Friday, November 30, 2007

Elance Case Study: My Comment Moderation Peeves

I've already written about my position on Elance now that new changes have been made to the membership structure, and now they're at it again. Elance has an online forum where members can discuss issues and get answers from the staff. I've noticed a disturbing trend there lately: Elance is deleting posts it deems "inappropriate."

I think Elance is the perfect example of a site that gets it wrong when it comes to managing comments. The thread that was deleted was titled something like "How Many Service Providers are Considering Leaving Elance?" There were a few angry responses, but many of them were reasonable explanations of the reasons some providers were considering leaving and what it would take to get them to stay. In my opinion, it was valuable information for the Elance staff to understand exactly why providers were upset. When Elance deleted the post, it gave the impression that it was trying to stifle dissent--not a good move, especially when you've just ticked your customers off by making an unpopular change.

As a blogger myself, I understand the fine line bloggers and administrators face when it comes to censoring comments. Here are a few things I think Elance did wrong when it came to dealing with the forum discussions on their site.

Deleting posts or comments that question the company. When a company polices its forum and deletes posts that question their product or service in any way, it can make the users feel like they're in some sort of totalitarian state where the media is controlled by the evil dictator. It's definitely off-putting, especially if the dissenting comments are respectful and well-reasoned. Companies can make a better impression by standing up for themselves in a clear and non-defensive way.

Ignoring dozens of questions. There are plenty of responses from Elance staff on the Water Cooler forum, but what really bothered me about the discussions on the new changes was that for every response to a question, there were dozens of questions that went unanswered. Elance had just made a very unpopular change, and in my opinion the company could have worked harder to respond publicly to questions and criticism. The providers were owed some answers. Elance tended to ignore the more critical questions and respond more frequently to more neutral questions, such as "how do I sign up under the new plan?"

Being irregular about the threads it deleted. I understand that negative, abusive, and angry posts shouldn't be tolerated. But those weren't the posts Elance was targeting. Looking around the site, I found a lot of comments that are very negative and hostile left on, while a lot of thoughtful posts under threads like the one I mentioned earlier were deleted. Elance staff stated that they have a policy of removing posts they feel are too hostile or inappropriate, but it's tough to figure out what exactly their criteria is by looking at what they choose to delete.

Elance did do a few things right; they held a live discussion and they did make changes based on feedback, in a limited sense. But their policy of deleting dissenting views really bothers me. It makes the company look like it cares more about its image than it does about the people it serves--and that's never a good impression to make.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

We Made the Short List!

I'm thrilled to announce that CatalystBlogger has made the short list for Michael Stelzner's Top 10 Blogs for Writers awards! I've got some stiff competition, though. These are the nominated blogs:

Copywriter Underground
Copywriting Maven
Freelance Parent
Freelance Writing Jobs
Get Paid to Write Online
Golden Pencil
Heather Strang, Writer
Ink in my Coffee
Renegade Writer Blog
The Urban Muse
Web Content Writer Tips
Web Writing Info
Write From Home
Writer Mama
Writer’s Resource Center
Writing for Writers
Writing the Cyber Highway

I feel pretty good to be up there with such great blogs. As I was setting this post up I took a peek at each of these, and here are some of my favorite posts:

Copyblogger has a post up on what improvisational acting can teach us about blogging. This is an appealing post to me because acting is my second love. I earned two majors in college; one in theatre arts and one in writing. Anyway, I love both business writing and acting, but rarely do I find a place where the two intersect. I give Copyblogger a lot of credit for such a creative (and useful) post.

Get Paid to Write Online writes about how to manage your workload so that you're not depending on just a few lucrative clients. I've definitely had points where most of my work has come from just a few clients, and once it was very bad news for me when a client left. We're all safer when we're getting our work from multiple sources.

Ink in my Coffee. This person is a powerhouse. Check out the word counts she's racked up on the two novels she's working on--they're up at the end of each post. She does all this in addition to running an extremely successful writing business. I think I have a new hero.

Web Content Writer Tips has a thoughtful piece up on the pros and cons of making your rates public. I wrote about this when I first decided to do it, and it was definitely not an easy decision. This post brings up a lot of good reasons both to avoid doing this and to try it--many of which I hadn't thought of before. I particularly like how James talks himself into putting his rates up by the end of the piece, even though he started off with the opposite view.

There's a great piece on Web Writing Info about the harm crappy content does to a business--even if it's just a keyword article. It's never made sense to me why businesses that would never dream of sending a marketing brochure or sales letter out less-than-perfect are completely happy to throw garbage content at the search engines. If anything, many more people will see those online articles than will ever see your sales brochure. Courtney's piece should be required reading for anyone starting an article marketing campaign.

Writer’s Resource Center has a lively discussion going on about the ProCopywriter debacle. Definitely worth a read. And while you're at it, check out ProCopywriters to see if they're using the content on your blog.

The winners will be decided in December. Best of luck to all my fellow bloggers!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blog Plagiarism: A Close Call

I got an email last night from Melissa Donovan, who writes at Writing Forward. She alerted me to the fact that a blog called ProCopywriters had been posting articles from other blogs on its site, and that it may have done this with some of mine. I checked it out and didn't see any of my content on their site--but I was listed as a "contributor" among other blogs such as Copyblogger, Web Writing Info, and Freelance Switch.

