The Hover Power Posts

Most of my blogging about helicopters is now published on one of AOPA’s blogs.

Just a quick head’s up to let pilot readers know that I am still blogging about flying helicopters. But instead of posting most of them here, they go right to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. The main reason: they pay me to write for them. Girl’s gotta make a living, no?

Here are the most recent posts, in reverse chronological order:

Keep in mind that you can always get an up-to-date list of my work published elsewhere on my Articles page.

If you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see me cover, why not take a moment to comment on this post with your suggestions? I’ll either cover it for Hover Power or here.

And if you’re an editor or publisher looking for a professional writer to create fresh content about flying helicopters for your magazine or blog, I hope you’ll contact me.

Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

AOPA Hover Power

A new monthly column.

AOPA LogoJust a quick note to let regular readers and visitors know that I’ve begun writing as a regular contributor to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. My first post appeared yesterday: “Maximum performance takeoffs and judgement calls.” My second post is already in the hopper for next month.

Hover Power is AOPA’s attempt to provide helicopter-specific content for minority pilots in the “A” of AOPA: aircraft pilots who fly helicopters. Although the blog got off to a reasonably good start, there was a short spell where there was a definite scarcity of new content. The Editor there has been working hard to get a good staff of pilot/writers together. I’m thrilled to have been asked to join the team.

I hope you’ll stop by and check out what we’ve shared with you. And don’t forget to comment.

And don’t worry — I’ll continue providing helicopter-related content here once in a while, too.

On Cheapskate Publishers

I really can’t believe this ad.

This morning, I was cruising Craig’s List for some part-time/fill-in work to help get me through my slow winter season. As a writer, I figured I’d check out the writing/editing jobs category. And that’s where I found one titled “Rockstar eBook Writers Wanted (FAST Pay + REPEAT Work!) (Virtual).”

Let me say upfront that I knew from the title that the job was going to be full of hype. (Rockstar? Really? Do people still use that term?) But I never expected it to offer a whopping $3 per 200 words (yes, that’s 1-1/2¢ per word) starting pay for original content that the writer wouldn’t even get his/her name on.

To qualify, not only would you have to submit a 200-word minimum sample of your writing work, but you’d also have to have a 15-minute long Skype interview, review (or possibly fill out?) a questionnaire and outline, read other relevant resources, and sign a contract. Then, for each job, you might have to have a 1-2 hour Skype session with a client.

All to earn 1-1/2¢ per word.

The way I calculate it, if you can generate 500 words of original, researched content an hour — which is a lot faster than most people can write — a 1000-word article would take 2 hours. Add 2 hours spent chatting with the client and another hour to prep for the job. Do two of those a day and you’ve made $30 a day. I don’t know about you, but I can’t survive on $30/day.

Because I was so repulsed by the ad, I decided to make a point. I emailed a reply using the magic phrase in the subject line and including a writing sample. Here’s what I sent:

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1990 and have authored numerous books and articles on a wide variety of computer-related topics. I am intrigued by your Craig’s List ad. Here’s my writing sample.

What amazes me most about the current state of the publishing industry is how little some “publishers” are willing to pay experienced writers for original content. Just today I ran across an ad for a company willing to pay $3 per 200 words—that’s only 1-1/2¢ per word! Am I showing my age when I share memories of the days when I was paid $1.50 per word to write for print publications such as MacWEEK and MacUser magazine?

Fortunately, the offer in this Craig’s List ad isn’t representative of the entire industry. The 1,000-word article I wrote yesterday morning, for example, earned me $500. Although not generous, I consider that fair compensation for an experienced writer creating original content for the Web—even if that content includes screenshots and captions.

Back when I began writing for a living in 1990, I learned that success as a writer meant producing content quickly. After more than 20 years, writing now takes very little effort. I don’t need to labor over words like others do. My writing flows naturally, with a good rhythm, and requires very little editing, either by me or my editors. It’s for this reason that I’m able to get enough work to keep me busy—and plenty of offers of additional work.

It also makes it possible for me to whip up a quick writing sample to educate a cheapskate publisher about what experienced professional writers expect to be paid.

I sent it from my NoReply account so it’s unlikely that I’ll hear back from this offensive idiot.

A waste of time? Probably. But it’s all about venting and I needed to vent after this one.

From now on, I’ll stay away from ads looking for rockstar writers.

Just Say No to Writing for Free

Don’t be part of the problem.

Yesterday, an editor of an aviation publication contacted me about writing for the organization’s blog. He’d found my blog through a link from another blog. He’s interested in increasing the amount of new content on his blog and wants to do that by signing up other writers. He already has a flight school operator signed up. One new post a month from each of four writers would get him the one post a week he wants for the blog. Makes sense.

From his email to me:

It’s quite difficult to find working helicopter pilots who can write, as I’m sure you can imagine. But you definitely seem to have the knowledge and interest. Would you consider doing some additional writing for [organization]?

