Monday, June 23, 2008

Catalyst Mailbag: A Dose of Reality about Working Online

I get a lot of mail from people who want my advice on starting a writing business. I've always answered these in private before, but lately I've been feeling like it's more beneficial to readers to answer these questions on the blog rather than over email.

Here's the latest one:

"I just discovered your blog today, and I just wanted to ask your advice on finding good freelance and article writing gigs. I discovered Helium late last year, and have discovered that it's really not geared to real writers, and has turned into a kind of information meat market. I am looking for a similar service, where I can find jobs consisting of article or blog writing. I am more comfortable, however, negotiating through a service that can guarantee my payments, rather than doing a lot of work and getting taken advantage of by a client that's not trustworthy. Do you know of any Helium-like sites, where the writers actually get paid for their work, rather than just their click-thru revenue?

I've also attempted to find part-time telecommuting jobs and projects online. A lot of the postings I see online for telecommuting writer jobs are on paid job sites, like The first thing I was taught coming out of college was that you should never have to pay to see or apply to job postings. Are any of these sites worth the money?

I really appreciate any advice you have to offer."

My overall answer is that there are no guarantees. There are no super-lucrative, trustworthy sites that pay you great money for articles (if there were, we'd all be working for them instead of pursuing clients). Most of the sites that pay for articles pay a pittance, and base it on your click-through rates or views. You're usually responsible for getting your articles seen, and my position is that if you're going to do all that work to get views, you should do it on your own site and get 100% of your adsense revenue. Here are my thoughts on some other points:

Paid job sites. The email asked about Virtual Vocations, which I have no experience with, but I do know a thing or two about paid job sites in general--I got my first freelance assignments through Elance. As far as I know, Elance has by and large been considered the most writer-friendly job site out there until recently, but that really isn't saying much. While it kept me in spare change when I was moonlighting and building up a portfolio, once I went full-time I realized I couldn't sustain a business purely on the site. Then they changed their business model to make the site more expensive for freelancers, and I felt really lucky I'd already started moving my business away from it.

Paid job sites are more difficult to make money on nowadays because they bring together providers working all over the world--including third-world writers offering third-world rates--and put them in a competitive bidding forum where the lowest price wins. Buyers on these sites are often looking for the bottom basement rate--if they weren't, they could just type "freelance writer" into the search engines and go with a well-known, established freelancer. There is immense pressure to underbid, especially if you're less experienced. Plus you're paying a large monthly fee plus a commission on each dollar you make to the bidding site. While it's still possible to get work on these sites, my experience is that the ROI is generally not that great, conditions are less hospitable for newbies now than they used to be, and there are better ways to find clients.

Sites that guarantee payments. Forget it. There aren't any. I've never used Elance's dispute system, but I've not heard good things about it. PayPal advertises a dispute system, but when I finally needed to use it, I found out it was designed only for buyers of products--there were no protection for sellers of services whatsoever. The best protection I've found is to ask for a 50% up front deposit at all times--clients who are willing to pay part of the cost up front are usually willing to pay the full price--and to get a signed contract, including the client's real name, address and phone number, sent over by fax, PDF or snail mail so you know where to find them if they don't pay up. And even then it's not always effective--just ask Kathy Kehrli of Irreverent Freelancer.

Finding part-time telecommuting jobs online. Here's the thing: if you're really looking for part-time telecommuting jobs online, stop. Many, many more people want to work from home than there are companies that want employees to work from home. I went through this too, and I realized that most people with a steady job with a single employer--either part-time or full-time--working from home didn't get those jobs by looking for "work from home online" job ads. They applied for full-time jobs, worked for a period of time on-site to prove their effectiveness and dependability, and after a time negotiated a work-from-home position.

The thing is, so many people don't realize this--and want to work from home--that scammers and other people looking for something for nothing advertise work from home opportunities online to rope people in. These are often scams, or websites offering a portion of ad revenues for your work. They are seldom if ever worth your time.

What really works. I know you don't want to hear this, but doing a lot of work and taking risks is what works. Build a website that showcases your portfolio samples. Learn as much as you can about copywriting in general and running a copywriting business in particular. Read Bob Bly's Copywriter's Handbook and Peter Bowerman's Well-Fed Writer. Get in touch with businesses--by phone, email, or snail mail--telling them about your services. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone. Take on lots of different projects until you find out what you're best at and what's the most enjoyable to you. Occasionally you'll get bad clients, but the vast majority are decent, honest, and will appreciate what you do for them. It will be a lot of hard work, and working directly with clients can be more intimidating than working through an impersonal website--at least at first. But if you build a business you can use to sustain your life--rather than basing your income on a single site or two that could change its business terms or go offline at any time--you will definitely not regret it.


Unknown said...

Oh, amen. There really are no easy answers, but then again writers should understand careers don't come easy. It takes work, and it takes a willingness to learn by trial-and-error or by heeding the warnings of those already through the fire to the other side.

Great post, Jen.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I just discovered your blog and, wow, did it speak to me. I've been tossing joining elance around for awhile and happened to come across your post, "Why I'm Leaving Elance (And You Should, Too)." Great information written so persuasively that I've decided not to join!. While I'm new to the freelance universe, I've been writing and editing for years in my job. Your blog is an inspiration. It's nice to have a blog like yours to help guide me through the maze. I like your honesty and your insight (and your writing). I'll be a daily visitor. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Virtual Vocations is nothing special--can't believe after 26 yrs, I talked myself into it. Fifty bucks! And please, please, people, don't help people for "exposure" or near-free. Why should you risk-share with startups?