There's a lively discussion about this going on at the Writers' Resource Center, where a lot of other bloggers complain that their content has appeared on the site without their permission. The owner of ProCopywriters, Jon Castleman, made an appearance and tried to explain himself. I wasn't crazy about his tone; he made a lot of condescending comments along the lines of "...not everyone here understands RSS" and "I thought that if you were a little more educated about what we were doing, you'd see it's to the benefit of both of us." But anyway, his reasoning was that:

a). Since all the blogs he uses as "contributors" had syndicated their content through RSS feeds, that means it is free for him to take.

b). Since he's lifting the content through an RSS feed and not through the actual website, it's not stealing.

c). Since he provided links back to the "contributor" sites, his use of others' content benefits the other sites as well.

I sent an email through the site asking that my name be removed as a contributor. I got an email back from Jon stating that they had begun the blog yesterday with the assumption that writers would appreciate their content being "syndicated" on his site. He seemed a bit surprised that he'd received so many emails from other writers asking that they be removed. Just to clear up any confusion over at ProCopywriter, I'm going to go through a list of reasons why other bloggers might object to their behavior.

They didn't ask permission. Okay, I admit--I've written guest posts for free and as a paid service, I've allowed my content to be syndicated, and once in a while I've allowed another site to use one of my posts or articles on their own site. But here's the thing, Jon: I was in control of where my content went. I gave permission. There are reasons why allowing others to publish my posts might conceivably help me; if Copyblogger, for example, loved one of my posts and just had to reprint it on their site, I might consider saying yes--despite the fact that the duplicate content issue might hurt me a little--just for the traffic and credibility that would bring. But I'd rather write an original post for them as a guest blogger. And if there isn't a compelling reason for me to let others publish my blog content, I won't do it. It's a pretty nasty surprise to find your hard work on someone else's site when you didn't agree to it.

They don't link to our sites--they link to our feeds. Jon claimed that linking back to our sites ought to show that he's in it to benefit the original writers as well as himself. But if you click on the link to my site under "contributors," you don't get my website--you get my RSS feed. This doesn't help my Technorati ranking, and Google doesn't count it as a link to my site either.

They use others' content to earn themselves advertising revenue. The Google Adwords on the left-hand column isn't paying into the accounts of the original writers, I'm sure. Jon, if you want to work out a revenue-sharing scheme with me whereby you publish my content and I get a healthy cut of the ad revenue, I might be up for it. But I'm not thrilled about my content earning someone else money without seeing a dime for myself. I didn't write all this just to earn ProCopywriter a buck.

It's not set up as a "syndicating news source"--it's set up as a blog. Go to the ProCopywriters website, and you won't see a big, obvious notice stating that all the content was written by other writers. The site refers to itself as a blog, not a syndicating news source that uses other people's blogs. Beneath the heading of each post, there's some very tiny, practically microscopic typing in grayed-out font that lists the name of the contributing website--but without a link. It looks like ProCopywriters wouldn't mind if visitors chose not to look at the fine print and assumed the content is their own.

They don't just post exerpts--they use entire posts. I have absolutely no problem with other bloggers quoting my work in their blogs and adding their own commentary. It stimulates discussion and generates traffic, and if I decide to continue the discussion on my own blog, I can link back and generate traffic for the other site in turn. But that's not what's happening here. ProCopywriters isn't using my blog posts to comment about some issue and continue an exchange that proves valuable for both blogs and readers. He's just posting other people's work in its entirety, with no commentary. He's not adding anything of value to the discussion.

RSS wasn't intended as a splogging tool. ProCopywriters seems to feel that because the content is syndicated, it's out there for anyone to post on their site--that's what RSS is for. But as far as I understand, RSS was created for people to subscribe privately to their favorite blogs--not to scrape content for their own websites. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it put me off that Castleman said others didn't understand the concept of RSS when he responded to criticism at the Writers' Resource forum. It seemed to me like he was the one who didn't understand.

Duplicate content can hurt the original writers. Google penalizes duplicate content sites by listing only one as the "source" site. The thing is, the "source" isn't determined by who posted the content first--I think it may actually be determined by whose site has a higher PageRank or something like that (SEO people, correct me if I'm wrong!). But there's a chance ProCopywriter's copy of my post might come up in search rankings--and mine won't show up at all. Not cool.

The whole thing reminds me of those bogus ads where the employer says he can't pay his writers, but they'll get lots and lots of "exposure." There seems to be a belief out there that writers really don't care about being paid; they just want to be famous. The ProCopywriters site doesn't exactly offer exposure I can't turn down--they don't even link directly to sites--and they don't seem to be familiar with the concept of royalties. If all the content we write is just available for anyone to use, how do these people--who are supposed to be professional writers themselves--suppose we make a living?

To his credit, Jon did remove my link from the site and told me in his email that he would not use my content. He also said that due to the responses from writers, they were going to consider rethinking their blogging strategy. That seems like a fine idea to me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Apostrophe Catastrophe!

I'm a pretty even-tempered person under normal circumstances. But we all have our irrational peeves, and mine is bad grammar. Okay, if writing just isn't your thing, I understand--I stink at math, after all. But I don't publish my sorry attempts at algebra and fractions. I never do math in public. My position is that people who don't have a solid grasp on the English language should not write anything that goes public, either--not without a proofreader to do damage control.

