Perhaps you will forgive me if I turn from my own words to the words of another writer: Australian author Richard Flanagan, who won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. This is actually what I want to start by saying:

“Much has been made about the death of the novel and the end of literature as it’s seen to be assailed by technology, by the web, by the many and varied new forms of entertainment and culture. I don’t share that pessimism because I think it is one of the great inventions of the human spirit. So it strikes me not as a dying medium but as an ever more remarkable one.”

This much is true, and Flanagan’s optimism is much needed if not a little utopian, particularly when applied to the current plight of professional commercial copywriting, which is being slaughtered by the purveyors of cheap mass-produced content.

Writing is one of the great inventions of the human spirit, but it is going to take great human spirit to change the perception of the value of writing to global business. We (professional writers) must de-commoditise our product; in the same way we have helped global business get rich by using our skills to de-commoditise their products.

There is only one thing more expensive than a free copywriter, a marketing savvy oil industry CEO, once told me What’s that? I asked. No copywriter at all, he said.

In my own career as a copywriter and PR guy, I have been asked to change the perception of the value of asphalt, beer, bottled water, cars, computers, professions, salt and oil, to name but a few, through the medium of persuasive writing.

“I bet if you had a cent for every dollar you made for me, you’d be as rich as me,” the same oil industry CEO said.

Hey, I did alright out of it, but every step of the way – with every single word created in the fire of my soul and refined in the furnace of my mind and painstakingly committed to paper along with other such hard come by nuggets of gold strung together to make dollar delivery mechanisms for wealthy corporations – I have had to fight for the right to get paid what I deserve.

We are the only profession I know of who work for free. No accountant, bricklayer, doctor, joiner, lawyer, or any other person with bills to pay works for free. But, that is what writers are often being forced to do, then and now.

To quote John Barber, a writer for The Globe and Mail, “from the heights of the literary pantheon to the lowest trenches of hackery, where contributors to digital “content farms” are paid as little as 10 cents for every 1,000 times readers click on their submissions, writers of every stature are experiencing the same pressure.”

Authors are losing income as sales shift to heavily discounted, royalty-poor and easily pirated e-books. Journalists are suffering pay cuts and job losses as advertising revenue withers. Floods of amateurs willing to work for nothing are chasing freelance writers out of the trade.

The situation is reaching a point where solidarity of writers is required and I don’t think it will be long until we start banding together. The WGGB (Writers’ Guild of Great Britain) has launched a campaign called “Free is NOT an Option” to tackle the growing amount of work writers are expected to do for free.

I also have an idea, one that could help to change the perception of the value of our trade: we should hold an annual pro bono week for professional writers. One week per year where we write for free for worthy causes, those organisations that can’t afford to pay us. And for the rest of the year organisations who can afford to pay us, would fucking pay us.

It is not indignation that sparked the idea for this article, however. The trigger was not anger, but empathy, and my own naivety. I replied to the following post on the business social network LinkedIn

“Write for us and enhance your industry reputation. We’re looking for passionate industry professionals to contribute thought leadership articles to MarketingTech – a leading industry publication. Contributing insightful articles enhances your credibility, increases brand recognition and boosts your reputation as a key influencer in the industry. “

The catch was, they weren’t paying, not in cash anyway. As John Rose, a marketing professional from Orange County California, put it (MarketingTech) “promised a value exchange of your work for “enhanced credibility, brand recognition and reputation.” In other words, utter bullshit.

But, I didn’t see that. And my comment was: “It’s not always about the dosh – we (professional writers) need recognition, so count me in. I have posted numerous marketing articles here on LinkedIn and also on my website I’m an ex-journalist and published author. Let me know if this is the kind of stuff you’re looking for. Would be happy to contribute.”

And then an Australian copywriter by the name of Kevin Casey added his comment to the thread, saying: “Contributing insightful articles enhances your credibility, increases brand recognition and boosts your reputation as a key influencer in the industry.” That sounds a lot like the sort of thing website owners who want free content but aren’t willing to pay for it say. Are you one of those, Charlotte? Writers need to pay their bills, not “enhance their reputation for thought leadership”. Seriously, this is just rude. Unfortunately, it’s also becoming increasingly common on LinkedIn – websites expecting something for nothing.”

I responded by telling Casey to “open up your mind,” for which I apologise, because it was me who needed to open his mind, and his eyes. What Casey had done was touched some wires, hit a nerve, and as the debate heated, I began to investigate the so called ‘content mills’ – businesses that employ large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content designed to satisfy search engines and to generate advertising revenue through attracting reader page views – who offer budding writers the chance to get published, but have been criticised for low pay and devaluing the profession.

