How much is a writer worth?

By | May 11, 2016

Writers have an odd and sometimes disturbing relationship with money. I once described to a creative writing friend some ideas I had for novels set in the world of business and money. (Did you know, for example, that every year in Canada there is a least one prosecution of a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme – usually in the $10 to $20 million range?).

My friend said, “Oh, I could never write a book about money.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” she said.

That’s an honest and revealing answer.

I suspect many writers would rather not deal with money at all. But if you work freelance the way I do, you have to deal with money. The hardest part of landing a new client is not selling my skills. The fact I’m a senior and highly experienced writer is obvious from my resume, my LinkedIn profile, and my website.

No, the hard part is the bargaining for money.

My current rate is $60 to $70/hour, which I consider eminently fair and reasonable for the quality and speed of my work. I’m easily twice as productive as a staff writer making half or two-thirds what I do. I’ve been writing professionally for 40 years and have a master’s degree in writing.

I know I’m worth at least that much because I have two Toronto clients happy to pay me in this price range.

But often in Vancouver as soon as the number sixty appears in the conversation, there’s an noticeable drop in interest on the part of the client. This happened to me two weeks ago when I was twenty minutes into a first-call discussion of the client’s requirements for maintaining, streamlining and improving a large suite of documentation.

And because of that call, I’m now going to start the conversation with my rate.

Do clients think documentation is important? Yes, they do, but they’re not always willing to pay for it. Documentation projects are often guided by negative considerations. Clients know users will complain if the documentation is lousy, incomplete or missing entirely. But rarely does a user tell the project manager or IT manager, “Wow, these instructions are so clear I mastered the program in half the time I thought it would take. Please tell that Gauer guy he did a great job.”

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re all writers now in the age of social media. Writing has turned into that dreaded word “content”, and in the process become a commodity, not a demanding skill, and as a result the pressure on rates is downward, not upward.

But the other part of the problem is writers themselves. I think they have to be tougher, and more businesslike. They have to learn how to negotiate and defend their financial interests. They need to master the world of money if they want to be paid fairly.

Seven years ago I turfed my financial advisor, taught myself how to invest, opened an RBC self-directed investment account, and now manage a personal and family stock portfolio worth more than $1.3 million. I’ve made mistakes along the way, of course, but my returns are equal to or better than those of most professionally managed equity funds. The point of this is not to brag – anyone can do what I’ve done.

The point is that in the process of taking control of my investments, my attitude to money has undergone a one hundred and eight degree shift from “Ah, I can’t be bothered and it doesn’t really matter” to “Yes this is important and something I need to understand and master”.

The same thing has to happen with writers. We can’t unionize to defend our livelihoods, but we can be stronger and better negotiators. That’s only fair and right. And it makes good business sense when both sides of the negotiation win.

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