I have plenty of grammar gripes--too many to cover in just one post. So today I'm focusing on the most misunderstood piece of punctuation ever to mark a page: the humble apostrophe.

I see more apostrophe catastrophes in stores, newspaper ads, internal business communications, and websites than I do any other grammatical mistake. And every time I see one, I make an automatic judgment about the business or person involved. I think uneducated. Careless. Not too bright. I know many people would think that's a little harsh--but it's not. Your writing is your way of communicating with customers, clients, and partners--and if your apostrophes are always getting away from you, they'll think those things, too. Here are a few of the most common apostrophe mistakes I've seen--and how to fix them.

Apostrophes with plural nouns. I can't say how many times I've been in a department store and seen a big sign for "SHOE'S." Most writers would probably think something like shoe's what? Some sort of accessory department for shoes, perhaps? Like shoe polish or laces? Say it with me, folks: Plural nouns DO NOT need an apostrophe. If you're talking about more than one shoe--or if you want to indicate the location of the shoe department in your store, maybe--your sign should read "SHOES."

This error in public: The apostrophe problem in our country is so great that someone actually dedicated a blog to catching the errors. There are plenty of examples here, particularly this one here from a sign in a public school. When the teachers themselves don't know what to do with their apostrophes, it's no wonder nobody else does.

Possessive nouns with no apostrophes. It's equally common to find possessive nouns traipsing around in public without their apostrophes. You know we're in a sad state when sites that market to writers omit their apostrophes from their possessives. Whose store is this? Certainly not a writer's store--although you might be able to buy a writer here.

This error in public: Check out this resource for writers. Come on, guys--you're marketing to writers and you leave your apostrophe out of your intro headline. Your target audience is going to think exactly what I do: if you can't even tell a plural from a possessive, what can you possibly tell me about writing as an industry?

Plural vs. singular possessives. When you're talking about something owned by one person or thing, your apostrophe comes before the s: Joe's book, the car's wheel. If you're talking about something owned by two or more people or objects, the apostrophe comes after the s: The students' books, the cats' tails. This one is often confused. I see a lot of businesses trying to avoid making a mistake by eliminating the apostrophe altogether--or even the plural itself.

This error in public: This magazine has a prime example of a singular possessive where there should be a plural possessive: "Writer's Blogs." So I guess this means all the blogs on their list are written by one extremely prolific writer, right? And here's an example of a site that just got rid of the apostrophe altogether. There are actors and blogs on this site, but one is not related to the other.

It's vs. Its. These are confusing because they buck the possessive rule. "It's" is a contraction of "it is," while "its" is the possessive--"The tree dropped its leaves." Because it's an exception to the rule, this is an easy one to screw up.

This error in public: Here's a blog with the classic "it's/its" mistake loud and proud in the title. Apparently, bad grammar is a nursing thing. Oh, and here's an example of the opposite problem on a well-known news site. Shame on you, ABC.

Contraction confusion. There are all kinds of ways to screw up contractions. One of the most common ones is the "your/you're" dilemma. "Your" is a possessive; your food or your drink. "You're" is a contraction of you and are--you're a grammar genius. Despite the simplicity, these are often tragically mangled.

This error in public: This guy is obviously a victim of grammatical crime.

Despite the careless way many people write, grammar does matter. It makes an impression on others, for good or ill. Avoid these apostrophe blunders, and you'll avoid making the wrong impression on your audience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Five Things to be Thankful For

It's almost Thanksgiving, and I'm about to start packing up the car to visit some family in a far-flung state. Before I pry myself off my laptop for the holiday, I'd like to take a few minutes to think about what I'm most thankful for in my writing career.

Great clients. I love my clients. I've worked for some fascinating people who are doing exciting things with their businesses, and it's been great to be able to contribute to their success. Thanks to all the folks I've worked for this year.

Generous writers. I never realized what a tightly-knit and supportive community there is out there for web writers until I got into blogging. So many writers are so generous with their knowledge and time, both in person and through their blogs. Since I've started my blog I've had some great opportunities to learn from others, swap war stories, and generally share experiences about the crazy world of online writing. Thanks to Matt, Matt, Lori, Kathy, Courtney, Chris, Anne, James and everyone else on my blogroll for...well, just being you.

Freelance forums. Sometimes you just need to check in with your writer buddies when some issue comes up in your writing business--and you can find people on these forums who've handled the same stuff you're dealing with many times. My favorite freelancer's forum is Absolute Write and the Copywriters' Board are also great places to seek help from experienced writers and throw your knowledge around, too.

Bloggers who post job listings. It's tough enough writing a blog post without scouring the web for job notices for your fellow writers. These bloggers take the time to do it--and they deserve a big round of applause for their efforts, in my opinion:

Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs
The Golden Pencil
Words on the Page

Free Rice. The world ought to be grateful for this site. Who knew? You really can save the world with your vocabulary.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What's Your Take on PLR?

I was over at Web Writing Info this weekend and I saw some interesting information on a new way to sell web content: PLR articles. For the uninitiated, “PLR” stands for Private Label Rights. It basically means that instead of selling your writing once, you sell it many times.

