During last autumn’s climate of fear about a collapse in the publishing industry, I registered with People Per Hour – a freelance marketplace that allows you to bid on projects posted by a whole range of potential clients. I was curious to see how it worked, and also thought I might even get some paying work out of it.
The verdict? After receiving dozens of job notifications and bidding on several of them – no, it doesn’t really work.
At least, it didn’t work for me. I guess it works for the clients, as there seem to be plenty of bids on most projects. And I guess it worked for whoever put in those winning bids. So what went wrong?
In some ways, People Per Hour is a bit like eBay – you can build up feedback, or recommendations, from other clients on work you’ve done, so that you have a visible track record of competence. It’s what I do in the real world, with recommendations from people I know and have worked for.
But unlike eBay it’s a bit difficult to get started if no one will employ you and, therefore, no one will recommend you. A bit Catch-22.
You can also put samples of your work online and fill in lots of detail in the CV/resumé section – so maybe that’s where I’m going wrong. I haven’t really spent enough time on my online profile to attract clients.
But there are other problems with the site. The main one is the inability of clients to put together a meaningful brief. You’ll often get a brief that asks for “30 blog posts”, or “eight articles”, without specifying how many words they want. And as freelance writers tend to work on a word rate, that is fairly useless.
Or take this one for Web research & Content editing.
I am putting together a web-project that requires information-gathering about how to do business around the world. I need an educated writer who will research, gather information and compile 900-1200 word articles on how to do business in each country.
Er – how many countries exactly? Doesn’t say. I mean, there are nearly 200.
Another issue is the vagueness of the fees on offer. This project, for “Article writing”, is typical.
We require 5 quality, keyword targeted articles of approximately 400 – 500 words on a variety of topics relating to tyres / minibuses / general driving. Each article should be original, engaging and informative with accurate spelling and punctuation. Clarification will be given to the successful bidder to confirm article ideas / titles. The articles are required immediately. Longer term we will require 1 or 2 articles a week.
And the fee? “Less than £250”, it says. But £250 for what? The initial five articles? Or for an ongoing commitment to supply them indefinitely? Probably the former – but it’s all a bit vague.
If you want clarification you can post questions to the site, the way you can on eBay, but clients don’t seem to respond to them very often.
And, while one of the bids I saw accepted for a job I punted for was below above mine [sorry, proofreading slip], a lot of the writing work also seems to require an awful lot of words for very little money.
A mental health website asking for three blog posts a week, at 350-400 words each, accepted a bid of £220 for the first 30 posts. That’s about £18 per thousand words, or ten times less than I would think of an acceptable, if pretty low, rate. Yes – there’s probably minimal research involved, but still. £220 is about a day and a half’s pay – which isn’t very long to write 12,000 words.
Which means, of course, that the quality of the work will be a bit slipshod. I was amused at a comment made by one company offering a Large Scale Copy Writing Project that:
“My previous Copy Writer completed around 200 articles per 10 days – his speed was adequate, however his quality was not.”
Well, given that he’s asking for 20 articles of 300-350 words each per day, I’m not really surprised.
Lessons learned about online markets. They:
- Open up the industry – This one allows me far greater access to potential clients than I could ever have achieved rootling around myself on Google. And clients wanting editorial services have access to a vastly increased pool of labour.
- Drive down costs – with 100 bids on that blogging project I mentioned above, you’re bound to get one that’s in your price range. Problem for the writer is, it also cuts your earnings down to the bone.
- Drive down quality – Well, that’s kind of a given. If you have to write 1,000 words an hour to get a half decent rate, then you’ll tend to produce hack work.
- Democratise writing – Anyone can bid on these jobs, so you don’t need a journalism degree, or NCTJ qualifications, or have worked in the publishing industry. If you can write at all, and want to pitch in, you can. Yes, this means quality can be an issue, but then I’ve met a lot of so-called “professional journalists” who can’t write to save their lives.
- Undermines the growing university stranglehold on journalism – as you may know, I’m not a big fan of the journalism BA. Markets like this at least level the playing field for writers who don’t want to spend £20,000 getting a degree in a subject that should be taught vocationally.
So, some good, some bad. People Per Hour also reveals some other very interesting things about freelance writing.
Most obviously, that a lot of journalism/writing is not about the writing. Instead, many of these projects are for the web, and they tend to make a priority of search engine optimisation (SEO), web development and link-building (ie getting other sites to link to the one you’re writing).
What this means for freelancers is that being able to generate beautiful copy is just not that important anymore – at least for an awful lot of projects. The skills you actually need are more in the realm of web analytics, SEO, scanability, building links. Though, interestingly, a lot of the project listings do stress the need for correct spelling and grammar. Graduates take note.
So – online freelance marketplaces. Is it worth trying to get work through them?
I think yes, if you’re:
- A journalism student trying to get some experience
- Working in an English-literate low-wage economy wanting access to the western publishing industry
- Someone with no qualifications or experience wanting to break into writing
But if you’re already a jobbing freelance writer, not so much.
Will this change in time? I bet it will. I suspect that online marketplaces will steadily drive down the money publishers are prepared to pay for average copy. Though it may not affect the money they’ll pay for really good writing so much, as that may still be at a premium.
Do I think this is a disaster? Not really. I’ve never been a fan of restricted entry into a profession (or trade, really, when it comes to journalism) as a way of propping up wages.
Too many journalists get away with writing sloppy copy and earn money for it. If you’re good enough to make a living at something, the secret to success is to develop more skills and, basically, be better at writing. Much better.