I was flabbergasted by the rates of pay. Had I been lulled into a false sense of entitlement and security by my own fortunate career path?

Content mills in the UK paying 1.5p a word – that means for a 700-word article you get £10 – and US content farms offering the princely sum of $.01 cents a word – $1 per 100 words.

Ben Locker, a director of a copywriting agency in Essex and a co-founder of the Professional Copywriters’ Network, worked out this interesting scenario. “Assuming you hired a writer at that rate (the mill giving them 2p from the 3p charged to clients), a 350-word press release would net them £7, with another £3.50 going to the mill. Given that the average salary in the UK is £26,200, the copywriter would have to churn out just over 3,742 press releases in a year (72 per week, or over 14 for every working day “” assuming the writer took no holidays. Ever). That’s the kind of calculation that has made most writers froth at the mouth.”

This kind of thing does little to enhance the reputation of freelance writers, and by their nature I feel content mills devalue the profession. MarketingTech, therefore, are arguably worse – asking writers to write for free under the guise of “enhanced credibility, brand recognition and reputation.”

Marsha Boutelle, a researcher and writer from Eugene in Oregon, contributing to the now infamous LinkedIn thread, said: “Writers’ work is both challenging and time consuming and we deserve not only to be paid but to be paid commensurate with any other professional endeavour. In the super-heated world driven by technology that we all live in now, often my sense of the zeitgeist is that writing is *only* a means to an end and not something to be given a great deal of consideration. I am continually stunned and saddened by the frequency by which I find, for example, online news publications that one would expect to hold high editorial standards—I’m talking about you, Associated Press and USA Today—routinely riddled with incredibly poor copy editing and frequently biased editorializing attempting to pass itself off as news writing. As for pay, as a self-employed freelance writer and editor who conducts a lot of online research about what freelance rates of pay look like, I am amazed and disgusted to see how little some organizations value what I and many others do by offering per-word rates such as—I kid you not—one cent per word or $3 per page or the like. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we writers do what we do not because it is easy but because it is hard and deserves respect.”

Garrett Donaldson, Communications Director at the Orlando, Florida based advertising & marketing agency JKR, added: “When a commercial enterprise solicits free copy to fill their pages, with the promise of being recognized as a “thought leader”, it raises my hackles. It’s like the club owner who tells the band, “sure you can play here, love to have you…there is no pay of course, but it’ll help get your name out there…”. It strikes me as a form of exploitation. In regard to content v: substance, unpaid writers who are published in free publications is contradictory to the value-for-value relationship. Talented writers should be paid well for their labor.

Time was when copywriters were the stars of the show, and among the best compensated people in an agency, today they’ve been reduced to something called “content providers”. I’m sure you will agree that so very much of what is published today (almost said printed), appears to be stuff produced by people who pretend to write, for an audience who pretends to read.

Garrett’s words have a ring of truth about them that should sound an alarm for all professional writers.

More people, especially those under 30, believe that the advent of the internet ushered in an era of “information is free”, that anyone can be a “writer” and, perhaps, the idea of a paid creator is a thing of the past.

Earlier this year I wrote a short story called The Cort Syndrome: How The Suicide Of A Marketing Guru Shaped The Future Of Mankind. The story was set in 2035 –a world in which “journalism and marketing had ceased to exist. Writers had been replaced by algorithm-wielding computers and, in an age of total automation and widespread connectivity, marketers had been disconnected, cut out of the information loop.”

Could this be our fate? When I started out as a young journalist in the 1980s, news writers, screenwriters and journalists made a decent living because unions established basic conditions and marshalled power. The “work for free” virus has spread precisely because millions of creators throughout the world lack collective organisation. That isn’t inherent in what we do – it’s because we’ve failed to get out from in front of our keyboards and into the world to stand up for our rights.

“In recent years writers, performers, musicians and others in the UK creative industries have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of work they are expected to do for free,” WGGB TV Chair Bill Armstrong said. “Our first and most crucial task is to educate and convince our members and those writers who are not yet members, that – when they are asked to work for free – they must say no. But this is not easy. Writers are highly isolated, vulnerable workers. And their income is precarious at the best of times.”


About the author: Phil Shirley

“Phil Shirley is a marketing entrepreneur who helps ambitious growing businesses make their marketing pay. He has helped over 500 businesses make more than £500 million. Phil is also an experienced copywriter, ex-journalist and author of several successful books.”

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