Paying For the Unicorn’s Food: Content Marketers Should Not Accept Minimum Wage

When it comes to writers working for cheap, or feeling guilty about what they charge, I always tell this joke. I’ve told it before, but it’s worth repeating:

A business owner is horrified one day to discover that her business server is completely broken. Kaput. Shot. Frazzled. Stick a fork in it, it’s done. Problem is, all her company files are on there, and she’s dead in the water without it.

In a panic, she calls a computer repair expert. He shows up, and examines the server. Runs his hands over it, listens to it, even sniffs it. Then he pulls out a tiny hammer, and taps the computer. It starts right up.

The business owner is overjoyed, but that joy turns to annoyance when she receives the bill a few days later: Computer repair, $500.

She calls the repair expert in a huff, and demands to see an itemized bill. “You just tapped the thing with a tiny hammer. That was so simple What makes you think that was worth $500?”

A few days later, she receives the itemized bill: Tapping the computer with a tiny hammer: $1. Knowing where to tap it: $499.

I get this a lot in my work.

Unicorn running

Surprisingly, unicorns only eat cheeseburgers and drink bourbon. At least that’s what Jason Falls tells me. I’ve been paying him to feed my unicorn.

I’m a writer. I do the thing that we all learned to do in middle school and high school. As a result, people think that what I do is easy, and that they’re also good at it, which means they’re not willing to pay for it. (We also took shop class and art, yet there aren’t more professional woodworkers and artists.)

It also means a lot of new writers are afraid to charge what they’re worth, and they accept lower prices out of guilt, and the belief that everyone can do what they do.

Recently one potential client told me my rates were way too high — higher than anyone else he had encountered — and that he had been quoted $100 per month for similar content marketing services.

My first thought was “I’ll take it! I can use the money to pay for my unicorn’s food.”

But rather than say that, or explain how he would be getting a professional writer with nearly a quarter century’s experience under his fingers, I gave him some advice instead. I told him I’ve seen similar “writers” charging similar amounts, and that he should watch out for a couple things when he received his content:

  • Blog posts written in such poor English, they need so much editing and repair that it’s just easier to delete them and start over.
  • The content is syndicated and shared among many so different clients, which means Google won’t accept it as original content, which means he’ll never get the SEO benefit.

Writing may be one skill that was taught in school, but it’s not one we all do equally. If that were the case, we would have all been professional athletes. We would all be musicians. We would all speak German, Spanish, or French fluently. We would all know chemistry. We would all be experimental physicists. We could balance our checkbook and solve for X. We would be equally awesome at everything we learned in school, and would never have the need for accountants, chemists, or landscape architects.

The fact that we don’t should be a clue that not everyone is a good writer either. Just because people write emails doesn’t make them writers. Just because people write reports doesn’t make them writers. Just because I can make a vinegar and baking soda volcano does not mean I’ll develop the next cure for baldness.

Writers are those talented individuals who can write a press release in 20 minutes, can write a blog post that ranks high on Google and is shared and read by thousands of people, and write a book on their chosen subject in a matter of months.

We know where to tap the hammer.

Writing is not a talent that everyone can do well, no matter how many emails you write. Writing is a skill that we spend years and years developing and improving. If everyone could do it, we would all write books.

In every other endeavor, we know true craftsman will charge according to his or her skills. The master carpenter charges more than the new apprentice, because he knows he has more and better skills. The master chef makes more money than the kid chopping vegetables, because she has worked and studied for years.

So when you compare two writers who are charging vastly different amounts for the same work, look closely at the background of the writers. Who has been doing it for 25 years, and who just got out of college? Who has written 2,000 articles, and who has written 2,000 words?

Freelancers, if you’re good at your job, and you know you’re worth your price, stick to it. Don’t be offended by those who want a lower price, but don’t lower your skills and standards either. Just keep doing what you’re doing and prove you’re worth every penny.

The clients who value good writing are the relationships you’ll value more and do better work for anyway. The clients who buy your services based on price will be quickly wooed away by someone else who bats their eyes and waves a 5% discount at them.


Photo credit: Rob Boudon (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. The quality of writing demonstrated in your blog post is the the quality of writing we should expect from high school graduates. This level of fluency should be a commodity available at the minimum wage.

      However, most people seem to escape secondary education without this essential skill. Therefore, writes are valuable—even when merely producing accessible, non-technical web copy.

      The current market for writers depends on the complete failure of our education system to meet its own criteria.

      More at:

      • If you want to read some truly beautiful writing, there’s a book somewhere (can’t remember the name) that contains letters written home during the Civil War. These are written by supposedly “unedcuated” men, who didn’t go beyond 6th or 8th grade in school, and yet write better than many so-called writers we have today.

        I think part of the problem is that reading begets writing. If you want to be a writer, not only do you have to write, you have to read a lot. And in the days of television, it’s too easy to skip reading just to watch TV.

    2. article.ever.

    3. Judging from the sheer volume of applicants we get- hundreds, for a simple $10-an-hour copywriting position, it’s due to the absolute glut of people with no other skill than some vaguely defined “ability to write”. Copywriters are a dime a dozen- why would anyone pay a living wage to a copy writer when it’s simple to get quality content sourced overseas for just a few dollars a page?

      • Re-ask your question, but where you said “copywriter,” put in “SEO.” That’s why you should. I get email after email on a daily basis from someone telling me they can put me at the top of Google, and it’s either someone who’s still rocking their link building software from 2011, or they read the latest Moz blog posts.

        If I want something done well, I hire an expert. If I want shitty work that does absolutely nothing for me but wastes my money, I get it done for a few dollars.