Being a freelancer is a chancy profession for any person; for freelance writers it’s even more so. In this article we will discuss how many freelance writers – those who do copywriting and content writing – are underpaid, undervalued and, yes, exploited.
What do copywriters make?
Broadly speaking, copywriters fall into three main categories:
- Agency copywriters – Who obtain work through an agency such as Copify. These companies can often derisively be referred to as ‘writing mills,’ i.e. where freelancers go to get ‘steady work’ for very little money.
- In-house copywriters – Who work in a writing capacity within a non-publishing company, often within the marketing or research and development (R&D) departments.
- Freelance copywriters – Who work independently, personally taking on all the downsides of modern-day freelancing, which include:
- income instability for the most part;
- the ever-pervasive risk of not being paid by a client;
- being at the mercy of online freelance platforms or ‘marketplaces’; and
- tasks involved with self-employment tax regimes.
In turn, freelance copywriters usually get paid in five different ways:
- a ‘flat’ fee or rate for a given project;
- per hour;
- per page;
- per word; or
- on a retainer basis for ongoing work, be it full-time or part-time.
According to Payscale and Salary.com, the average US copywriter’s earnings in 2017 was $47,838 USD, with 80% of copywriters earning between $35,000 and $65,000 USD a year.
However, those seemingly decent-looking numbers for writer pay are actually very misleading, particularly for freelance writers. Tech journalist Ryan McCready did a fascinating analysis of what freelance writers earn in 2016, basing it on a study undertaken by Pay Per Word. The study found that the average pay per word given to freelance writers was $0.30 USD. However, 72% of writers were making less than that, with the majority making around $0.17 USD per word.
An important caveat here: writing is, for the most part, a laborious effort requiring a combination of sharp focus and almost-constant creativity. Even the most technical, ‘dry’ writing requires creative flair to some extent. Time taken to produce writing varies hugely between writers, based on their ability, experience, and time management, as well as, very importantly, the topic or writing task at hand.
Take blogging statistics, for example: according to OrbitMedia, the average length of writing blogs went up from 808 words in 2014 to 1,236 words in 2019, whilst the time taken to write blogs had gone from an average of 2 hours, 24 minutes to 3 hours, 59 minutes in 2019. Further context is that the average length of articles in the Pay Per Word study was 1,400 words, which should equate to well over 4 hours for a blog post today.
Particularly insightful in the Pay Per Word study was the finding of the huge gulf between the freelancer writer ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Basically, the top 10% of freelance writers were doing very well, making more than four times the aforementioned average of $0.30 USD per word, including an average three times more than the upper 50% of freelance earners.
Further down, earnings were far less, even abysmal, with those in the bottom 50% making eight times less than those in the upper 50%. However, the most striking statistic was that the top 10% made 160 times more per word than the bottom 10%.
And the ‘average pay’ of $0.30 USD per word is also very misleading. The study found that more than 150 publications analysed by Pay Per Word were paying less than $0.05 USD per word, and often between $0.01 and $0.02 USD. No wonder that a cited study by Contently found that almost 40% of freelancers sampled made less than $10,000 in 2015, which was well below the US minimum wage level.
The scourge of freelance platforms
Online freelance platforms offer freelance writers the opportunity to connect with clients and conduct all communications, submissions and payments via the platform. Examples include Upwork, undoubtedly the biggest of them all, Freelancer, Guru, Fiverr, PayPerHour and a host of others. These platforms can prove valuable in that they afford freelance writers the ability to bid for jobs and secure clients they otherwise couldn’t get on their own. They also offer some safety regarding payments, usually in the form of an escrow system.
However, there are numerous downsides to nearly all of these platforms, including:
- Jobs posted are usually not vetted, so many of them can be low-quality and even listings by scam clients can abound.
- Algorithms usually benefit more experienced freelancers who have more jobs via the platform, making it difficult for newbies to break in.
- Platforms are notorious in siding with clients rather than freelancers – complaint sites like Sitejabber are teeming with stories of this by freelancers, many of them writers, although these too should also be taken with a grain of salt, as with nearly all customer review sites.
