Money, Money, Money

This is a slightly modified version of an article I published on the ICT in Education website in October 2014. In my experience, it absolutely applies to writers.

This article is not about writing or related matters as such; it's more about my experience of attitudes to paying for work. It's worth reading, I think, if any of the following applies to you:


  • you're thinking of asking a writer to do some work
  • you have some students who are hoping to earn money from writing
  • you are thinking of writing yourself.

The Forty years and I still can’t levitate section

It is a source of constant disappointment to me that, despite learning to meditate 41 years ago and practising almost every day since then, I am still unable to live on air alone. Yet that seems to be the assumption of some people and, especially, large organisations when it comes to offering me work.

Not all the time, of course. Fortunately, I receive more offers of payment than non-payment, but even so. It rankles.

I'm not alone, either. I've read articles, by and spoken to, many people in different fields, and the story is the same. From individual potential "clients" the phrase is:

"I was wondering if you could just...".

From corporations the mantra is:

"We don't have a budget..."

or:

"Could you help us bid for a big project".

I've heard or read the same thing from other education consultants, freelance writers, copywriters, graphic designers and artists, to name but a few.

“Work” usually implies payment

For example, I received an email recently from someone asking me if I could just look at the ICT Strategy document he'd written. I responded by saying "Yes, this is just the kind of work I do." I think the word "work", with its implication of a fee, put them off, because I've heard nothing since.

To expect someone to work for nothing is somewhat insulting I think. It seems to imply that although you value their expertise, you don't value it enough to want to actually pay for it. Perhaps it's because they think it won't take the person very long to give an opinion. And they may well be right. It may take me only an hour or so, for example, to look at a document and make suggestions on how it might be improved. But it's not just an hour: it's an hour plus nearly 40 years.

As an old joke (which isn't really a joke) says: someone calls an engineer out to fix a problem. The engineer whacks a pipe with a hammer, and everything starts working again.

"That will be £500 please", says the engineer.

"What?!", says the customer. "£500 for banging it with a hammer?".

"No", says the engineer. "Banging it with a hammer costs £1. Knowing where to hit the hammer costs £499."

As The Staple Singers, Joe Cocker and several others have enjoined us, “Respect yourself!”

I also think it shows a remarkable lack of self-respect on the part of the person asking for something for nothing. I, for instance, would never have the gall to walk into a shop and ask if I could have one of their products free of charge. I'd feel ashamed at presenting myself as a charity case.

Bob Bly, a freelance copywriter, wrote recently in his free newsletter:

"As incredible as it sounds, a lot of my subscribers want – even expect -- me to work for them for free.I don't think they are bad people. They mean well. But listen ... asking me to work for you without offering to pay me is at best in bad taste, at worst extremely insulting."

(Reproduced with permission from Bob Bly: http://bly.com/new/index.html).

A graphic designer has experienced the same thing, as related in this email exchange. I'm not sure if these emails are real, but they illustrate the point I'm making in a very humorous manner: Graphic Design emails (Warning: some 'robust' language is used).

A cousin of mine is a freelance graphic designer who runs Adrienne Guss Design, based in Los Angeles. She has experienced the same thing as I have even though hers is a completely different field of expertise to mine, and she lives halfway over the other side of the world. She told me:

"I think there is a lot of age discrimination, not just because companies think that if you are over 35 all of your creative brain cells have died, but also because they can offer much lower wages to someone just out of school. I know many designers who have been let go and even told by their creative directors that they had to cut someone and they chose the person who had been there the longest because they were making the biggest salary and taking too much of the budget.

"As for working for nothing, many companies have asked me to show them a design and then, if they don't like it, they don't want to pay for it. They assigned the work; I tell them 'If you hired an accountant and you didn't like the way he did your books, you'd still have to pay him for his time.'

"Finally, my favourite example is an ad I'd seen in the classifieds for a designer: 'Must have 7 years experience in Adobe Suite and Microsoft programs, as well as hand drawing and painting skills. Bachelor's degree required. ENTRY LEVEL POSITION.' FYI entry level translates to low wages."

There is even a conference coming up – The Money – that has been organised to explore the relationship between artists (or, more generally, "creatives") and how they get paid. In the field of the creative arts, the people at the end of the queue for payment, apart from a relatively few big names, are the writers, designers and artists – ie, the people without whom the projects wouldn't even exist! 

And what about in education sphere?

Back to the education field. Part of the problem, as in other areas, is that new consultants think that by offering their services for nothing they are going to build up goodwill. In my opinion, all they are doing is announcing to the world that they don't think they're worth much. That doesn't do them much good, and it certainly doesn't do the rest of us much good. As any school student studying Economics will tell you, all a price war does is get rid of some of the players in the market. Unfortunately, the ones that leave are not necessarily the worst at what they do, and the ones that remain are not necessarily the best. They just happen to have the largest cash reserves.

Personally, I have never entered into a price war; in the end, nobody wins from one. Not even the consumer, because, ultimately, no consultant is going to go the extra mile if they are being paid nothing or next to nothing. Not indefinitely, anyway.

Do I object to giving my opinion on something? No, of course not. In fact, it's rather flattering. Do I object to being asked to work for nothing? Do I really need to answer that question?

Large organisations are, however, worse than individual people. At least individuals have the (flimsy) excuse of not having enough money. I say "flimsy" because in my opinion, if you don't have enough money for something then you organise your budget in such a way that you do. And if you don't have a budget, then you make a business case to the person who does.

You'd expect large organisations to know better. But here are some of the things I've been asked to do:

  • Produce a two-page strategy document overnight, before any discussion about the fee or contract has taken place. When I tried to have such a conversation, my phone calls and emails were unreturned.
  • Run two workshops at a conference. I was told there is no budget from which to pay me because the keynote speaker has secured a five figure fee for his talk.
  • Speak at a conference on an area of my expertise (assessing computing and ICT) for free. When I said I couldn't afford to work for nothing, I was offered a £100 for "goodwill". That's almost more insulting than the original offer.
  • Asked to create resources as part of a major bid that could, if won, be fairly lucrative.
  • Asked to create a manual for a software product to see if the company liked my work.

As Bob Bly, mentioned earlier, says in a follow-up newsletter:

"Ask your handyman to build a shed and tell him that, if you like it, you will pay for it, but if you don't, you won't. Let me know his response."

(You can sign up to Bob Bly's free newsletter by following this link: Bob Bly's newsletter.)

I realise this article has, naturally, been written from the viewpoint of a service provider. You, as a service consumer, may not think it's important. Your aim, for all I know, may be to hire the person who is cheapest, rather than the person who is the best. All I can do is suggest that it's better to look for value for money rather than the lowest cost. The two are by no means synonymous. And bear in mind something I saw in a tweet, I think, a few months ago:

"If you think it's expensive to hire a professional, just wait till you hire an amateur."