It is with increasing alarm that I have been seeing the rise in freelancers entering the publishing arena. Unfortunately, as more and more people continue to lose their work and roles - and alongside it for far too many, their perceived value - a raft of new businesses, and freelance writers are flooding the market. That is not what alarms me however, competition can be a very good thing - a competitive market keeps everybody on their toes - but what is a bad thing is the non-competitive prices people are charging.
And I don’t mean this in relation to over-charging, I actually mean this in relation to charging so little that the commodity of writing/storytelling/proofing – actually, whatever industry it is – loses its value.
In the creative industry, this is an all-too oft repeated cycle. And, of course during times such as these, is exacerbated greatly. Firstly, by people who are new to the freelance game, and simply are not informed or aware of the industry standard charges (although these can actually be googled), secondly by those in incredible panic that they lose all sight of actually what they - let alone their work - is worth, and thirdly and most frightening, those that don’t give a shit, and are only out for themselves.
I understand fear of the unknown, all too well. I understand desperation when you don’t know where the next pay check is coming from, and I understand anxiety fueling the need to drop prices in order to get the gig. What I don’t understand is why anyone would do that? To themselves, to their competitors, but most of all to their profession.
Dumping prices (or if you wish to think of it this way - effectively value) is never an answer. The same parallel can be drawn from heavily discounting high-end fashion, to offer a simple example. By heavily discounting, you might make short-term sales in the interim, and during a recession this is a prime temptation, when your business needs cash and your bills are piling up - but at what cost to the eco-system of the business, your future reputation, and the value of your actual stock? And, even more importantly, will your value hold post-crisis if you have dropped to savage new lows? That is of course the risk taken. To lower prices - as well as expectations for the future - means the short-term strategy may well crucify any long-term gain, and sadly your, or your businesses’ reputation, along with it.
As BoF so succinctly stated in relation to the current high-end luxury dilemma… “ the discounting challenge is exacerbated by the need to preserve reputation and image, making it crucial to avoid steep discounting, or at least discount in a more controlled way“.
The sentiment is of course true for any business – luxury or not.
Heavily discounting is short-sightedness in the extreme, and it can create irreversible damage to an entire industry. I wonder though, how many people take this on board? The fact that by dropping their prices they are not solely gaining short-term ground for themselves, but they are - perhaps inadvertently - destroying an entire industry for everyone else may not make any inroads for some. I wonder if people in the grip of panic care, or if they can actually even see the reasoning? Perhaps not at the time, but they definitely will feel the repercussions further down the line.
I remember in 2008 during the onset of the recession (which never actually hit in Australia, we had a downturn, but not economically a recession, however it did not stop companies around the nation using “the recession” as an excuse to “trim the fat”), I was working with some of Australia’s most prominent international photographers on various photo shoots from fashion, interiors, and travel, through to beauty and food. It had taken years to build up the network, to work alongside such esteemed and sought-after global names, as many of them confided: usually they would not work on other magazines, being in demand for “books” such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harpers to name but a few. But the core of the matter was the magazine I was with had huge circulation, and paid very fairly - actually much better than those esteemed fashion bibles. That aside I had created a strong rapport with these photographers, and with nearly all, I would like to flatter myself, I had even built a solid friendship.
So, it stands out for various reasons that I vividly remember my then Editor-in-Chief (you can read all about this wonderful chapter in my life in an earlier blog), calling me in and matter-of-factly telling me I was to slash all the photographer’s prices I worked with by… well, let’s just say a very substantial amount. Let’s be clear here, these were photographers of many years’ experience, at the top of their game. And I was expected to tell them that now, if they wanted to work with us, they were going to get a lot less than their current worth.
I remember the conversation with the first photographer. At the time you have to be aware, many people were panicking big time as the publishing industry was in deep crisis - even before the pseudo “recession” and gigs were very competitive and highly sought after. Explaining the situation, and the difficult task that had befallen me - the edict to tell all the photographers I worked with that we would now be paying well below our former agreement - I earnestly put the situation to them.
It is burnt into my brain the response. “Incredible isn’t it, this is the only industry I know of where the longer you work, and the more experience you have the less you get paid”.
And that was it for me. I stated then and there, that actually they were right. I unfortunately had no recourse, but I fervently believed that we should all be paid fairly for our expertise, and this scenario was a crock - it was up to them what they wished to do. The photographer got back to me, a few days later… they would work for that price with me, if I needed them, but they wanted to be clear - it was only because of our history and working relationship. I told them, quite simply, our relationship was worth more than that, and we never did another shoot again. Not least because I also left that workplace not long after.
So, it stands to reason this undercutting by people starting out, entering in, panicking or simply not giving a toss worries me greatly. And, don’t get me started on people asking for examples from professionals whose profiles clearly state over 10, 15, 20+ years in the business. But while it worries me, I will not be changing or lowering my fees any time soon. And, with very good reason. I have 30 years’ experience in the publishing and creative industry, I have learnt from some of the best, and I continue to learn, I have also mentored some of the best. But more than that, I fervently believe in the power of the written word, and the adage that without a good story you are nothing. That aside, I simply believe in myself and my worth.
It appears it would do us all a world of good to pay attention to one of my favourite quotes:
"If I do a job in 30 minutes, it’s because I spent 10 years learning how to do that in 30 minutes. You owe me for the years, not the minutes."
Oh, and that photographer, the one that decided they would maintain their value, although it might mean a drop in work for the short-term… that photographer is flown around the world for some of the most esteemed photoshoots, in some of the most exotic locations. And that photographer... well let’s just say they can now command any price they want.
But knowing them, they simply ask for what they are worth.