Companies hiring freelance writers pay like crap

I’ve been registered on Elance a couple of weeks now, and something has become very clear. I have not submitted a single proposal for a writing gig, even though I am perfectly capable of doing these jobs. The reason is that the companies listing the writing jobs are paying peanuts.

There are two payrates I’ve seen a few times now. One is $1 per 100 words. The other is even worse – starting at $1.50 for 500 words and going up to $5 for 500 words if the writer is producing over 10,000 words per day, putting this upper rate on a par with the $1 per 100 words.

That’s a cent a word.

For contrast, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America considers 6 cents a word to be a suitable rate; writers seeking membership are expected to have sold works of fiction at that rate.

Let me put this in some sort of perspective. Let’s say I write an assignment that’s 500 words. At my fastest, when I’ve prepared in advance and know what I’m writing, when I don’t have to worry about typos and grammar, I can put out a maximum of 800 words of a first draft in 30 minutes. But that doesn’t include research, it doesn’t include planning, it doesn’t include editing and proofreading. Adding all that in, and I could maybe produce a poorly researched article of 500 words in one hour. For a well researched article, it might take two or three hours. For my Magical Creatures for Magical Worlds articles on Mythic Scribes, I’m outputting 1,000 word and up articles and they’re taking me up to five, maybe six hours of research and an hour or more of writing. For the Phoenix article I think it was closer to eight hours of research, two hours writing the first version, and an hour and a half writing the second version.

So if I get paid $5 for a 500 word article, I’m getting paid $5 an hour – or less if I put some decent research into it. Which I would, to be honest. So let’s say it’s actually $2.50 per hour.

But that’s not all. Elance takes a cut – 8.75% – and that leaves me with $4.56 for the article, and for two hours of work. Convert that into Great British Pounds, it’s £2.98 for the article, or £1.49 per hour.

National Minimum Wage in the UK is £6.50 per hour.

If I take one of those $1 per 100 word jobs, then, I’m accepting a pay rate of just 23% of the amount at which I am legally entitled to be paid by an employer.

Now let’s go look back at the other rate I’ve seen a few times, which starts even lower and scales up depending on output. As I have said, I estimate my output rate assuming I have time to research properly at 500 words in two hours. If I’m not writing a huge amount – under 1,500 words – I’d be paid $1.50 per 500 words. At that rate, my hourly income is just £0.45 – less than a tenth of minimum wage. Over six hours I’d earn just £2.70. If I worked 6 hours a day at that rate, it’d take me a month to earn as much as Job Seeker’s Allowance would pay me in a week if I signed on.

With that kind of income, I wouldn’t even be able to cover the water bill, much less council tax, rent, electricity, internet, food, and so on. Well, it might just cover the internet bill, but there’s no point paying that if I can’t pay the electricity bill, is there? As for food, well I’d have no way of cooking it, but I’d be living on porridge and potatoes once the cupboard stores are gone.

The higher rate pays a cent a word for over 10,000 words a day. That’s a lot of words. I have hit that before, when writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month. What I wrote, though, wasn’t good. At 800 words per half hour, it’d take me six and a quarter hours straight to write that many words – without breaks, time to think, planning, research, editing or proofreading. At my 500 words per hour, underresearched rate it would take me 20 hours of work, leaving just 4 hours for sleep, eating and breaks. So in order to earn just one cent per word, I’d have to work more hours than I’m normally awake. Every single day.

On the other hand, working at that rate would net me $100 a day. Not bad, right? Well, it’d be $91.25 after Elance takes its cut, which is £59.73 once converted to British money. For twenty hours’ work. It’s still well below minimum wage. It’d be below minimum wage if I could somehow miraculously halve the hours it took me to write.

In short, then, these companies – which are usually based in the USA – are paying rates that people in the Western world cannot accept if they’re trying to make a living off it. They’re paying rates that only people in India and China and other places with lower living costs could reasonably accept.

Maybe that works for them. Maybe that’s what they want – cheap stuff. Maybe they even get quality; I don’t doubt there are some people around the world willing to work hard for such rates, and capable of researching and writing decent stuff.

But it doesn’t work for me. And when there are jobs that specify native English speakers, especially native British English speakers, because the employer wants someone with a strong grasp of English that they won’t need to hire a proofreader for (at $6 per 1,000 words and upwards, or to put it another way, twice as much as those employers who are paying $1.50 per 500 words), then those companies are seeing $1 per 100 words all over the hiring lists and they think that’s acceptable, and I still can’t work for so little even though I’ve got the skills they want.

So I’m not going to waste my “connect” tokens on Elance putting forth a proposal for their job when it’s not going to pay the bills and it’s not going to pay me even a quarter of minimum wage.

Still. Nobody’s paying 6 cents a word on Elance. Nobody is even paying 3 cents a word, which still wouldn’t be minimum wage but it would be just enough to tempt me to give it a go, because after all a bit of income, even working harder for it than I’ve had to work for the same money since I was 17 years old and minimum wage was lower, is better than no income. And it’s sure as hell better than sacrificing my mental health and 35 hours a week of my time jumping through hoops to sign on at the job centre.

In the mean time, my two weeks is up. Time to look for a job again. At least if I’m cashiering at a high street shop or deep frying chips in one of the two chippies in town that are hiring, I’m guarunteed minimum wage.

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