Another major downside of the online ‘gig’ economy, of which freelance platforms are the biggest culprits, is the ever-pervasive ‘race to the bottom’ that many writers face. Writers from developed countries invariably have to compete with writers from poorer, developing countries who are only too happy to work for $3 USD an hour or less. Hence the proliferation of 1-cent-per-word (and even less) jobs on these platforms.
Perhaps the most frightening downside of platforms is the fact that they can suddenly shut down a freelancer’s account. This can be done without any warning and, worse still, any viable recourse for the freelancer. Freelance platforms are ‘marketplaces’ and thus have rules in place that can be highly arbitrary and solely advantageous to the platforms themselves. It’s the same situation that ecommerce ‘shop owners’ constantly fear on platforms such as Amazon, eBay and Etsy, and, increasingly, channel or account owners on Twitter, Youtube and other social media platforms. From one moment to the next, you’re out – and so too your principal or only form of income.
Devaluation by Google SEO
Everyone, including writers and clients alike, is obsessed with Google’s search engine optimisation (SEO), a complex series of algorithms the tech behemoth uses for its search engine. Keywords, meta keywords, backlinks, hyperlinks – all are crucial in getting those ultra-important hits via Google. However, the Google SEO obsession has often been accused of ‘dumbing down’ content. There are even those that contend that Google searches have become more stupid, particularly with the advent of Google’s Adwords, Google My Business and other pay-to-be-seen initiatives.
Content-wise, this accusation is not new – Greg Sterling wrote in 2009 how Google’s search devalues content because its selection focus is quantitative rather than qualitative, i.e. it focuses on numerical aspects of content, for example, how many times certain keywords are used, rather than quality-related aspects, such as the quality of writing or depth of analysis. Robert Thomson, Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, had this to say: “Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it’s terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively.”
Some claim this demeaning quantitative approach has changed somewhat. Konrad Sanders, CEO and Head Content Strategist at The Creative Copywriter, contends that it’s not SEO specialists that drive actual traffic to websites now but copywriters. He claims that Google’s Panda and Penguin SEO-based algorithms today focus more on quality content than the keyword-stuffing that marred online content back in the early days of SEO. However, quite how search engines can adequately assess ‘quality’ must remain suspect. And there’s no denying that Google SEO experts continue driving home the importance of quantitative-based factors such as keyword usage and word counts, whilst also emphasising that most online users inherently trust search engines such as Google for their requests.
Another issue Sterling raised was that of the very term ‘content’ itself, which he claims also implies a false, generic equivalence, i.e. all content is essentially the same and can always be compared, which is patently false. It’s an excellent point and one that has probably done much to devalue the value of writing, and thus drive down what freelance writers can command.
Do people read cheap content?
Many SEO analysts contend that Google is adamant about the importance of good quality content, even citing its numerous best practice guidelines that focus on ‘quality’. Really? That panting acceptance of Google’s posturing to so-called quality over quantity is questionable when one of Google’s guidelines reads, “Publishers must provide unique and relevant content.” Exactly how is it decided that writing is ‘unique’ or for that matter ‘relevant’?
Those assertions about emphasis on quality lose credibility when research by the Neilsen Norman Group regarding ‘readability’ found that the most popular web writing was that which was “concise, scannable and objective”. Interesting how the first two factors are definitively quantitative, whilst the third could be considered qualitative. This begs the question: how on earth does one measure ‘objectivity’?
In the end, finding exact statistics on whether people read cheap content or not is asking the wrong question.
The question should instead be: ‘How many people are reading good content that still came cheap for the writers?’ The evidence suggests that a lot of good, even excellent content online is underpaid at best.
What can we conclude?
This fascinating and highly contentious topic has many angles to it, some of which are empirically difficult to prove. However, what we can establish is:
- The majority of freelance writers are struggling financially, with many earning below minimum wage.
- Freelance platforms can be problematic and have a tendency to foster a ‘race to the bottom’ regarding what writers can charge.
- Google has indeed devalued writing with its continued focus on quantitative rather than qualitative factors in its search engine.
- The very concept of the word ‘content’ is itself problematic and has a deflationary tendency on the value of writing.
People will of course gravitate towards quality writing – what they might not realise (or care to know) is that a lot of that writing was probably poorly paid.