazines that use freelancers. But it also cited the likes of Associated Content and Demand Media, companies that use armies of freelancers to fill vast websites with how-to and other service pieces.

"Seasoned professionals have seen their income drop by 50 percent or more as publishers fill the Web's seemingly limitless news hole, drawing on the ever-expanding rank of under-employed writers," said the LA Times.

Indeed, an oft-cited reference to Demand shows that the freelance copy editors it uses to read through all those stories for its website are paid $3.50 per piece.

And Demand isn't alone: A quick check of my local Craigslist found a freelance offer from a travel website that pays $20 for a minimum 1,000-word article -- or 2 cents a word. (Compare that to a regional magazine in my area that pays 30 cents a word for freelance feature stories of 2,000 to 4,000 words -- or up to $1,200.)

The trend toward lower pay so infuriated one freelancer that she penned a couple of anti-content mill pieces and called on others to steer clear of Demand and its brethren.

Then, in the spring, came the offer from Jenn Mattern, a freelance writer since 1999 and niche blogger since 2004 who operates a website that provides advice and assistance to freelancers. Her proposal: free one-on-one coaching "to help a freelance writer move beyond content-mill work to something better."

She selected a "winner" from among the pitches received, and has been blogging weekly about the "student's" progress in branding herself via a new website; soliciting clients who will pay at least 25 cents a word for her work; creating a marketing plan; and so on.

It's interesting reading. Will it inspire others to leave the content mills (and perhaps rescue freelancing)? Maybe -- or maybe not. But at least those who do exit will have a road map to follow.

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