At first glance, this sounded like a great idea to me—I’d love to be able to sell some of my writing more than once. However, I also noticed that Courtney Ramirez, the writer who runs Web Writing Info, received a lot of controversial comments on her series on how to write and market PLR content. Apparently she had to turn off the comments function on her blog temporarily. I hadn’t realized there were so many strong feelings surrounding the PLR debate. Anyway, here’s why I’m considering giving it a try:

An affordable option for clients. I’m aware that my prices eliminate a lot of clients who can’t afford what I charge, especially for large orders of content. PLR articles would be cheaper and would give me a way to reach these clients without having to reduce my rates or offer bulk discounts on original work.

Passive income streams are better. This would be a great way to set up a passive income stream—one that keeps earning me money, long after I’ve finished my work. Right now, I have to work more to earn more money. With a good set of PLR articles, that might not be the case.

Increased earnings. I could stand to make ten times as much on a single PLR article as I could on an original article for a single client, if I get enough traffic to my site.

A way to introduce my custom writing service. There’s a chance that PLR buyers will like my writing and come back to me for custom work.

An easy, affordable way for clients to get started. From the client perspective, I can see the value of a pack of PLR articles. Clients can repackage PLR articles into reports for sale or giveaway; an autoresponder series or e-course; a short e-book; or even newsletter or blog articles, and all for the fraction of the cost of buying original content. This seems like the ideal solution for clients who need a lot of content and don’t have a huge startup budget.

The major drawback I can think of is when a client uses PLR articles unchanged on their websites. Duplicate content is said to hurt your rankings. If my content sells really well and everyone uses it unchanged, that’s to the detriment of all my clients. Naturally, I want to offer a product that serves clients well—and I would definitely limit the amount of people I’d sell my PLR articles to.

I was interested in hearing both sides on Courtney’s blog, but when I looked at her posts on PLR articles, I didn’t find many heated comments—I suspect the offending posts may have been erased. Still, I’m interested in testing the PLR waters, so…anyone out there have an opinion on PLR, heated or otherwise?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nightmare on Elance II: Revenge of the "Connects"

It's been an interesting week. Elance dropped a bomb when it announced its new membership structure, and the change hit many providers hard--particularly in the Writing & Translation category. After a flood of angry postings on the Water Cooler--and a few outside bloggers covering the story as well--Elance has made changes to its new structure. To its credit, the company appears to be making an effort to listen to its providers.

An Elance representative (Lorenzo, who replied to the last post on this blog) actually called me last night to discuss the changes. Much of what he said was an attempt to explain to me why Elance was making the changes in the first place--nothing I hadn't heard from Elance already, to be honest--but he did tell me he was also looking for feedback. The feedback I gave him was this: I needed more "connects" to make a membership worthwhile; the Premier program can't claim to be merit-based if we have to pay for it; and I'm not wild about paying monthly.

I was happy to hear that Elance was taking our feedback into account, and today they announced some changes to the changes. Here's my impression.

The "connects" situation is just a little more reasonable. In the first installment of this horrow show, it cost three "connects" to bid on a project between $500 and $1,000 in budget. Since I bid on a lot of those projects and would only get about 25 "connects" maximum, that left me with about eight bids in a month--not enough to make my subscription worthwhile.

With the changes, some memberships have slighty more "connects;" not enough to make a real difference, in my opinion. But a few other adjustments make the plan a bit more reasonable. This time around, the "under $250" project category is gone, and all projects budgeted at $500 and under are worth one "connect." This means I can bid on more projects using just one "connect," and it's possible to work it so that my "connects" each buy me a bid and I might not have to buy more.

In addition, "connects" are now spent in multiples of two, not three--two for $500-$1,000 projects and four for higher-budgeted jobs. Spending in packs of three was problematic, as "connects" were only sold in packs of ten--ensuring you'd always have a few left over and would have to buy more to use them. Now there's no disconnect between how I spend my bids and how I buy more.

These changes are not huge, but they do make conditions a little better--and they make me think perhaps continuing my Elance membership might be doable, if I'm careful.

Premier status is free--for now. Elance has promised to make its Premier status free until March so providers are given time to judge its value. Here are my thoughts on that.

For a long time, I worked on Elance under the Professional membership. A year ago, I splurged and bought a Select membership. I saw my value in the marketplace go up significantly; I was winning more projects and commanding higher fees. I realized that buyers were seeing the Select category as an indication of quality, even though it just meant providers spent more money for their membership.

I have a feeling the Premier membership will do the same, except to an even greater degree because Elance will market it to buyers as a merit-based award. That's fine, if it really is. But Elance is still planning to charge us for it in a few months; plus you have to pay them extra to verify your credentials--a waste of money for writers, in my opinion, as your portfolio and feedback should be "credentials" enough. I think that soon it will be difficult to win bids as the high quality option without a premier star, which will cost us an extra $240 per year on top of our original plans. I don't want to pay that much for it and I can foresee having more difficulty winning bids without it--something that makes me believe Elance isn't going to work so well for me in the future, after all.

You can get a refund. No, you can't. Yes, you can. In the early Water Cooler discussions, a lot of people asked about refunds. Initially, Elance responded back that your remaining membership fees (if you've already bought a full year's subscription) could be applied toward a new subscription. No mention was made of refunds. So a lot of writers believed no refunds were being offered, and people were upset.

Later, I saw a few Elance people saying refunds were available on the Water Cooler. Then I got my call from Lorenzo (the Elance employee) who assured me that refunds were, in fact, being offered. I'm not sure if this was simply bad communication on Elance's part or if they truly did intend to discourage people from asking for refunds by not mentioning them, but it's strange how they didn't stress right away that refunds were an option.

