Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Introduction to the New Reality

It was like that iconic scene in “Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy steps from the black-and-white of her room into a technicolor world. 

For this writer, the transition from 40+ years of print into the bright world of online job exchanges was like that. Even to the part about finding myself surrounded by midgets. Piping voices were asking for things to be written for four and five dollars. 

I couldn’t figure it at first. I mean, I didn’t kid myself it would be four or five bucks a word; but $4 or $5 for a whole article? What had happened in the business I’d practiced 20 years before?

What had happened was that writing had been reduced to a commodity called “content,” and the business to a kind of linguistic delicatessen. “Gimme 500 words of that description there.” “I’ll have 800 of that noun and verb assortment, please. Throw in some keywords; the dog likes ‘em.”

How did that get by us? Other businesses and professions were upgrading their images and vocabularies, not trivializing them. Dentists don’t talk to their insurance companies about “cavities” and “fillings” today. When I was a kid you had cavities filled. (The memory is of a pair of large, hairy hands gripping metallic implements moving menacingly toward my mouth.) But Dr. Karpf only charged $3 per. Patching a hole in your tooth is a “restoration” now, and it starts about $100.

Well, it didn’t take advanced math to see that four (or even –whoa! – five) dollars for an article was lousy pay, but I penciled it out for that sample SEO article I told you about last post (which I can show you if you’re interested).

Half an hour on line, browsing the trade association’s newsletters to find the hook for the article. Two hours to write and polish it to the condition buyers demand: 500 words, 100% original, specified number of keywords inserted unobtrusively, something of value for the reader, conversational, “not run-of-the-mill,” perfect grammar and spelling, no typos, 48 hours delivery.  

It comes out $1.60 to $2.00 an hour. Minimum wage nationally is $7.25. I can’t park my car for two bucks an hour.

Some of the greats started out writing for the science fiction pulps for a penny a word, but it was the Great Depression. Ten words bought you a loaf of bread.  Only a note to a bank teller would do it today: “I’ve got a gun. Empty your drawers into the bag.”  You get what I mean. Even if you’re five times as fast as I am  -- you can research, think, write, rewrite, do the whole thing in half an hour instead of two-and-a-half -- you’re still underpaid.

I know there are still people who value writing, and jobs that pay. I’m just not meeting enough of them; that’s why this blog. I’m selling a service here.

Closing in on 500 words. Next: If anyone’s still with me, I make my pitch.