Beyond the Rhetoric


Writing on Contingencies (Or Why I Won’t Work on Spec)

March 19th, 2013 by
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Pen to Paper

There are all sorts of different payment schemes for freelance writers. In general, I charge on a per-article or per-project basis after we’ve sorted out some of the basic details like estimated word count and the amount of research required. This is advantageous for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it provides a level of predictability and stability for both the freelancer and the client.

However, not everyone prefers this kind of model and it could be for any number of reasons. A client might prefer to pay on a per-word basis, for example, because the articles requested will be of varying length. And then there are clients who want to pay on a performance basis. If the article does well, in terms of traffic or any other metric, then the writer gets paid more. If the article doesn’t do as well, then the writer also doesn’t do as well. For my part, I don’t recommend this model. This becomes even more problematic with the rising trend of “design contests” for graphic design and other kinds of freelance work. It just creates for an unsavory situation all around.

The Content Contest

This doesn’t apply quite as much when it comes to writing, but it is something that needs to be discussed. You may have seen some services online where you can host a logo design contest, for example. The client puts up some basic instructions and then the members of that community submit their work to fulfill those instructions. The client then gets to see a number of different logo designs, choosing one as the winner. That designer gets paid the “prize” amount. All the other designers get nothing.

While this system might work for some people, it also creates a number of problems. All of the non-winning designers are effectively working for free. What’s more, because they are inherently gambling, it is quite possible that they are submitting sub-par work. If they knew they were going to earn X dollars for the design, they may put in more care and effort.

Payment Is Contingent

Let me provide you with a specific example from my own personal experience, explaining exactly why I will never again write on a contingent basis.

I was asked to provide a rate quote for a feature article of a given length and subject matter. This work was being outsourced to me by someone who had been hired as an SEO and traffic consultant by the site’s owner. His goal was to have an interesting and engaging article written that would then draw people into the site. And his strategy (this was a few years ago) was to boost the article to the first page of Digg. While I had experience writing interesting articles, I did not have much experience in “gaming” the Digg system.

My client said he did. My client said that he had all the right connections and that he could “guarantee” the article would hit the first page of Digg; it just had to be written on the topic that he chose. The kicker was that my payment was contingent on the article getting to Digg’s front page. You can probably guess what happened. The article barely broke double digits for number of Diggs and it quickly got buried. I put in the effort and I didn’t get paid for it.

Casting Speculation Aside

Spec work (the “spec” is short for “speculative”) is when you are given a task to do, but payment is not issued under the final product is completed and the client agrees to pay for it. You could write that article and then the client decides that he or she doesn’t want it for any reason. You could design a logo and go through multiple revisions, only to learn that the client “is going in another direction.” Working on spec means that you have no guaranteed payment whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong. Some freelancers are able to do quite well for themselves working on a performance-based payment system. They might get paid a set amount of money for every 1,000 page views, for example. However, I find that for most of us, working on spec (or working based on some third-party performance metric) can set you up for utter disappointment. You may prefer different freelance clients than the ones who pay in this fashion.

“But what about joint ventures?”

In effect, when you enter into a joint venture with someone, you are inherently taking a gamble. Depending on how things go, the venture could prove incredibly lucrative, but you could also find yourself putting in endless hours of work for effectively no monetary reward. It’s up to you whether it’s worth taking that chance, just as you’d have to ask that question of yourself should you choose to launch your own product or venture.

Addendum: After writing and publishing this post, I got to thinking about other industries. A real estate agent only gets paid when he or she successfully helps you buy or sell some property, so that realtor is, in effect, working on a contingency. On the flip side, I can’t imagine a wedding photographer would accept an arrangement where the hiring couple would only pay for the services if they approved of the images after the day. Is the acceptability of this concept industry-specific?

  Category: Freelance Writing   Tags: , , ,

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Michael Kwan Freelance Writer

8 Responses to “Writing on Contingencies (Or Why I Won’t Work on Spec)”

  1. well, this is a good topic for discussion with all your points being valid. As a photographer, I won’t work on respect in relation to clients, in fact these days, I try to get part of the money up front as many can be delinquent, or “change their minds”.