At first, I was thrilled. I’ve been wanting to do some more aviation writing and the publication is well-respected. But then I began wondering whether this would be a paying gig or if I’d be expected to write for free. I worded my response carefully:

I definitely WOULD be interested in joining you folks. I’m an active helicopter pilot with a single pilot Part 135 operation now based in North Central Washington. And you probably already know that I also make a portion of my living as a writer.

Please do tell me more. If you’d like to chat, give me a call.

If you read what I wrote between the lines, the phrase “I also make a portion of my living as a writer” was meant to tell him that I’m usually paid to write.

His response came an hour later:

Thanks Maria. I should tell you up front that our budget for the blog is nil. So as much as it pains me to say it, I wouldn’t be able to pay you for the work. That said, there is always potential for additional opportunities.

I have to give him credit for not telling me that I’d be compensated with the “exposure” I’d get for writing for them. That really told me that he understood the situation — any editor that offers you “exposure” as compensation is either stupid or a manipulative bastard. You can’t pay the rent or buy groceries with exposure and the only thing it really exposes you to is additional editors looking for writers who will write for free.

As you might imagine, I put it out on Facebook to get feedback from friends, many of whom are freelancers. I was careful not to identify the organization. After all, does it really matter?

My post got lots of comments that are really worth reading. As my Facebook friend Carla said:

Comment from Carla

But this editor didn’t suggest such a thing. And I respect him for that.

The “additional opportunities” line, however, was obviously a lure — whether it was real or just a fabrication I’ll likely never know.

My response was frank:

We can still chat about the blog posts. I am willing to help out if it leads to other paying work. But if the additional opportunities never materialize, I probably won’t be motivated to continue writing without compensation.

Unlike the flight instructor you’re working with, I don’t have a flight school that might benefit with my name or company name getting out. My blog is already very well read by helicopter pilots — for good or for bad — and if I’m going to write for free, I’d rather write for my own blog.

I didn’t get a response.

The comments kept coming in on Facebook. All the publishing professionals and freelancers understood the situation perfectly. One of the commenters, a friend of Carla’s as a matter of fact, had this to say:

Comment from David

And that really hit home hard. The reason I couldn’t make a good living as a writer anymore was because too many people were writing for free. Publishers didn’t care much about quality when they could get free content. All they really want are hits and if something is interesting enough to attract the hits, they’re satisfied. Who cares about how it’s written? This is what’s killing the publishing industry — and giving those of us who actually enjoy reading well-written content a lot less to read.

I chewed on the comments overnight and when I woke up I knew I needed to send a new response. Here’s what I sent:

I’ve given this some more thought. I’ve decided that it would not be in my best interest, nor in the best interest of professional writers anywhere, to write for a commercial publication without compensation. Professional writers are paid for their work. Amateurs are not. I am not an amateur.

Maybe you don’t realize that I’ve written more than 80 books and hundreds of articles since 1990. Maybe you don’t realize that the money I earned as a writer enabled me to learn how to fly a helicopter and eventually buy my own. Maybe you don’t realize that my writing income kept my helicopter business afloat for its first eight years.

So not only did I earn a living as a writer, but I earned a very good living.

Sadly, those days are over. It’s now very difficult for freelance writers to find decent paying outlets for their work. I’m fortunate that my helicopter business became profitable when it did.

The way I see it, the reason [organization] is able to ask people to write for them without compensation is because too many people say yes. That’s the problem. That’s what’s bringing down publishing and the overall quality of what appears on the Web. Publishers settle for whatever they can get for free.

You say that it pains you to say that you can’t offer compensation. As a writing professional, I can understand that pain. But what I can’t understand is why someone in your position doesn’t push back and argue in favor of the writers. What’s a few hundred dollars a month to [organization]? You realize that’s all it would take. It’s the principle more than anything else.

I love to write; that’s why I have a blog. But I need to limit my uncompensated writing to my own blog — not one used to support an organization that generates revenue off the work of uncompensated writers.

I don’t want to be part of the problem.

Say No to No PayI emailed it this morning. I suspect the editor I sent it to will understand completely. But I don’t expect to be offered any money or any opportunities to write for them in the future.

Did I burn a bridge? Perhaps. But is it a bridge I really wanted to cross? I doubt it.

Are you a writer who can create quality content? If so, don’t sell yourself short. Demand compensation for your work. Don’t be part of the problem.

Postscript

Just moments after clicking the Publish button for this post, I got a response to my last email (quoted above). I was offered a reasonable amount of money for my work. I’m just hoping this blog post didn’t piss off the editor enough to make him retract his offer. (I really do respect the guy, especially now.) Yet I won’t delete this blog post because the message remains the same: professional writers should not write for free. If I lose this opportunity for making this statement and using my situation as an example, so be it.

It really is the principle of the matter more than anything else.

One more thing…

Another Facebook friend reminded me that I’d embedded a rant by Harlan Ellison in my blog years ago. Mr. Ellison says it a lot better than I could.