You can't use money previously spent on Elance to buy connect packs. No wait, yes you can. When I found out what was going down at Elance, I considered rolling over to a cheaper plan and using my remaining paid membership funds to buy extra "connects." None of the plans offered enough "connects," so I knew I'd have to do that anyway if I wanted to stay. I emailed customer service to make sure it was an option, and I was told it wasn't--I would have to buy extra "connects" on top of my membership fees, no matter what plan I chose.

I wasn't too keen on throwing more money at Elance that way--especially since I'd thought I'd already bought a year's worth of bids. That pretty much clinched it--I didn't want to stay on Elance at all after I heard that news. I decided to roll over to the free plan and ask for a refund.

Later--after posting my thoughts on the Water Cooler--I heard back from customer service that they had made a mistake; that in fact you could use remaining funds to buy extra connects. Confusing, to say the least--but it again made the new Elance a little more palatable.

Low quality bids: are they really that big of a problem? One thing I kept hearing, in my phone conversations and on the Water Cooler, is that low quality bids are a big problem on Elance. Buyers are getting dozens of bids from low quality providers and don't like sorting through them to find the quality workers. I'd offer one piece of advice to those buyers right away: look for the higher prices. Quality workers don't make $5-an-article offers. But at any rate it never sounded quite right to me, this idea that buyers were being inundated with junk bids.

I just took a look in my project history to see how many bids were accumulating on these projects. In my most recent of round of bidding, here's what I saw:

35 bids: one project
20-30 bids: seven projects (mostly in the low twenties)
10-20 bids: fourteen projects
Under 10 bids: eight projects

In my bid history, most of the projects were getting between ten and twenty bids. That seems like a reasonable number--hardly an inundation. These changes seem to have been made to filter out the "junk" bids primarily--but I'm just not seeing that in the marketplace. Hm...curiouser and curiouser.

I'm not sure what to do about Elance at this point. I suspect that even if I do decide to stick it out for a few more months, I'll probably want to leave as soon as the Premier program becomes expensive. I have several great repeat clients on Elance that I wouldn't want to lose, but I can probably keep working with them if i keep a free (Basic) plan and let them get in touch with me. The new changes-to-the-changes have made things slightly better, but regardless of what I do in the short term, this situation has made me think that maybe it's best to cut the strings in the long term.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why I'm Leaving Elance (And You Should, Too)

For those of you who haven't heard, Elance is changing its membership structure. And the change is so bad that I've decided to cancel my subscription.

Before, I paid an annual fee. Now, I can only subscribe on a monthly basis. Before, my annual fee gave me 120 free bids per month. Now, my monthly fee will give me anywhere from three to 25 "connects" each month. Before, a bid was a bid was a bid. Now, lower-budget projects will cost me one "connect;" medium-sized budgets cost three, and some "featured" projects cost six or even more.

I've worked on Elance since the beginning of my writing career. When I started, it was a great way to gain experience and make connections. The transaction fees were high, there were too many dummy projects, and there was always a lowballing problem; but for me the benefits outweighed the costs. With these new changes, the benefits are dwindling and the costs are rocketing into space.

Here's why I'm leaving, and why I'm no longer recommending Elance.

It's no longer a good place for beginners to get started. When I first got started on Elance, I signed up under the cheapest plan possible. This plan gave me only a handful of free bids. I thought they would be enough at first, but I soon found that nobody wanted to hire a newbie with no feedback rating. After quickly racking up a bill for extra bids that almost doubled my subscription cost, I bought a plan with an adequate number of bids. It took me about three months of unselected bids before I landed my first project.

Now that would no longer be feasible. New providers would have to spend a great deal of money on extra "connects" before landing even one project. And that project is likely to be extremely underpaid, as you usually have to underbid everyone else to get work as a newbie provider. It might take you a year or more to make back the money you spend in "connects" landing those first few jobs.

"Connects" are costly--no matter how you look at it. Elance claims that under its new plan, prices would go down for 80% of its providers. While this may be true in some other categories--programming, administration, graphics, etc--that are more highly paid, writers get the shaft. The "writing and translation" category was cheaper than others under the old plan, but writing jobs paid much less on Elance than jobs listed in other categories. But if I paid for a plan equivalent to the one I have now under Elance's new structure, I'd pay around $1,200 per year--that's nearly four times what I pay now. And that's not including the 8.75% transaction fee Elance charges on each project. And I'll be bidding on the same low-paying jobs, for the most part; payment won't go up along with costs.

The monthly costs may be lower for some providers in some categories. I've found them to be roughly equivalent, and often a little higher, to what you'd pay for an annual plan in the writing and translation category. But that's not what makes it so expensive. What Elance's new plan does, essentially, is force providers to buy extra "connects." Their most expensive plan provides 25 free "connects" per month. A single "connect" might be worth one bid for a low-budgeted project, but for a medium-sized budget you might have to spend three. I usually bid on medium- and high-budgeted projects, so this plan would only allow me three to six bids per month.

It's no longer feasible to be the "high-quality option." My strategy on Elance was to offer professional rates for high-quality work. There were plenty of low-balling writers from third-world countries out there who were offering substandard writing for substandard rates, and a lot of buyers went with the cheap option. But there were still a handful of buyers who were looking for quality, and I tended to find one of them for every ten to twenty bids I made. I spent a lot of bids to land a single job.

