Freelancing: Rising Creative Trend

As permanent employment in some fields shifts by employer choice to temporary and even outsourced workers, a complementary movement toward freelancing by employee choice is gaining strength in the creative fields. A simple web search will trivially turn up a plethora of articles with similar titles: “World’s 5 Best Freelance Websites 2015,” “10 Most Popular Freelancing Websites For Freelancers,” “The 15 Best Freelance Websites to Find Jobs,” and so on. Unsurprisingly, such articles tend to list pretty much the same websites. But can anyone earn a living this way?

At one extreme, websites such as Fiverr (fiverr.com) allow prospective workers to post a wide variety of tasks they offer to perform for $5, some of them of obviously dubious value. An arbitrary sampling of “featured gigs” on the front page of the site ranges from the plausible – “I will write a 500 word short story about You or Your topic,” “I will draw you one RORSCHACH like ink blot,” and “I will draw a cute cartoon portrait in Christmas theme in MY own style” – to the puzzling – “I will celebrate Thanksgiving with LEGO” and “I will promote you as a Featured Artist” – to the apparent scam – “I will create a full SEO Report for your website using IBP,” “I will do Keyword Research and Competitor Research,” and “I will design you a professional shop as you want with a distinctive control panel.” Offers within the proofreading and editing category try to outbid each other for 1,000 words, 2,500 words and even 5,000 words at the $5 price point. This sort of work might be worthwhile overseas where wages are a factor of 10 lower than Rhode Island’s $9.00/hour (soon to be $9.60/hour as of January 1, 2016) minimum wage.

One site in this realm, Upwork (upwork.com), was formed as a result of mergers and acquisitions of oDesk and eLance, among the largest and best known of freelance labor exchanges. According to media reports, the combined Upwork claims 9 million sellers, 4 million buyers and 3 million annual transactions. As an experiment, I listed myself on eLance in May: “Experienced, published, US-based author … Possessing many years of experience as a writer and journalist, I am a United States-based native speaker of English with excellent skills in grammar, spelling, proofreading, and editing.” Not only did I receive absolutely no offers of work, but the jobs I was invited to bid for were almost all overseas and temporary: updating page numbers in an index for $10-15/hour for 3-4 weeks in the UK, conducting Skype interviews and writing articles about China for a maximum of $40 per article in Finland, and posting on social media for $3-20/hour. One of the most bizarre United States jobs was from someone who was looking for a book ghostwriter (“I just about died the evening of December 25, 2009, from a drunk driving car accident, I was drunk and driving while being on my cell phone! I had a 33% of living [sic], I was given a second chance! I have six metal plates in my head but amazingly I don’t look like anything happened! I have a traumatic brain injury but have been healed completely!”). Sounds… intriguing. Except that writing his book for him was supposed to take only 1-2 weeks and pay $10-20/hour. Many other job solicitations were for translation from languages I know nothing about, including Polish and Thai. Worst of all, because the site is designed to pit freelancers against each other in a downward bidding process, an American is unlikely to compete against Third World labor rates.

This is not to say that opportunities do not exist. Monica Jainschigg of Warren, RI, describes herself as an “editrix” making a successful go of freelance writing and editing. Starting in the 1980s, she put in 12 years at a large publisher of business-oriented materials. She said that she started freelancing by answering a listing on the website of the non-profit trade group Book Builders of Boston (bbboston.org/jobs) and also uses the Editorial Freelancers Association (the-efa.org/job/joblist.php) membership organization that makes access to its job list a benefit of joining. She also mentioned Media Bistro (mediabistro.com/joblistings), a more digital media oriented site. A critical lesson is that generic freelancing websites tend to be far less useful than industry-specific websites, but it is relatively hard to learn where to look without getting at least that much information through personal contacts. Yelp won’t help you here.

A lot of publishing houses give editing tests, Jainschigg said, that they develop in-house. “Everyone has their own. The first test I took was the worst, very idiosyncratic and there was no way to get it right.” After getting a foot in the door, however, she said most jobs come from personal networking. She suggested that prospective freelancers write to a production editor to supply samples of work and ask to take a test.

As with any independent contracting, being able to work rapidly is the key to financial stability: Although Jainschigg is usually allowed 3-4 weeks to edit a book, working at that slow a pace “you would starve,” she said. For baseline proofreading and editing jobs she estimates herself at 12 minutes per page, although sometimes that can double. Entry-level copy-editing, she said, should earn about $30/hour, but some kinds of work, especially technical and business books requiring specialized knowledge, can pay “quite a lot more.” Still more lucrative is “developmental writing,” working directly with authors of books that have already been accepted for publication but may need substantial work to prepare, which “can involve quite a lot of rewriting and querying authors.”

Does Jainschigg think she made the right choice to freelance? Yes, she said. “One of the hard things is you are by yourself. But I’m good at it and I like my work a lot.”

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