What’s a Writer Worth?

Writers are getting paid less these days, and it has a lot of people very worked up. ((Check out the comments of this About.com article to find a nest of angry writers.)) Just as I’m entering the writing scene and learning how to make money by wordsmithing, pay is plummeting in comparison with the time it takes to put together a well-researched article. Newspapers are folding, everything’s moving online, and writers are about a penny per dozen. The world is changing, and for many writers it may mean the end of their careers.

Whose fault is it?

I haven’t been following this debate because it all seems nonsensical to me. I admit that I’m a socialist when it comes to taking care of people — I think we have a moral imperative to help the helpless, so to speak, and that includes things like medical care and other benefits — but there are areas where I am 100% capitalist. As far as I’m concerned, a writer’s pay is set by the market.

There are a lot of writers who hate “content farms,” the name given to companies like Demand Studios, Suite101, and Emerging Cast. They feel that these companies devalue writing because they pay so little — articles for which magazines once would have paid five hundred dollars or more are being written for fifteen dollars.

Some writers blame young people, who they feel don’t understand or appreciate the true value of writing. These youngsters sign up for freelance sites and write some words for quick cash, thereby ruining Writing As We Know It.

Others blame pseudo-writers. They’d probably use something more insulting than the word “pseudo,” but their point is that these people aren’t writers. They’re just people doing writing, and that’s making it hard for the legitimate writers.

Still others blame the content farms, who clearly don’t value good work. While it’s true that content farms don’t care overly much about the quality of the work they accept, the adage “It takes two to tango” cannot be ignored.

How much do you value good writing?

In a purely financial sense, I’d say I value writing somewhere between zero and twenty-five dollars. After all, that’s about how much I’m wiling to pay for it.

On one end of the spectrum, I consume most of my written content online for free. There are fees for Internet access, my computer, and the cost of my time to read whatever is before me… but I’m not paying the writer anything for reading their work. I value it with my time, but not financially.

Opposite the Internet mentality of everything-should-be-free are the dead tree books I buy to line my shelves. Most of these are paperback, so about $8 each, but as soon as I see a Terry Pratchett novel, I’m happy to grab the hardback for about $25.

Writing on the Internet is generally funded by advertisements. To put it another way, a writer’s words help attract attention to someone else’s product, which the reader does value and is willing to put money towards, and the author gets a cut of that revenue. This is really no different from how newspapers have always done business (good content attracts a large readership, which means advertisements can be sold for more), but the ceiling has been eliminated. There is no longer a limit on distribution channels or the population interested in the content. This means more eyeballs.

The same medium that allows more people to read the same content also increases the amount of content. Many towns only have one newspaper, and while larger cities might have multiple in circulation, it is nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of web sites in existence. There’s a lot more supply of content now than there used to be, while the rise of streaming audio and video has reduced demand for the written word.

Is Writing a Worthy Skill?

Two extremist viewpoints come to mind when I think about the worth of writing.

First, writing is putting words on a page. Back before mandatory public schools and improved access to educational materials via libraries and the Internet, people who could read were scarce, and people who could write (and write well) were scarcer. The further back you go through the history books, the less readers and writers there were.

Being a scribe was a trade, a skill you could sell to merchants, nobles, and common folk who wanted something written down. You were part of a rare educated few, and capitalizing on that scarcity was easy. The market still set the wage you would be paid, but prices were higher because supply was lower.

Things are different now: sixty-five to eighty-five percent of the population of the United States is literate, so most people can read and write for themselves. We might go to a lawyer to have them create a contract, or to an architect to have them design a building, but for most purposes we can shift for ourselves. (To learn more about literacy, check out Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880.)

As literacy and the ability to write increased, newspapers still had value because they were able to send reporters to remote locations and gather the details, then provide the stories of remote locations to the neighborhood readers. This isn’t such a feat anymore because local bloggers will be happy to relate the goings-on. If writing is just putting words on a page, then there are hundreds of millions of people who can fill that role. Without scarcity, writing has less worth.

Visiting the other extreme for my second point, there is value in the ability to pull that information together. We would rather read something that is well-written than something that is not; we can all think of one or two poorly written blogs that we scanned once and left because it wasn’t worth bookmarking. In addition, we’d rather someone do the work of researching for us and present us the distilled facts. This saves us time and effort, and it is a valuable service.

Good writers, and in particular good journalists, serve this purpose. Their worth is derived not just by writing, but by bringing together the relevant data and creating a single excellent resource. By presenting all of the data without bias, they contribute to a more informed and balanced society. Excellent journalism should be valued by both the citizenry and the government because it strengthens both.

Everyone’s a Writer

When we combine increased literacy with the Internet, we reach a point where anyone and everyone can be a writer. If everyone was competing for the same jobs, it would mean that the better writers would continue to get paid well and the majority would languish in obscurity. Unfortunately for traditional writers, this has not been the case.

The death of traditional writing and publishing hasn’t been the content farms, which are a relatively recent invention. The death of expensive writing has been ensured since the Internet was born, and its murderer is passion.

For the writers angrily commenting on and taking part in this debate about content farms and the value of writing, this may be a difficult concept, but the truth is that there are people willing to do the work they are doing but for free. Fifteen dollars from Demand Studio is just icing on the cake. Certainly, there are people churning out these articles for their full-time job, and there are people doing it for some nice money on the side, but there are also people who just like to write about different topics.

I wonder if some of these angry people pointing fingers at the youngsters or at the content farms have never browsed a blog ring. People write stuff for free because they’re interested in it, or love the subject, and want to share their knowledge with others. Wikipedia falls under the same category, where thousands of contributors build a knowledge base for no financial advantage. Local citizens attend city hall meetings and report on the votes, or ask questions of politicians to update their blog, or write Wikipedia entries to record their hours of research.

It’s the Internet–the great leveler. Shakespeare’s line has finally become reality, and when all the world is a stage, that means every person is an actor. You can’t expect actors to make hundreds or thousands of dollars for a few hours work under those conditions.

So how can writers make money?

It will certainly be more difficult, but I think it is still possible. In the end, they will just have to be excellent, a little lucky, and completely passionate. If a writer writes to make money, the market will set their value. Right now it looks like that’s around $0.03 a word for most content, and even at the higher end the most I’m seeing a lot of the time is $0.10 a word.

Of course, there are people making a lot more than that with blogging, both through affiliate linking and advertising. (Check out Affiliate Marketing on the Web to learn more about this.) It raises the question for me of whether or not it’s worthwhile to pursue writing for other publications — why bother writing for a content farm or a magazine when I can write for myself, market my site to generate traffic, and make money that way?

Consumers will give money to work they value. This is how webcomic artists (at least some) make a living–they create art and writing that people enjoy, so those fans buy merchandise, books, and prints. (An excellent resource about how to accomplish this is How To Make Webcomics by Scott Kurtz and Kristopher Straub.) If you create good work, people will support it.

For many nouveau-writers, though, writing isn’t about making money. It’s not even about seeing their name on the front cover or in the newspapers, otherwise Wikipedia would have bylines. People write because they enjoy it and find worth in the writing. Someday, that may be all the worth that is left in writing. For me, it will be enough.