Now it's just not realistic to do that. I'd have to pay extra for every bid I made, so every bid would have to count. I can't take the chance that hundreds of my bids would go unchosen to land a few projects--it just isn't financially viable.

The new system will make underbidding worse. Elance claims that by asking writers to pay more, it will squeeze out the lowballers who bid pennies on dollar projects. The idea is that these writers can't afford the new costs, so they'll leave. But I usually bid higher than most other bidders--and I can't afford the changes, either.

In reallty, I think the change will make the lowballing problem worse. Before, I could afford to spend twenty or thirty bids to land one project. Now, every bid will count--I can't afford to waste any. If I stayed, I'd be forced to lower my prices considerably in the hope that more of my bids would result in paid projects and help me recoup my losses.

Elance isn't addressing the real problems. Elance states that the reason for the change is to combat several different problems the site has been dealing with ever since I joined. One is the problem of "non-serious" bids--providers simply throwing a lowball bid on every project they find in the hopes of getting work. Some high-budget projects attract dozens of bids, not all of them serious. If each bid costs money, providers will bid more carefully.

Some buyers may get an influx of bids, but on most I've seen only a maximum of twenty or so. The bigger problem on Elance, in my experience, is dummy projects. Some buyers post projects simply to get an idea of the cost or to try to find free work. Others simply don't follow up on their projects. Today I'd say nearly half the projects I bid on never go awarded. Under the new plan, about half my "connects" would be wasted on projects never intended to be awarded at all--and Elance has no plan to reimburse writers for those "connects."

Elance essentially railroaded these changes down the throats of providers. The new change goes into effect on December 4, and I received an email about this at the beginning of the week. We didn't even get a month's notice. Even worse, many providers who renewed their memberships recently under the old plan (myself included) are seeing their old membership terms evaporate. Elance isn't being clear on its refund policy; I received notice that Elance would not be offering refunds on old memberships that have not expired, but Jon Diller, the president, did say in the forums that refunds would be available. I have a feeling that it will take a lot of phone time and arguing with sales reps before I see any money back for my membership, if I ever do.

So, for any new writers out there looking to get a start in Elance: don't do it. The new model will not be kind to you. You'll be forced to pay extra for every bid, and it'll take months to land your first feedback rating.

Here are a few other blogs that are covering the Elance changes. I'll add more to this as I find new sites; if you're a blogger and you have a post up on the Elance changes, leave a comment here and I will add you to the list.

The Hidden Writer
JCM Enterprises
Irreverent Freelancer
Swan's Blog
Words on the Page
Fab Freelance Writing

Monday, November 12, 2007

Should You Reduce Your Rates?

It happens to all writers occasionally. Maybe you've hit the "famine" stage of the feast-or-famine lifestyle most freelancers enjoy. You're drumming your fingers, staring at your rapidly dwindling bank account and your rapidly bloating credit card bill, and you're starting to get anxious. Finally, thank the Spaghetti Monster, you get an email from a project you applied for ages ago. The client wants to hire you. You're about to do the Happy Dance around your office, when suddenly you come to the end of the email and the other shoe drops.

They're only paying half the price you usually ask.

So: should you take cut-rate jobs when the circumstances warrant it? Is it simply a matter of survival, or will it hurt you in the long run? Here are a few things to think about before you say "yes" to that cut-rate project.

How long will this take? If it's a teeny project that won't take too much of your time, that's a different matter than if it's copy for an entire website, a print-quality article with lots of interviews, or (God forbid) a long-term blogging assignment. Don't let yourself get caught up in a project that will keep you busy without adequate compensation. Those famine periods have a habit of ending as unexpectedly as they begin, and you don't want to be stuck refusing or postponing better-paying work for the slave wage project that's currently consuming your life.

Can you afford to make the cut? Think about how much money it takes for your business to stay solvent--from your electricity and rent bills to the cost of your computer. What's the minimum you have to make per day in order to stay in business? If this project doesn't pay you what you need to earn, you're probably better off using that time to market yourself.

Could you be using this time more wisely? Sometimes slow periods are a blessing in disguise. In many cases, you may get a bigger payoff in the end if you can refuse those cut-rate jobs and work for yourself instead. Start an email marketing campaign; answer some high-paying job ads; or teach yourself Dreamweaver and redesign your website. Consider this time an investment in your business. It'll pay off in the long run.

Could this actually hurt your business? Take jobs at reduced rates, and you lower your client's perception of your value. Do this too often, and you might get a reputation as the cheap guy on the block. While that will certainly bring you work, it might not be the type of work you want. If your clients care more about price than quality, they'll ditch you as soon as somebody cheaper comes along. And with writers in third-world countries selling content for a tiny fraction of the cost, somebody cheaper will eventually come along. It's an unfortunate reality of the global marketplace.

In addition, if clients successfully talk you down without granting concessions of their own, they may start to think you're price-gouging. Stick to your guns and you'll come out looking professional.

Can you negotiate? Before you give a quick yes-or-no answer to that cut-rate offer, consider negotiating. My standard response is to tell the client that I usually charge $x for such a project, and I would be able to offer the lesser price they're asking for only if some change is made that would make the project easier and the pay worth my time. These changes might include reducing the length, eliminating the need for interviews, or asking the client to provide an outline and all research materials.

