Monday, October 19, 2009

My Thoughts on Content Mills--and Getting Paid What You're Worth

I've been seeing a lot of posts on blogs I read regularly regarding content mills. Over at Writer's Weekly, there's a big expose on Demand Studios, a content mill that owns and supplies content to eHow and some other content sites. Web Writing Info and Words on the Page have both added to the discussion as well.

If this is a new term for you, content mills are websites that pay writers very low sums of money for articles, which are then either resold or used to boost search engine rankings for the site. Typically the only benefits the writers get are the low paychecks ($5 or so on the low end; $20 or so on the high end)--they don't get links or resale rights. Often the writers' pay depends on traffic, and sometimes the writers are expected to help drive traffic to their own articles.

Like many others, I see content mills as borderline-to-obviously exploitive of writers. But I also do believe that writers need to be responsible in choosing their own opportunities and developing business sense, and one of the major problems here is general preciousness-about-writing--a topic I've written about before. In a world where so many people love to write but have never been able to make a career of it, getting paid anything can be addictive validation.

They're also easy--and a lot of writers tend to be self-promotion-phobic introverts. The argument goes that content mills provide easy work with no need to promote yourself or even talk to clients--a perfect situation for a writer who's not confident in her own abilities and doesn't feel comfortable acquiring or dealing with real clients.

Let me tell you--I've been there. I don't love promoting myself either. But if you want real validation, there's nothing quite so addictive as conquering your fears--and getting paid what you're really worth. And I've said most of this stuff before, but this is for the content mill writers on how to get out of that rut and have a REAL writing career.

You need a mind shift. Stop thinking of your writing as a hobby and think of it as a job. You are a breed of freelance writer, whether you believe it or not--and you need to start thinking like a businessperson. $20 an hour (assuming it takes you an hour to write a simple 500 word article, which is about what it takes for me) might be a decent wage for a full-time employee, but for you it WON'T suffice. Why? Simple: because as a sole proprietor (which you are unless you incorporate--and if you've incorporated recently, you'd know) you pay twice the Social Security taxes, additional business taxes and registration fees, and your own health insurance. $20 an hour doesn't begin to cover those expenses. You should be getting $60 or $70 an hour as a rock bottom price. I charge more than that.

You shouldn't be bragging about fast. I've heard some content mill writers justify their payment by saying things like "well, I may be getting paid $5 an article, but I can crank out 10 articles an hour--so I get paid a decent hourly wage." Really? 10 articles an hour? And does that allow for time for decent research, checking sources, gathering quotes, and other things that go into producing a good article? Does it even allow you time to run Spell-Check? Cranking out content fast isn't something you should brag about. Do you think W.S. Merwin brags about cranking out 10 poems an hour? You think Shakespeare spit out a play a day? No. Good writing takes time. It takes multiple drafts. One sure sign you're being exploited is that the actual quality of your writing isn't valued--just that you can spit words out on a page in a short amount of time. You're working a sweatshop, not an actual job.

Ask for what you're worth. Instead of working for a content mill, sign up for Freelance Daily. It's a list of freelance writing and editing jobs delivered daily into your inbox. It's free for a week or so, then you pay about $4 per month for the service. Apply for a few jobs, and ask for what you're worth. (HINT: it's more than $20 per hour.) Trust me--some people really are looking for professionals who know what they're doing and charge a fair wage.

If you write for content mills, you could do better. Develop your commercial writing skills--get The Well-Fed Writer and The Copywriter's Handbook--those two books should provide you with everything you need to get started, in terms of both commercial writing skill and marketing ideas. If you're going to do this, don't be exploited--develop your own career, on your own terms.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Knowing When to Say No

I had an inquiry recently from an SEO company. I work with several SEO companies already and know the drill, and I felt very confident with this one. The client seemed excited about me and thrilled to get me to handle the full volume of the writing work they needed--until I sent them my rates. Then the excitement evaporated.

The client was hoping to pay about a quarter of the amount I quoted. His business was a "volume game," he said--and it was his aim to get as much client work done as possible for as affordable an amount as possible. The per-hour rate he wanted might have been reasonable for a full-time employee with benefits and vacation days, but for me--paying double the Social Security taxes and buying my own healthcare, not to mention managing all the expenses of a small business--it was well below what I needed to make per hour. I told the client that regrettably our business models didn't match up, and wished him well.

Earlier in my career, I would have taken this job--I never said no. I didn't know where my next paycheck was coming from, and felt I had to grab whatever came by. But a day or two after I said no to this job, I was inundated with work--and now I'm booked well into next month with projects that pay me an hourly rate that works for me.

