The concept of professional collaboration in a field as competitive as Writing & Editing likely sounds idealistic at best, but suspend your skepticism for a moment.
In the past few years we’ve seen a major shift in the way writers make their income. Change is happening — the momentum is there and growing stronger every year. Some of that change has been positive, and some has been arguable very negative.
The rise of Ebooks, freelance job boards, and an increased need for marketing copy has resulted in plenty of demand for writers. What the value of that demand is has been hotly debated. The ease and relative lack of barriers to online writing has resulted in a huge influx of people trying to establish writing careers. Whether those careers are at all viable is a matter of divisive opinion.
The industry’s upheaval has been a source of commentary and handwringing across the board, but very few people are talking about the deeper impact of the new writing landscape — the ethical impact that makes or breaks thousands of careers. Commentators have largely been focused on the short-term questions, rather than the long-term implications of the changes we’re seeing.
These are questions which examine the deeper pillars of writing as a viable industry. What do market changes mean for writers as a community? How can we avoid giving in to a culture of competition which has historically benefitted the publishing industry and corporate consumers over the writers they hire? Who is truly holding all of the bargaining chips — clients or the creators they depend on for their brand and sales?
Much has been said about the pitfalls of a “scarcity mindset” vs. one rooted in an “abundance mentality,” and the terms are usually spouted in general terms rather than actionable ones. I think these concepts have real weight in the case of the writing industry, however. Writers have always lived in a bubble of perceived scarcity.
Perhaps this hasn’t been completely unwarranted, but as the iniquity of the traditional publishing industry and freelance marketplace are called out with more and more frequency, one should stop to ask: who is benefitting from that perception? It certainly doesn’t seem to be writers.
Those who “hire” writers often deliberately work to increase the perception of competition in order to secure lower pricing (or free work), higher sales cuts, or wide-scope services for as little pay as possible. It isn’t rocket science. If writers feel that there is a huge line of other creators breathing down their necks whenever they find an opportunity, they are much more likely to sell their work — and themselves — short.
In other industries, unions have addressed the greed of hiring entities through collective action. And while writers cannot always unionize in the traditional sense, nor would most of them wish to, they can bring elements of collaboration into their professional work.
In some ways, the rise of self-publishing and the plummet of traditional publishing’s market share has been one way that writers have taken collective action against an inequitable system. Much of that action hasn’t been deliberately aimed at inequality. It doesn’t have to be deliberate to be powerful, and that fact is where the true magic hides. It begins with an attitude rather than an intent.
By thinking of their work as inherently worthy and not allowing a third party to determine the rules and parameters of success, self-published authors have evened the playing field in a huge way. Agents and publishing houses are being forced to completely re-evaluate their practices or continue to lose revenue and go bankrupt. This momentum should not be left to chance in the future, nor should it be limited to traditional book publication.
Freelance writers can learn strategies of their own by assuming the same attitude of abundance found in the self-publishing community. By sharing skills and forming more communities which rate, explore, and exchange information about clients and marketplaces, they take back a large portion of their power as creators.
By actively refusing to work with unscrupulous clientele, and by helping other writers do the same on a large-scale basis, they undermine the predatory practices which have gutted so many promising careers in the past.
To do this, writers need to use social media platforms and the accessible website-building mediums we now have access to. Organized, planned networks need to be formed over and over again. Rather than merely listing markets, hosts of information sites need to allow freelancers to rate and comment on clients and their practices. The flow of information has grown from a trickle into a stream, but it needs to grow exponentially to truly shift industry practices.
Certain sites such as Upwork and Fiverr have been useful for some burgeoning writers, but they have resulted in even more of a scarcity mindset to alongside the abundance of their postings. Content mills abound, taking advantage of both writers and the clients who hire them. Freelancers need to be wary of the perceptions and price influence of sites like these and be willing to communicate professional standards with both clients and site hosts — and they need to do it on a large scale.
The online world thrives on writing. SEO optimization, content marketing, and brand monetization all depend on the skills of writers. Email campaigns live and die by our abilities. Our impact on the economy cannot be understated. And yet most — not just many, but most — writers remain underpaid and underemployed due to the supposed unpredictability of our field.
We are being fed an illusion. The writing field is not unpredictable, and has in fact been one of the most consistent and high-demand areas of employment for years. Online publications are forming at an astounding rate, and the reality is that no business will ever succeed at marketing their products and services without employing knowledgeable writers.
The demand for books and book-editing services is also steadily increasing. Experts and influencers are seeing a large market for books about their niche, and many are willing to pay for consultation, ghostwriting, and editing help as they seek to write for that demand. Corporate blogs have taken off as well, creating a booming and evergreen market in need of steady, engaging content. The Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a major boost for ebook markets, too.
The opportunities are everywhere.
Yes, there is a lot of competition for those opportunities in a basic sense, and the influx of short-lived, on-a-whim amateur freelancers is an issue outside the scope of this article. Even with a very saturated field, however, the ethical jobs requiring real, professional-level skill are not subject to that level of competition. Serious writers (which I would define as those willing to learn about, invest in, and market their business on a consistent basis) have plenty of opportunities.
What writers do not have, at least not in a great enough quantity, is a collective spirit. This is a hard industry to be in. It is time-consuming and requires strict discipline as well as a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, and perhaps this is why many writers “stay in their own lane” when it comes to their work. They are doing themselves and other creators a disservice.
The power of writers’ as a collective is immense. When roused, the collective action of authors and freelancers alike can hamstring governments and force clients to pay up or shut down. Historically, creatives have been slow and reluctant to blacklist clients in a public way. This has created a general lack of accountability and a culture of disadvantage for most creators, and it is the responsibility of the writing community at large to step back and view the big-picture implications of their silence.
While I have touched on a few solutions to the problems faced by writers as a whole, lasting change will emerge from the collaborative creativity of writers in all niches and markets. Whether it’s blacklists, ratings scales, protective online writers’ networks, or mentorship, we have at our disposal an underused arsenal that could truly improve the career prospects for all of us.
It is time we started to see our options and act on them.
It’s time to stop competing for crumbs and start demanding the respect — and pay — that we deserve for our work. There has never been a better time to stand together as writers.