When you do accept a cut-rate project, always tell the client that this is not your usual price for such work. If you really need the money, tell them that you are accepting this price as a one-time offer and that for future work of this nature, your ongoing price is $x. If you don't really need the money, say no. A few extra bucks may not be worth the time it takes to involve yourself in a cut-rate project.

Remember, you set your prices a certain way for a reason. Stick to your guns and keep your minimum mandatory earnings in mind when choosing whether or not to accept a cut-rate job. In many cases, your time may be better spent marketing your business and looking for well-paid work.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Why They Won't Pay: Crazy Client Excuses

I've been on a kick lately about late-paying clients. I'm currently chasing one down right now, and just finalized payments from two others last week. The score so far is Me: 2, Late-Payers: 1. I'm still waiting on that one straggler.

Anyway, all this waiting and chasing has inspired me to write down some of the most annoying excuses I've had--or heard from other writers--on why clients won't pay.

We've decided we're not going to use it. It astonishes me how often people assume that because they've decided they don't want to use your work, they don't have to pay you. This is pretty common in print--and I've ranted about it before--but in copywriting and web writing (and in my business practices, generally), it's not too common. And it shouldn't be, in my opinion; it's exploitative and it gives clients far too much power.

I actually have had a client tell me he'd decided he wasn't going to use something I wrote for him, and expect some sort of discount. Maybe he was a magazine editor in a former life. Anyway, I pointed out that since there was no kill fee clause in the contract, he was liable for the whole amount.

We had to have someone else rewrite it. This hasn't ever happened to me, but I've heard of people telling writers that because the copy came through with so many grammatical errors, they had to actually hire someone else to rework the writing--and then they took the amount out of the writer's pay check. If this happened to me, I think I'd have a good case in small claims court. I'd bring in my client's original directions so I can show how I followed orders and delivered what they asked for, plus the copy I handed in so that I can show that it's error-free. I think that it wouldn't necessarily come to that, but knowing that I had a good case would give me the confidence to bring out the big guns and threaten litigation if necessary.

We can't pay you til our clients pay us. I've had to tell a client before that the contract states "payment due within 30 days of invoice date" regardless of their financial situation. It's amazing how many times I've heard people using this excuse. It's not like I can tell my landlord that since my client didn't pay me, I don't have to pay rent on the first of the month. In my opinion, this excuse shows a clear disrespect of freelancers and I've been known to get irate when I hear it.

The check's in the mail. No, the check is never in the mail. I've had a client who was months late on payment swear up and down that she sent the check out the minute the invoice touched her desk. When I told her I never got it, she made a big show of checking to see if it had cleared her bank account--and then had the nerve to subtract $20 from my payment for the cost of cancelling the "original" check which never existed.

Oh, that's not my department. You need to contact billing. Except "billing" doesn't exist. The runaround is definitely frustrating, especially when the person your client tells you to email doesn't get back to you. I usually wait a few days after emailing nonexistent billing departments, then send a firm email to the client that the billing department never replied and that I expect him to take care of it, or I'll have to ask my lawyer to get involved--depending on how long it's been since I've invoiced.

The vast majority of clients I've worked with have paid within a reasonable amount of time. Of the late-payers (knock on wood), I've always gotten paid eventually. Excuses might infuriate you at the time--but when the check clears, you'll start laughing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

Well, they're accepting nominations for the top ten writing blogs for 2007/2008 over at Michael Steizner's blog. If you like this blog, now's the time to show your love!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Why Creative Writers Get the Shaft

Well, it's finally happened--television and movie scriptwriters are going on strike. I'm less concerned with how this will affect my weekly Heroes habit and more concerned with the precedent this will set among writers in all industries. Will novelists, poets, short story writers, and web content writers start demanding more for their work? Maybe it's time they did.

Writers get dumped on in all writing-related careers. In what other industry do you not get paid if your customer doesn't like your work? If you're a wholesaler and a company buys your product to sell, on what other planet can they pay you less for products they sell at a discount--or not pay you at all for products they failed to sell? Oh, and if you're an actor, a television producer, or a movie director, do you get paid for DVD sales of your movies? Yep. But the scriptwriter doesn't see a nickel.

The only exception I can think of is copywriting. Copywriters generally have it easy. They don't mess around with kill fees; they dictate their terms; and they don't work through agents. I've been thinking about why this is--what makes copywriting and content writing different from creative writing professions such as novel-writing and screenwriting? Here are a few reasons I've come up with.

Copywriters know business. Copywriters write about business. They are immersed in business. They think about how to sell more for their clients and how to maximize profits for themselves every day. While it's rare to find a novelist who describes herself as a "businessperson" first and a writer second, many copywriters think of themselves this way. In copywriting, creativity isn't necessarily valued so much as profitability. You may write the most plain, drab prose in the world--but if it sells, it's gold. An awareness of how business works is, in my opinion, crucial to getting the best deal for your work.

Creative writing is a glamour job. When's the last time you sat down and wrote a landing page or a batch of catalogue descriptions for fun? Probably never. But if you have the creative writing bug, you'll write that novel or poem or short story no matter who reads it--because you feel compelled to. Copywriters write for money. If they're not getting paid a fair wage, they won't do the work. And they definitely won't do it for free. But creative writers do it for the sheer love. When you're that passionate about what you do, it can seem like an unbelievable blessing that someone would want to pay you anything to do it. This could mean creatives are more likely to fail to negotiate rights and ask for more.

