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?