Similar to the concepts presented in the Where Do I Get Started article, part of understanding the modern freelance market is understanding the differences between the print market and the digital market. This is a distinction that many writers fail to make, which can lead to frustration over rates, frustration about being unable to find work, and frustration over what “the other guy” is doing.
First of all, stop worrying about the other guy. It’s none of your concern. Your rates, your niche, your personal requirements for an annual income, all of these are your business. Not your fellow writer’s. Yours, and yours alone.
Now, moving onto the relevancy. When looking at the print vs. digital markets you have to understand several things. First, you need to be aware of the history of the industry. Print publications have dominated the world for centuries, ever since the advent of the printing press. The industry has a very long and very distinguished history. After all, the world as we know it today would not exist without the printed word. Secondly, you need to understand the difference in overhead between print and digital mediums. Print mediums have an extremely high cost of overhead for several reasons. First, they have to rent a physical building. Either as an office, or as an office plus a printing warehouse and shop. Secondly, they have to pay for printing. That means paper, ink, manufacturing, layout, design, and more. Thirdly, they have to worry about the weight of the publication, because this directly affects the cost of shipping that printed publication on both a local and international level. And there are many more “little things” that we aren’t going to go into detail in this article. Suffice to say, running a printed publication is a project on a relatively massive scale. All of these things factor directly into the cost of the publication and the rates they are able to afford paying their writers.
Now let’s take a look at the digital medium. Firstly, the digital medium doesn’t have a centuries-long history stretching out behind it. In terms of the Internet and websites, they have only really existed in the public arena since the early 1990s. That means we are around 20 years into the industry as a whole. That’s not a lot when you compare it to the lauded centuries that printing has behind it. Secondly, websites don’t have to have a warehouse. They don’t need an office. Many websites are simply ran from home offices. There is barely any overhead in comparison to a printed publication. They don’t have to worry about the weight of the publication, because all they have to worry about covering is the cost of renting or purchasing a server and hosting their website. This is a negligible cost in comparison to the print market. This directly affects the costs they are allowed to charge for their services, and the rates they are able to pay their writers.
Imagine, if you will, a painting by van Gogh. We know it will fetch hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Why? Because it has a long history behind it, it has a personal touch to it, the hand of the painter was physically involved, and a variety of other factors. It is a physical painting. You can hold it in your hand, place it on your wall, and know that it is the real deal. It is a physical painting. Now, picture a painting by a prominent new digital artist. They create images in digital form. There is no paint. There is no physical presence. You can print a copy and put it on your wall, but it doesn’t have the depth, it doesn’t have the character, and it’s new. That digital artist hasn’t yet had the centuries to build up his reputation, nor is his painting as physically dominating as the van Gogh. There is no physical presence to worry about, so there is no insurance that needs to be carried, no vault needed, no security system, and relatively no overhead. The digital artist might be able to charge a few hundred dollars, or maybe even a few thousand, for his work, but he will never obtain the same pricing as the van Gogh…at least not in this lifetime.
This different between the print industry and the digital industry is important to understand, because it directly affects the rates that each industry charges. It also affects you, because you have to figure out how to be relevant in the modern industry. Print writers might get paid anywhere from .50 cents per word to well over a dollar per word for the major publications, but the digital medium is nowhere close to that as a general rule. There are a variety of reasons for this, some of which have been described in this article. But it’s very important that you know the difference when it comes time to analyzing how you charge for your work.
The digital medium is still a baby. There is a lot of money to be made, but it’s still a relatively low-paying market. That’s not to say that thousands-of-dollars projects don’t exist; they do. But liken it to the difference between playing in a local American football game with your friends every weekend and playing in the NFL. You don’t get to jump from your local weekend game to playing for the NFL. You have to train for years, and you either had to play football as a star player in high school or been a star player in college in order to land a professional American football contract with the NFL. In order to start getting into the jobs which pay the exceptionally high rates, you have to have a list of credentials that allow you to get into the door, because most of the publications which are paying the really high rates comparable to printed publications are generally the printed publications themselves simply establishing their online presence. And just like you can’t walk into the New York Times on your first day and demand a position as Editor-in-Chief, you can’t expect to simply hop online, start writing blogs and content, and suddenly start making 100k+ a year.
Being relevant in the modern industry means understanding your niche, your target audience, and the market you are qualified to write in. Keep in mind that freelancing is not a get-rich-quick industry. The vast majority of freelance writers are normal people, making normal wages, between 40k and 60k USD per year. Some write for print, some write digital, and some do a mixture of both. If you want to make 100k+ a year, you need to have the relevant skills and education, combined with a tried-and-true work experience, to demand that kind of salary and respect.
The hardest part about writing digitally is that there is no such thing as standardized rates. We’ll get into that in our next article in the Freelance Writing 101 series, so stay tuned!