MFA programs don't teach business savvy. Go to any creative writing school, and you'll find professors who are concerned with your wording and syntax, your skill with metaphor and other poetic conceits, your character development and dialogue skills, and so on: all the subtle and obvious things that make a great piece of art. You'll rarely find anyone drilling students on how to land a publisher, the ins and outs of royalties and advances, and how to negotiate without losing your agreement entirely, as some publishers will actually dump new writers who even attempt it. As a result, a whole lot of talented people stumble around in the real world after graduating from high-priced programs, confused as to what to do with all that talent. If one of them gets lucky enough to actually land a publishing deal, the average MFA is in no position to tell how good that deal actually is.

Supply and demand. Let's face it: creative writers are a dime a dozen. Unless you're Stephen King or Danielle Steele, there are thousands of other novels in the slush pile that will fill the same market niche as yours. If you get fired from your screenwriting job, there are hundreds of hungry writers out there desperate for a chance to work on a syndicated show. Creative writing attracts people who are truly passionate about their craft. And there are more of them than there are well-paying jobs. This gives employers, publishers, television studios, and other bosses all the power.

A good copywriter is a bit harder to find--although there are plenty of us out there, too. But while there are a limited number of television studios and publishing houses--not to mention viewers and readers, who are actually shrinking--the amount of businesses who need writers is growing every day. This gives the writers much more power.

I've spent my adult life learning about the established practices of the publishing industry--and becoming more and more dismayed by the way it treats its writers. These screenwriters are unionized, so it's much easier for them to make demands. While this probably won't happen for novelists any time soon, it's my hope that the strike will send a message to everyone who works with writers.

Friday, November 2, 2007

My Writing Routine

Isn't it funny how a subject tends to find its way around the blogosphere? Recently I saw a flurry of posts in various places about whether or not it's actually possible to earn a living as a web writer. (It is.) This week, I've seen posts from different writers on their individual routines. The Golden Pencil and The Article Writer have both written on it. Here's my contribution to the topic.

When I was a cubicle dweller, I thought one of the reasons I wanted to work for myself was that I disliked the rigid structure of a typical workday. I wanted control over my own schedule. I wanted to get up at a different time every day and take days off whenever I wanted. However, now that I'm a full-time freelancer, I find that I actually need a rather strict routine of my own. Here's what I've found I need in order to be successful.

An early start. I get up around 8 in the morning every day. I've found I'm very focused early in the morning, despite the fact that for most of my life I never got up before 10 if I didn't have to. But during a workday, if I start writing after 10, I have a lot of trouble focusing on my work--I surf the net, check my email incessantly, spend hours on writing blogs, and generally procrastinate until lunch time. It's a waste of half a day. But if I start early, I can keep my focus for about four hours before I have to stop.

Equal time for client and personal work. I spend the first half of my day on client work. I work from eight until around noon, taking a break to grab breakfast and get dressed. Weirdly enough, I thought I'd love working in my pj's every day, but after the novelty wore off I got sick of it. Anyway, it's important for me to get client work done first because I like to work on personal projects in the afternoon. If I don't get paid work done, it'll just hang over my head and keep me from concentrating on the creative stuff.

My personal work is important to me--it's the reason I've chosen to work as a freelancer. In the afternoon I'll work on a novel, submit short stories to journals, or set aside time for poetry. I also work on marketing my writing business. I've found that I'm a little more prone to daydreaming in the afternoon, which is an asset if I'm writing something imaginative like a novel or a poem, but not so good for an article or a landing page. I've found that my routine and my way of concentrating are different depending on the type of writing I'm doing.

Right now, I'm working on a novel for National Novel Writing Month--so I'm going to put most of my other projects on the back burner for a while. My username is jrw2868, and my word count for today is 1,934.

Forced breaks. If I get really involved in a project, I am capable of sitting down in the morning and writing until the sun sinks in the sky. I'll look up and suddenly realize it's four o'clock and I haven't eaten anything all day. Starvation is awful for my health. Sometimes I have to make myself take breaks. I take a break in the morning for breakfast, and another one between 12 and 2 for exercise and lunch. I go for a walk, head to the gym, do some sit-ups, or (more often than not, if I want to be honest) watch What Not To Wear for an hour before getting back to work.

Done by evening. I try to get my work done before 4pm, when my peers with "normal" jobs come home from work. Back when I worked one of those jobs, I did most of my writing at night. But I've found I'd really rather get it done during the day. Writing can be an isolating career, and I usually end each day feeling a need to connect to others. I try to leave my time free at night to meet friends for drinks or watch a movie with my guy.

I used to feel inferior and hopeless whenever I heard about some successful writer who'd get up and write at five a.m. before going to work. I thought that because I couldn't get up that early, I didn't have the dedication it takes to be a professional writer. For a while, I tried to get up before the sun and force myself to concentrate on poetry or plot. But that never really worked for me; I couldn't make myself do it consistently. I've since learned that routine is a personal thing. While it may be interesting to learn how others work--I've always found it fascinating--what works for one writer might not work for another. It doesn't matter if you get up at five in the morning or work best at night. What matters, ultimately, is your output.