I used to love Elance. I want to love them again. Don’t know if it’s the economy or if somebody’s asleep at the wheel over there. I’ve made over fifty grand on Elance in the last two years, writing all kinds of stuff for clients around the world, and while it was always bluecollar writing with absolutely no glory (as in, no bylines) — hey, that’s the definition of freelance writing, isn’t it? — it’s all gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket.
If you aren’t familiar with Elance — and if you’re a blogger you should be, because there’s work there — it’s the eBay of online writing gigs. People from around the world who need to hire writers post projects there, and then writers bid on them, backed by a proposal, samples, and an infrastructure that provides user ratings and feedback, categorization and full-service money exchange and conflict resolution. On paper it’s perfect, and for a while it was the answer to any writer’s dream of actually writing for money. And while all that’s still in play, Elance has turned into the garage sale farmers market art fair marketplace of cheap writing. (Note: writing is only one of several skills auctioned off on Elance; some rocket scientist decided to categorically pair it with “translation” , so you’ll be working in the “Writing and Translation” category, which in street terms is like working in the “Tax preparation and car tune-up” category.)
Here’s what’s wrong with Elance lately. Because the posting and bidding process is largely unregulated (the only rule is that buyers can’t ask for free work, though the point here is that they might as well be), the economy — combined with large does of greed, desperation and utter cluelessness — has driven rates for writing services down well below minimum wage. When a buyer posts a project they declare a budget range, and about 80 percent of the time buyers select a bidder at the lower end of it. If the range was reasonable that would be fair, but here’s the shitty reality: they want entire books written for $500… they want twenty articles delivered for $50… they want an entire web page written for $75… they want 1000 articles written for, again, $500. I’ve seen all that, and worse. Much worse. Somewhere Robert Bly (look him up) is being fitted for a noose in his garage.
Here’s an example project I saw this week. Some buyer — and they truly come from around the world; if you read the postings, at least half are obviously prepared by English-as-a-distant-second-language self-proclaimed newbie entrepreneur — is asking for 850 articles of 550 words each. His budget range is $500 to $1000. Do the math. Then get angry. That’s less than a buck an article, up to slightly more than a buck an article. But forget the slightly more option, because somebody, somewhere (think India), will actually bid $500, or even lower, and no matter how strongly you pitch your credentials, the buyer will more than likely select the lowest bidder. Almost always. If you can write four of those things in an hour — and if you can, then you’re a real pro, or just the opposite — that’s a working wage of four bucks an hour. When you apply this same formula to the guy who wants a 50,000 word book for $500 — one that won’t have your name on the cover, by the way — the math is even worse.
The economy isn’t Elance’s fault. What is their fault is that they have no quality standards in place, or even a standard of fair play and equity. You’d think they would understand and honor the value of professional writing, and when they support highway robbery and insulting pricing they show that they obviously don’t. And why should they, the site still posts about 15,000 new projects monthly, on which they get 7.5 percent of the action, in addition to the very reasonable membership fees.
Bit of a rant, I admit. And I don’t really have an agenda, other than fair warning and a sad lament. My Elance user name is Wryterman — check my client feedback and my numbers, and you’ll see that I’ve been there and know what I’m talking about.
And if you’re a blogger, know this: more than ever we must cling to our values and self esteem as writers who deliver value. And as for “free” writing, doing this is far more rewarding that what Elance is schlepping these days.