A year into my career, I never would have thought about how much I needed to make per hour to make a project worth my time--or that saying no to a low-paying job would leave more room and opportunity for the better projects. But they do. And those projects do come around. The other day when I gave a definitive, well-thought-out "no" to a project that didn't fit my business model, I realized how far I've come.

When was that moment for you?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Timing

I noticed a comment in my last post about defending your prices that got me thinking. My colleague Mike Chen recounted this story:

I had one guy who asked for a quote on a Sunday, I reviewed his stuff on Monday and asked for more info, he replied on Tuesday, and I gave him a quote on Wednesday. He said my quote was too high and I screwed up his schedule.

I've definitely been in this situation before--when the client needs it yesterday and doesn't factor in that arranging a copywriting project takes time. I've never had any project that I've been able to actually start on the same day as initial contact. But I've still been in situations where a client contacts me on a Monday, says he needs the piece by Wednesday, I've said yes, and then the process stalls us both. The bottom line? Allow enough time to get things done.

Here are a few thoughts on how long things take--and why you can't get it all done in a day.

Give yourself 24 hours to come up with a quote. My copywriting business isn't Geico--you can't just type in your facts and figures and get an automatic quote in seconds. I need to talk to the client, check out the existing website, and generally expend some time to understand their needs and come up with a proposal. Getting the quote right is another thing you don't want to rush. You want to allow yourself plenty of time to gauge how long you think it will take and a fair hourly or flat rate. Rushing your quotes can lead to anxiety and overcharging, or a simple failure to think things through--and an off-kilter quote as a result. Above all, never give a quote over the phone without getting a chance to think about it first.

Expect some give and take over contracts. In my experience, it's not really possible to get a project started and finished in a matter of two days. There can be some client back-and-forth over the contract that can slow things down. I usually allow for at least 24 hours to get the signed contract back by email.

Allow some time for everything to be mailed in. If you need to do things immediately, you can have your client scan and send contracts by email or fax them to your office, and you can accept payments through Paypal or your bank's credit card acceptance system. But Paypal charges its own fees, and whenever the project allows it I'd rather do things by mail. That way I have an original signature on the contract as well. If you're operating under business terms that require you to have a contract and deposit check in hand before starting the project (which is never a bad idea), that can slow things down by several days.

Sometimes the due date depends on client response. In Mike's example, the prospect waited a day to respond to his request for more information--then got mad at him for "screwing up his schedule." I've found that the more client back-and-forth there is, the longer it's going to take to get everything done. Clients are usually busy people, and may not be able to respond to your email by the end of the day--and the same for you. Unless you can get every question answered over the phone, the time it takes to get the info you need can slow things down.

Their rush isn't your rush. Above all, keep in mind that your client's hurry is their problem, not yours. You know how long the process takes; don't let anyone get a quote from you or get you to agree to a due date your gut is telling you is unworkable.

I've seen prospects try to rush me right up until I need something back from them; then they can take forever to get back. They may have been trying to rush me to keep me off balance during the negotiating process. Always keep in mind that it's a possibility.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defending Your Prices

Recently I had a client request a quote for a small project--a landing page for a new website. I quoted a price based on my pricing parameters, and the response I got was this: "this seems awfully high for such a short project. Would you consider charging less?"

Once upon a time, I would have considered doing it. I would have had an insecurity attack, thinking my price was really too high, and would have offered a lower quote. Here's a hint: never do this. Every time I've done it, it hasn't worked out well for me--either I didn't get the project anyway, or I got a client who continually tried to negotiate me down--and got stuck working for much less than I was worth over a longer period of time. If you show weakness once, folks, it's all over with that client.

The thing is, I knew that price was reasonable for that project. I knew the type of work that would go into it. And I knew that despite this client's protestations, I was still probably undercharging. So I didn't back down. Instead, I justify my prices.

If you haven't been called upon to justify your prices yet, don't worry--you will. The good thing is that most clients are reasonable too--and in most cases, once they understand why you charge what you do, you'll get less resistance. Those who are unreasonable are probably not ideal prospects--if you've done your pricing homework, that is.

Here are a few things to consider when justifying your prices to clients.

You have overhead, too. I hear over and over that freelance writing is a low-overhead business. Maybe that is true--sometimes. But you're paying twice the Social Security and Medicare taxes that employees pay--that's a business expense. Internet costs, computer costs, rental for your home or off-site office--all business expenses. And let's not forget marketing, classes to build your skills, even costs of living. The truth is, if you don't charge enough to cover your expenses, you can't provide your services to anyone--including them.

