Freelance Economics: Rethinking what words are worth

John Bethune of B2B Memes explains why in the digital age the market value of writing isn’t in the word count, but in the experience, insights, and connections of the writer.

A recent conversation on ASBPE’s LinkedIn group focused on whether freelancers should be paid the same amount per word online as in print. The lack of an obvious answer (to me, at least) got me wondering whether word rate is a useful metric any more. Are words really what freelancers are selling now?

I think not. But it’s a difficult habit of mind for both freelancers and editors to break. Even today, when they discuss payment, they often speak in terms of word rates. And even when the offer is a flat fee or an hourly rate, one or both of the parties will make a quick estimate of how much is being paid per word.

For many decades in the print era, word rate was a convenient gauge for reckoning value. But in the digital age, it’s next to worthless. Why? Because words themselves are worth next to nothing.

My point is not that the value freelancers offer has in any way diminished. Rather, it’s that when words become a commodity, they are an increasingly bad proxy for that value. Editors and freelancers alike need to start thinking about the valuation of what they offer each other in entirely new ways, and look for new forms of exchange.

Until 15 or 20 years ago, the economics of print magazines meant that published words were a relative scarcity, so they were worth something. With a finite and fixed number of editorial pages, determined by the number of ad pages sold in an issue, it made sense to think in terms of cost per unit — whether the unit was a page or a word.

In today’s digital media, though, those unit-based costs are too small to be of use. Pages are infinitely long and cost little to produce, and words are a commodity. Accordingly, their market value has steadily declined.

As a professional freelancer, you might argue that some words are better than others, and that yours deserve a much higher valuation. But words are just words. What distinguishes you as a freelancer isn’t ultimately your words, but the intelligence, experience, insights, and connections you bring to them. That’s what you’re being paid for, not a mass of letters separated by spaces and punctuation.

So why worry that Demand Media only pays $15 dollars for a post? It’s a minimal amount for a de minimis commodity, a few hundred words. That’s not what professional freelancers are selling and doesn’t devalue their work. Words are just one expression of the things that give freelancers value. They’re also offering their reputation, their network-building skills, their ability to influence others, and more. Editors of the future in search of more than commodity content will need to base freelance pay on all of these assets, not just word counts.

One approach that makes sense is pay for performance. In a thoughtful recent blog post , Tam Harbert proposes just that.

Publishers also seem to be moving in that direction. Already, some like Seeking Alpha and Bleacher Report have started paying contributors based on the page views they generate. Others, like, are looking at quality-based incentives. I’m not aware of any sites so far that base pay on the number of people who “like,” retweet, or otherwise recommend a writer’s story, as Harbert proposes. But in a world dominated by social media, it seems inevitable that other publishers will look past mere traffic and reward writers for the social buzz they generate.

By abandoning the the idea that they’re being paid for words, freelancers can begin thinking of their writing not as the sole source of their income, but as the foundational component of a portfolio career, with multiple, diverse streams of income. As Adam Westbrook  has documented from his own experience, activities like consulting, speaking, teaching, and self-publishing can make freelancing both more sustainable and more fulfilling.

For their part, editors should give more than lip service to the non-monetary ways they can help freelancers. The intangible and often over-rated prestige of appearing in their publications is not enough.  Editors can do much more, for instance, to help give freelancers the visibility and personal readership Harbert says they need to make e-books successful. Whether it’s promoting the freelancer’s blog, creating a special section for the freelancer’s work on their site, or including the freelancer in webinars and other events, editors have a lot of support to offer.

Word rate may seem a familiar and convenient tool to both freelancers and editors. But what was once a useful device is now a millstone tied snugly around our necks. We should cast it off once and for all. Freelancing will be more challenging and confusing without it, but ultimately more rewarding.

(By the way, ASBPE paid me $0.00 per word for this article. But your comments, pro or con, will be more than adequate recompense.)

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.