    I have however done quite a bit of work on spec in the past, of my own design. It’s much easier to travel somewhere and take the pictures, then return home and try to sell the story than get an editor to approve the story beforehand. I’ve done this on several occasions, and I about 50% of the time, I’ve sold the story. Once I was even flown back to complete a more in depth story. I guess that would be very similar if a writer decided they wanted to write a book.

    • Michael Kwan says:

      Yes, that would be similar to an author writing a book. You produce the manuscript (or photos, in your case) and then you shop it around to different publishers/customers. You could say that stock photography works in a similar fashion.

      That is quite different, though, from a client hiring you to go on that shoot, only to decide after the fact that they don’t want those pictures (or articles). With the former, you effectively hired yourself and the onus is on you to sell it. With the latter, you were hired by someone else for a specific job and should be paid accordingly.

  2. Jeff Cutler says:

    Wow. This piece could result in my writing a lengthy, well thought-out reply for no money. But, I feel the greater good will be served by my sharing my thoughts.

    In the course of 22+ years of writing professionally, I think I’ve ALMOST seen it all. I’ve written materials for agreements that range from spec to per-word to retainer. I feel that my best work has been done when the rules are specified upfront.

    And while you might see me at a variety of conferences and events without a client, in these circumstances I’m treating myself as a client and the work I produce (if not picked up by another client) will end up on my online properties.

    See my recent Flickr photo sets or writing about South by Southwest (SXSW). I went down there to enjoy the festival and didn’t have a content client for that visit, while in 2012 my entire trip was paid for by a client.

    Ultimately, it behooves every creative to keep creating. What you do with those materials is what positions some as professionals and others as hobbyists.

    My advice is to NEVER write something for free. Carefully consider any spec work. And cheerfully take on work that pays well and pays you 1/3 on agreement, 1/3 on delivery and 1/3 on approval.

    You’ll make all writers/creatives in the world happier because we’ll all get the compensation we deserve and the market might start to change.

    A world where words are valued is a better world for all of us. Hold up your end of the bargain and respect yourself and your writing.


    • Michael Kwan says:

      “Ultimately, it behooves every creative to keep creating. What you do with those materials is what positions some as professionals and others as hobbyists.”

      Hit the nail on the head.

  3. thinkjose says:

    What happens in Vegas, rarely works for creative folks.

  4. Vance Sova says:

    I think that it’s good that you can choose the terms under which you agree to write for a client.

    With your experience you no longer need to take undue risk of working for nothing.

    The example you gave where the client didn’t want to pay you because your article didn’t make it to the top on Digg was a real rip off.

    I think that was an extreme case. It’s good to keep a customer list and avoid dealing with people who are looking for excuses not to pay for the work done.

    Getting paid for each word could compromise quality of the article.

    If mutual agreement is not reached without arm twisting on either side it may be better to look elsewhere for a client or a writer.


  5. Ray Ebersole says:

    In the tech support business we provide a service that I charge a per hour fee that can be broke into smaller time increments as needed. I also work on a contract basis for clients where their monthly fee gets a certain amount of different services. Lastly I work on a per computer basis, in which I charge a certain amount for a certain amount of computers for certain package services.

    As Michael knows, I also will do free work for people. I don’t do free work for many people, in fact I even charge my family so that I don’t get the “can you look at this or that for me?” Free work to a point is good will for your business. I have gotten paid clients from referrals of a gratis service.

    I like all the different methods, with none the best. A monthly contract tends to be a good source of continuous revenue though.

  6. Great post Micheal.

    One of the challenges for people in the “service” business is to communicate and charge for the value that they bring.
    IMHO companies that want people to work on spec generally don’t see the value.

    That being said, you can make a boatload of money by taking equity in a deal vs a one time payment.

    The risk is shifted to the service provider, and as such they are rewarded for it.

    Writing on spec seems shifty to me because there are so many factors that go into traffic and views. Whereas with something like marketing, if you do something good, it will be very easy to track metrics.

    I’m done with working on spec, unless I have something amazing that I know I want a piece of for the future.

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