Just because it's short doesn't mean it's easy. This is pretty common with me: I'll send out a quote on a short but complicated project, and I"ll get back a reply to the effect of "But it's only 2,000 words!". The thing is, some promotions take time to get right--even if they're short. Think about how much has to be packed into a tagline or postcard mailer copy--just because these are often just a handful of words, does that mean you should charge pennies? No. Explain what goes into the project, and that if you were working for a really low price, you wouldn't be able to afford to put the time in that it takes to do this type of job right.

You're more qualified than the cheap guys. I occasionally get a question from clients such as "why do you charge $x when the guy down the street charges $y?" I don't go off and criticize the guy down the street--instead, I simply list my qualifications, which the guy down the street might not have. I'm not the cheapest guy on the block for resume writing, for example--but I'm CPRW-certified, I have a history of working with executive search firms and larger resume-writing firms that serve executive clients, I've written hundreds of resumes for the client's industry, and my interview rate is over 90%.

Next time a client questions your prices, don't back down. Put some thought into your initial quote--based on what you need to make to meet your revenue goals--and give some justification. Chances are, you'll get paid what you're worth a lot more frequently.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Constructive vs. Destructive Criticism

As a professional writer, I get a lot of requests for criticism of other people's work. Sometimes it's from potential clients asking for a critique as part of the buying process. Sometimes it's from friends who want to know what I think of their new website or blog. Giving criticism is always tricky, because many people have their egos tied up in what they write--even if they don't realize it. Even that potential business client may have written that web copy himself and be proud of it. And some people, consciously or unconsciously, may seek to use you to validate their own talents--they come to you for "criticism," hoping you'll have only positive things to say.

Of course, as a professional, you don't want to let your friend or potential client keep bad copy in their promotional materials--but sometimes preserving that friendship or landing that job involves giving criticism carefully. Here are a few tips for giving constructive, not destructive, criticism.

Emphasize the positive. I've heard it said that you should always start your criticism by listing three or four things you like about the piece. Then again, I've heard others say that if you start this way, the person you're criticizing is just waiting for the other shoe to drop--and that you should offer positive comments at the end. Whatever order you choose, there's no doubt you shouldn't let your comments be all negative. Try to temper negative critique with positive commentary.

Don't offer unsolicited advice. I've also heard some suggest that to get new business, you should email, mail or phone businesses telling them why their existing promotions suck and what you can do to fix it. Do this with care--you're offering unsolicited advice the other person isn't prepared for, and that person may a). be getting good results from that ad, despite the glaring typos or b). have written it himself (or had his wife/kid/brother write it) and feel protective of it. Don't offer advice unless others ask for it.

Stick to specific issues. When criticizing, avoid broad-based comments like "this is terrible." Instead, stick to specific issues, such as "this piece doesn't address the interests of clients who are already doing business with our competitors." These comments are less about the value of the overall piece than about specific qualities that can be more easily changed--so you're not condemning the entire piece (and thus the writer's abilities).

Always offer suggestions for change. Constructive criticism should always end with ideas to make the piece better. Otherwise, you leave the writer at loose ends--you've told him what to fix, but not how to fix it.

Giving criticism is a delicate matter--but not an impossible one. Do it with tact, and you should be able to preserve your relationships and save the world from bad copy at the same time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Continuing Education: How to Make Yourself More Valuable

As a copywriter, you have to market yourself, land clients, work on projects, and make yourself more valuable to your clients--all the time. This justifies your yearly rate increases (you do increase your rates yearly, right?). Here are a few ways I'm looking at to make my work more valuable--and my business more profitable.

Take online classes. I know, the promotional copy is a bit over-hyped. But AWAI has some really effective courses, if you're willing to put in the time and effort. They're distance-ed, but the courses generally come with in-person critiques of your work at different project stages. I took their Six Figure Copywriting course a while back--it's mostly geared toward direct mail, which I don't do a lot of, but it taught me some valuable basics in sales writing. Now I've got their Copywriting for the Web program on my wish list. Many of their programs have a steep price, but others are quite affordable--I recently bought the Resume Writing program for an affordable $49 (it's usually $99, but there was a sale).

Take in-person classes. Where I live in New York, the local Freelancer's Union provides low-cost classes on business topics to members and nonmembers alike. There are also continuing education organizations for business including New York City Business Solutions, which provides classes on marketing that could easily translate into better skills for your clients; and the New York School of Visual Arts has some interesting classes on copywriting and marketing. It' s a traditional college, but with a continuing education section--so it's no problem for adults to sign up. What in-person classes are available where you live?

Read a book. Bob Bly's The Copywriter's Handbook is still the industry standard if you want to learn the basics, in my opinion. I just picked up Dan S. Kennedy's Ultimate Sales Letter--I'm planning a marketing initiative to local businesses in New York, and thought I'd give direct mail a try. What books could help your own marketing--and marketing for your clients?

What are you doing to increase your skills?